Commentary for Herizons magazine. Views expressed are my opinions only.
I recently had lunch in Shanghai with a young woman who helped to put on plays to raise awareness about gender inequality in her community. In a small offi ce in Beijing, workers at a women’s rights group showed me how they used social media to combat domestic violence, such as by sharing a powerful photo of three women marching in blood-splattered wedding dresses.
By using such small-scale actions, the feminists thought they would be less likely than other kinds of activists to get into trouble. They were not directly challenging the government or calling on people to take to the streets. Some women’s groups even worked alongside authorities, such as by helping to provide rape-crisis training to police and judges after China drafted its fi rst national law against domestic violence last year. At the same time, hundreds of activists are serving long prison terms for promoting causes such as democracy, the rule of law, religious freedom and free speech.
However, the sense of relative security among Chinese feminists shattered when police unexpectedly arrested five feminist leaders earlier this year. On March 6 and 7, nine women’s rights advocates were detained in three cities—Beijing, Guangzhou and Hangzhou—in the lead up to International Women’s Day. Five of them—Wang Man, Wu Rongrong, Li Tingting, Zheng Churan, and Wei Tingting—were imprisoned for over a month. While in jail, the women were interrogated for hours each day and two of the prisoners were denied medication for serious health problems, according to their lawyers.
What prompted such harsh treatment? The women were reportedly planning to distribute stickers featuring slogans against sexual assault, including a call for police to arrest sexual-harassment suspects. Their cases generated global outrage and statements of condemnation from the U.S. and the European Union.
Many people, including many Chinese citizens, were understandably confused about why authorities seemed so alarmed by the women’s activities. U.S. presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton called the arrests “inexcusable.” In a sign that international pressure can sometimes make a difference in China, all fi ve women were released on bail in mid-April. However, they could still face years in prison if prosecutors press charges of “assembling a crowd to disturb public order.” In June, police detained two former directors of Yirenping, a prominent NGO that had campaigned for the feminists’ release. The whereabouts of the two men, who had been working to end discrimination against women and people with disabilities, is unknown. Meanwhile, other Chinese feminists who fled their homes in fear of arrest are still in hiding.
Those who live in China, including me, often try to gauge the boundaries of what can be tolerated before expressing opinions publically. But this has become even more diffi cult as the lines appear to be shifting. The women’s rights movement in China is at a crossroads, just as it had begun to gain momentum and infl uence public opinion. While no one can say for certain whether foreign involvement in Chinese feminist causes will help these activists or not, international scrutiny may help keep them out of jail.
When the Chinese Communist Party assumed control of the country in 1949, it said women hold up half the sky, declared women equal and with men and made sweeping reforms to Chinese society. Reforms included eliminating the practice of foot binding, which had crippled women for over a thousand years, and implementing the policy of equal pay for equal work for men and women. This year is the 20th anniversary of the United Nations’ fourth World Women’s Conference in Beijing. China also plans to co-host the Women’s World Summit with the United Nations this September. Both international events represent opportunities to put pressure on China to stick to its historical commitment to gender equality and women’s rights.