Rights groups called on Tuesday for the release of key women activists on International Women's Day, as five feminists detained for planning a campaign event this time last year came under renewed pressure from police.
The overseas-based Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) network called in a statement for the immediate release from house arrest of artist and rights activist Liu Xia, under illegal house arrest since October 2010 after her husband Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Also listed in the appeal were top lawyer Wang Yu, who faces subversion charges for her human rights advocacy work, and pro-democracy and women's rights activist Su Changlan, detained for her support of the 2014 pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong.
The group also called for the release of Liu Ping, currently serving a six-and-a-half year jail term for sentenced to 6.5 years for exercising her rights to free assembly, expression, and religion, housing activist Jia Lingmin, serving a four-year sentence, and NGO worker Bian Xiaohui, jailed after she campaigned on behalf of her imprisoned father.
It said four other women, trainee lawyer Li Shuyun, paralegals Zhao Wei, also known as Kaola, and Gao Yue and activist Wang Fang were all detained in a nationwide police operation targeting more than 300 lawyers, law firm staff and legal activists since Wang Yu's detention on the night of July 9.
"[They have been] subjected to government retaliation for their defense of women’s rights, housing and land rights, rule of law, and the exercise of their rights to free assembly, association, and expression," CHRD said in a statement launching the campaign to free the women.
Hitting women hard
It said an ongoing crackdown by the administration of President Xi Jinping on all forms of social activism had hit women hard.
A lawyer for Beijing women's rights activist Ge Zhihui said she had been tortured while in a police-run detention center in the southern district of Fengtai.
"Staff at the detention center have been torturing Ge Zhihui, who is being held at the detention center as a criminal suspect," her lawyer Huang Han told RFA on Tuesday.
Ge Zhihui has further injuries to both her legs on top of the ones that were there before and can't walk normally, Huang said, adding that staff at the detention center won't allow her to seek medical attention.
He said Ge had also been subjected to degrading treatment.
"They gave her a bucket to urinate in but then when she defecated in it, they made her wash her face in that same bucket," Huang said.
CHRD also cited the detention of five feminists on March 6, 2015, as they planned an anti-sexual harassment campaign for International Women's Day.
Li Tingting, Wu Rongrong, Wei Tingting, Wang Man, and Zheng Churan were released "on bail" last April after being detained on suspicion of "picking quarrels and stirring up trouble."
But the five women, whose detention prompted an international outcry, are still officially regarded as criminal suspects in spite of protesting to the United Nations over continuing police restrictions on their movements.
Wu Rongrong told RFA on Tuesday that police had sought her out ahead of the national annual parliamentary session in Beijing this week to ask about a recent open letter penned by the women's lawyers, calling on the authorities to drop the charges against them.
"The police spoke to me for about half an hour," Wu said. "They were basically asking me about my lawyer, and I said I didn't know anything."
"I asked them what the outcome of this case would be, and when the charges would be dropped," she said. "But they just hemmed and hawed, and made small talk."
Wei Tingting's lawyer Ge Wenxiu said police had also visited him earlier this week to ask if he had sent a recent open letter calling for charges to be dropped against the five women.
"I told them plainly that I thought the Beijing police have acted shamelessly, because none of these women has committed any crime," Ge said.
"All they were doing was campaigning for a law guaranteeing the rights of women."
Ge said last year's campaign was against frequent harassment and sexual assault reported by women on trains and buses in China.
"So they're fine if men are mistreating women on public transportation? Do they want Chinese men to behave like thugs?" he said.
"I told them the buck stops with me: they've found the culprit. I wrote the letter. They seemed pretty happy with that."
Worst on record
According to a recent Congressional report, human rights abuses in China, including violence against women such as forced abortions and forced sterilizations, were the worst on record in 2015.
Coercive population controls, now known as the Two Child Policy, still use forced abortion and sterilization to target women seen as breaking the rules, it said.
It said some provincial-level legislation explicitly instructs officials to implement abortions for “out-of-plan” pregnancies, with no requirement for consent.
"Unmarried women and third children continue to be forcibly aborted," Reggie Littlejohn, president of the group Women's Rights Without Frontiers (WRWF), said in a statement on Tuesday. "Women are still routinely sterilized after their second child."
"On International Women’s Day, we call upon the Chinese government to call off the womb police and immediately to abandon all coercive population control," she said.
According to recent Congressional testimony by Littlejohn, the hidden tragedies of the policy include permanent disability due to brutal forced sterilizations of rural Chinese women.
WRWF cited a recent report as saying that the majority of detainees in extralegal detention are female, where they are at great risk of physical and sexual violence.
It said the trafficking of women and girls for forced marriage and sexual exploitation is part of an increasing trend in China, where men outnumber women by some 37 million after decades of sex-selective abortions.
Reported by Xin Lin for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wong Lok-to and Wen Yuqing for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.