China's Five Feminists Call For UN Pressure on Beijing

china-international-womens-day-march-2015.jpg The All-China Women's Federation hosts a reception for International Women's Day in Beijing, March 6, 2015.

Five Chinese feminists detained for planning an anti-sexual harassment campaign and since released on "bail" have written to the United Nations in a bid to make their release unconditional.

Wu Rongrong, Li Tingting, Wei Tingting, Wang Man, and Zheng Churan were released "on bail" in April after being detained on suspicion of "picking quarrels and stirring up trouble" on March 6, two days ahead of International Women's Day.

The five women, whose detention prompted an international outcry, are still regarded as criminal suspects, and will have police restrictions in place on their movements for a year after their release.

"Tomorrow, July 7, will mark the fourth full month since our detention," the letter, dated July 6 and addressed to U.N. Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, said.

"The abusive experience is still disturbing for us to recall."

The women said they have struggled to rebuild their lives following their ordeal,  which came amid a broader crackdown on the activities of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

"We have been under constant investigation and strict surveillance as 'suspects,' and as we are subject to restrictions of traveling and social activities, we cannot get back to our work in NGOs," they wrote.

Controls on groups' work

The crackdown is hampering the work of groups representing disadvantaged and marginalized sectors of society, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) groups, women affected by HIV, disability and poverty, and development programs for girl children, the letter said.

"The few months since March have been the most depressed period for the feminist movement in China," the letter said, adding that the repercussions of the crackdown for international cooperation on a slew of rights issues will be huge.

"Civil society in China is currently unable to operate as a productive partner with the Chinese government and the U.N. system," the women wrote.

"This is an unexpected and shameful setback as well as a historical mistake on the 20th anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing," they said.

The letter also called on the U.N. to put pressure on Beijing for all bail conditions and charges against the five women to be dropped.

"The interruption of our work and the limitations on our political freedom are not just our loss," it said. "They are also the loss of Chinese society and government."

Wu Rongrong's lawyer Liu Shuqing said that bail conditions attached to the women's release require them to inform police whenever they travel away from their normal place of residence.

'Miscarriage of justice'

"The crucial point is that this case was a miscarriage of justice," Liu told RFA on Monday. "It should never have been brought in the first place."

"These women aren't only fighting for gender equality; they express it through artistic means," Liu said.

"For gender equality to be achieved, even more people need to become aware of it as an issue, and performance art is a good way to do that."

Liu said the authorities were in breach of Chinese law in bringing the case against the five women.

"This was an illegal case brought on trumped-up charges," Liu said. "Releasing them on bail is clearly wrong, too, and the whole case should be dropped."

Requests to drop case

Guangzhou-based rights lawyer Ge Wenxiu, who represents Wei Tingting, said the letter to the U.N. comes only after repeated requests to police in Beijing's Haidian district to drop the case.

"We think they are just pinning charges on them, and that there were no illegal actions involved," Ge said. "Their actions should be lauded by society."

Ge said the women have campaigned on topics that affect all women, with no political motivation or content, including a campaign for more women's toilets in Chinese cities.

"Their women's toilet campaign was supported at the time by the [state-run] All China Women's Federation," Ge said.

"How can they now use this action as evidence against them? We believe that no crime has been committed here."

Lu Jun, who is on the board of the Hangzhou-based women's rights group Weizhiming, agreed that the situation for NGOs in China is rapidly deteriorating.

"There is draft NGO legislation in the National People's Congress that will set very strict controls on projects both in China and overseas," Lu said.

"If implemented, I think that there will be a lot of projects at home and abroad that won't be able to continue," he said.

Discrimination, harassment, abuse

China's communist government has promoted gender equality, at least in theory, since it came to power in 1949, when it garnered broad popular support over its policies on educating women and ending repressive practices like foot-binding and forced marriage.

But campaigners say the reality today is very different, and that Chinese women now face habitual workplace discrimination, harassment, and domestic violence.

When Beijing hosted the Fourth World Conference on Women 20 years ago, the conference laid down a long-term program of improvements to the rights and opportunities offered to women and girls around the world, with requirements for governments to report back to the United Nations on the changes.

The Beijing Declaration pledged to "ensure equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms for all women and girls."

Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wong Lok-to for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.

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