HONG KONG—Amid a worsening political climate for China's nongovernment and civic groups, women's rights lawyer Guo Jianmei says she is unruffled by the withdrawal of official support from her Women’s Legal Research & Services Center last month, with few fears for the future.
"I was the first legal aid lawyer in China," Guo said in a recent interview.
"I have worked in government departments and as a journalist ... But I think that the last 15 years have been the happiest in my life."
"They were also the most tiring, and the hardest, and the riskiest years of my life. But they were the years when I felt most satisfied with myself and with my contribution [to society]," she said.
Guo's Center had its official ties to prestigious Beijing University cut, denying it the political protection and official approval implicit in its link to the institution.
A Beijing university official said that the move had come as part of the “metabolic processes” of an academic institution.
But sources at the university said the center had fallen foul of political requirements from the university leadership, which wanted to stop the lawyers from representing the "external" civil rights cases for which it had become well-known.
"I am very happy," Guo said.
"Every day I have to deal with ... industrial protectionism, local protectionism, judicial protectionism, administrative interference, judicial inaction and corruption, administrative incompetence, and criminal forces in society, the dregs of society."
"It's not that I like these things. But I'm not afraid, not afraid of losing anything ... And I feel as if my life has value and meaning," she said.
Guo said she first discovered her calling in civil rights work when she attended the nongovernment meetings linked to the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Huairou, a dusty suburb to the north of the capital.
"There were tens of thousands of delegates from all over the world, of different skin color, speaking different languages, wearing different clothes, from different races and faiths, but they were all talking about one thing, and that was what could be done to protect the rights of women, who make up half the world's population," Guo recalled.
She said the spirit of the NGO conference carried her through her work of the next 15 years, representing China's most disadvantaged women in their attempt to win redress for cases as diverse as sexual harrassment, rape, forced abortion, eviction, and the sale of their land.
The work didn't come without considerable personal cost, however.
"When I'd been doing this for about five or six years, I got very severely depressed," Guo said.
"I really didn't know how to go on, because I was under a huge amount of pressure."
"As director of the center I came in contact with the worst people in society every day, and with people whose lives were incredibly difficult," she said.
"I suffered alongside them every day. I experienced their emotional and psychological pain," said Guo, who recovered gradually after being advised to seek psychological support in the form of therapy.
Guo gave no sign of stopping taking on similar cases in the future, in spite of the withdrawal of official support.
"I love the work that I do now," she said. "I love my career. It is totally authentic for me."
"I'm not the sort of languid person who just wants to pass the time and have a nice life. We only live for a few decades, so I want to do something that has a meaning for society."
Staffed by law department faculty, staff, graduate students, and lawyers, the Women’s Legal Research & Services Center provides free legal advice to thousands of women every year through its telephone hotline, advises legal research groups on women’s rights, and has been increasingly active in bringing public interest lawsuits related to discrimination and domestic violence.
The center’s most recent case to grab headlines was that of Hubei waitress Deng Yujiao, who fatally stabbed a Communist Party official who demanded sex with her last May.
Deng was freed after a national outcry surrounding her murder trial.
New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the March 25 order to terminate the center’s association with Beijing University effectively ended its existence as a government-registered body and called on Beijing to recognize the value of civic and nongovernment groups to society.
Original reporting in Mandarin by Han Qing. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated from the Chinese and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.