Rights Wire

The Human Rights Blog of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice

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Tom, Jerry and the Beijing Five

By Jennifer Li

Sometimes, lawyers are most effective when using cartoon analogies. “The Chinese government is a like cat,” explained Liu Wei, a lawyer from China, on a recent afternoon in New York. “And NGOs in China are like a small mouse. The cat will humor the mouse and sit quietly while watching the mouse play. The cat is not worried about losing control of the mouse. But if that mouse grows too large, the cat will no longer just sit by.”

In the two days preceding International Women’s Day on March 8, 2015, five prominent women’s rights defenders were detained by Chinese authorities in the cities of Guangzhou, Hangzhou and Beijing. These activists – Li Tingting (also known as “Li Maizi”), Wu Rongrong, Zheng Churan (nicknamed “Datu,” or “Big Rabbit”), Wang Man and Wei Tingting – are young, prominent women’s rights activists who, at the time of their detention, were preparing to launch a nationwide campaign on raising awareness about sexual harassment aboard public transportation. According to reports, the activists were initially detained under suspicion of “picking quarrels and provoking troubles” – an oft-cited basis for detaining political dissenters. After failing to secure approval for formal arrest from the prosecutor’s office before the legal limit of 30 days, the police attempted to even further prolong the detention of the women under the charge of “gathering crowds to disrupt order in public places.” On April 13, after 37 days in detention, all five women were granted a “release on guarantee pending further investigation,” a bail-like procedural measure that places constraints upon their freedom of movement and communications, and subjects them to future summons for additional interrogation. All criminal charges against the activists remain.

The unlawful detention of the five women activists garnered widespread attention outside China, drawing calls for their release from foreign governments and officials, including Samantha Power, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., and Hillary Clinton, former U.S. Secretary of State. Indeed, the circumstances and conditions of their detention were plainly inconsistent with not only international legal norms and standards, but also Chinese domestic law. At the time of their detention, several women were not shown proper warrants; none had access to counsel until nearly a week after they were all transported from their respective cities to Beijing; and at least one of the activists, Wu Rongrong, was not provided immediate access to critical medical care and treatment. These and other actions by the Chinese authorities were in violation of China’s constitution and other domestic laws, including the Criminal Procedure Law and Law on Lawyers. The conditions of the activists’ detention were also inconsistent with international treaty and customary laws on the freedoms of opinion and expression and the treatment of persons in detention, as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the UN General Assembly resolution on women’s human rights defenders, among other instruments.

The recent detentions reflect an energized effort by the Chinese government to crack down on perceived political dissent. Liu, who has worked for years on women’s rights and children’s issues in China, describes the activists’ detention as a bellwether of the government’s renewed suppression of civil society in the country. “There will be a before [the Beijing Five],” she predicted, “and an after.” Liu described the three short years between 2010 and 2013 as a period of relative relaxation for NGOs inside China – when the Chinese government was merely mouse-sitting, so to speak. Whether organizations worked on issues relating to labor rights or women’s rights, they operated in a culture of relative stability – or, as the Chinese like to say, crossed the river by feeling the stones (摸着石头过河).

Starting in late 2013, however, the government under President Xi Jingping began to demonstrate an increased vigilance to realizing a “socialism with Chinese characteristics” system of governance, which, according to an August 2013 Chinese Communist Party (CCP) directive, includes a rejection of certain “universal values.” Among the seven-fold perils of universal – but, specifically, “western” – values that the CCP pledged to purge are the promotion of civil society, press independence and “universal values” that take the form of freedom, democracy and human rights.

As Liu explained, the end of 2013 signaled the beginning of some mafan (麻烦) for Chinese NGOs. Mafan is a Chinese term that can be broadly used in several ways, for example as an innocuous noun (“inconvenience”) or as slightly more serious adjective (“troublesome”). It can also be used as a verb (for example, “Would it mafan the Chinese authorities if I asked for my lawyer?”). In the case of NGOs and human rights defenders, that mafan has taken the form of increased censorship, intimidation, harassment and arbitrary detentions, all simultaneous to the diminishing of space to engage in advocacy work. As a further reflection of official hostility toward civil society in China, last December the government introduced a draft law that would greatly restrict the funding and operations of foreign NGOs, as well as domestic NGOs that work with foreign organizations, within China. The draft law claims to be intended to bolster “national security and social stability,” but activists fear it will be used as a tool to further the harassment of NGO workers and place restrictions on their activities, as well as to further the expulsion of foreign NGO workers.

Indeed, the detention of the women activists seem arbitrary and the activities for which they were detained – to put up posters and join a march to raise awareness about sexual harassment – innocuous. All five activists were affiliated with Yirenping Center, a non-profit that promotes gender equality and provides services to individuals with H.I.V., hepatitis, and physical disabilities. On March 26, security agents raided the Beijing offices of Yirenping, the second time it has raided a Yirenping office in less than a year. Liu speculates that the detention of the activists for their activities – combatting sexual harassment and disease – have been merely a means to an end, the government’s way of going to extreme and disproportionate lengths to silence alleged political agitators.

The increased government measures forcing Chinese civil society underground also coincided with two politically sensitive periods last year – the 25th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests (known inside China as the June Fourth Incident) and the Hong Kong student protests. When asked whether the government’s tightened restrictions on NGOs might have been a response to the Hong Kong protests, Liu expressed skepticism, observing that the protests actually drew little attention from people inside China. By the same token, few in China today are aware of the detention of the women activists. But if more people become aware of their detention, she warned, the government would face significant backlash. “These are educated, Chinese girls in their 20s and 30s who were fighting sexual harassment,” she said. “Can anyone actually say they are not in support of fighting sexual harassment? The Chinese community would no doubt be very sympathetic to theses girls.”

Foreign lawyers and organizations seeking to help alleviate the pressure on Chinese NGOs and human rights defenders may face internal resistance. “The Chinese have always been of the mindset that one must solve one’s own problems,” Liu explained. Regardless, the critical problem remains that Chinese people are not aware of the ways their freedoms have been suppressed, and the concept of human rights can be difficult to understand and internalize when there is little basis for comparison.

But that seed of recognition can take root quickly. Liu offered her mother as an example, “This is my mother’s first time outside of China. She does not speak English and does not socialize with Americans. But after only a year, she has gained enough exposure from day-to-day life here to understand that the Chinese government is oppressive. She was surprised at the way the American authorities were open to criticism after the Ferguson case. The way people protested on the street without any interference from the police officers, who just stood by and let them!”

Jennifer Li is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.

Photo credit:  Z4nclr4/Creative Commons