Advocates decry China’s detention of women calling for equal rights

On the eve of International Women’s Day, five of China’s female legislators held a news conference last Saturday, with some lauding the progress China had made in advancing sexual equality.

That same afternoon, police in Beijing and another city finished rounding up and detaining 10 feminist activists, an apparent attempt to prevent them from holding women’s day protests against sexual abuse. As of Friday, five of those activists were still in detention, according to rights groups that have organized an international campaign on their behalf.

Since President Xi Jinping came to power two years ago, China has arrested and detained scores of political activists, but last weekend’s targeting of feminists is coming under particularly close scrutiny.

While China’s male-dominated Communist Party says it’s committed to gender equality, “the government’s decision to detain at least 10 women’s rights activists on this year’s holiday tells a different story,” Sophie Richard, China director for the advocacy group Human Rights Watch, wrote in a recent blog post.

“The charges against all five women should be dropped and the women immediately and unconditionally released,” William Nee, a China researcher for Amnesty International in Hong Kong, said in a statement Friday. “The Chinese authorities should be working with these women to address sexual harassment, not persecuting them.”

The five women – Li Tingting, Wu Rongrong, Zheng Churan, Wang Man and Wei Tingting – are all members of China’s Women’s Rights Action Group. They apparently had been planning to mark International Women’s Day on Sunday with protests to encourage tougher laws against sexual harassment in China.

According to Amnesty International, the five had painted signs that read, “Stop sexual harassment, let us stay safe” and “Go police, go arrest those who committed sexual harassment!” All five are thought to be in detention at Haidian Police Station in Beijing, accused of “picking quarrels and provoking troubles.”

Human rights groups have launched a campaign on their behalf, branded with a Twitter hashtag – #Freethefive. U.S. officials have joined the campaign.

On Friday, Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power tweeted: “In China speaking out against sexual harassment is ‘creating a disturbance.’ Disturbance is restricting NGOs fighting for universal rights.” NGO is short for nongovernmental organizations.

Although government media haven’t reported on the detentions, the arrests have sparked a robust discussion on Sina Weibo, China’s main social media platform.

“The public servants don’t arrest indecent men who sexually harass women, but they arrest people who warn women to stand against sexual harassment,” wrote one commenter, “Eternal Jasmine” of Guangxi province. “This is chilling.”

“International Women’s Day is not to be used to act coquettishly or play cute in front of the men,” wrote another commenter, Shan Xi. “Let March 8th women’s day return to its original meaning!”

Although sexual abuse and discriminatory employment practices were once taboo to talk about in China, women are increasingly speaking out about them. Last August, a group of women went onstage to share their real-life stories of being harassed and discouraged from pursuing their careers.

In November, the official All China Women’s Federation issued a report that said nearly 40 percent of Chinese women who were married or in relationships had experienced physical or sexual violence.

Yet while the Chinese Communist Party tolerates some public discussion of women’s issues, it draws the line at organized protests. That’s particularly true at this time of year, when China’s rubber-stamp legislature, the National People’s Congress, meets in Beijing.

One of the women detained over the weekend, Li Tingting, who’s also known as Li Maizi, is known for her spirited protests. In 2012, Li participated in a campaign – “Occupy the Men’s Toilets” – to protest the inadequacy of women’s restrooms in Beijing. That year, she also marched in a wedding dress splashed with blood to increase awareness of domestic violence.

The five women might be in detention for some time. In October, Guangdong police detained women’s rights activist Su Changlan, apparently because she’d voiced support on social media for the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. The following month, Amnesty International issued a bulletin warning Su was at risk of being tortured. Her whereabouts and condition remain unknown.

McClatchy special correspondent Tiantian Zhang contributed to this report.