By Chang Ping, published: November 15, 2014
Editor’s update on Ye Haiyan: Ye Haiyan was released at midnight on November 12. She has since been placed under house arrest, guarded by local policemen, the Communist Party’s local Politics and Law Committee, and neighborhood workers. Her boyfriend, while with her currently, has received threats from the Chinese authorities that he either leaves her or faces detention himself.
On October 23 at UN headquarters in Geneva, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women reviewed the Chinese government’s periodical report. Chinese officials promised on the spot that Chinese NGOs would not face retaliation for taking part in this meeting. I was there at the meeting. To me, the promise first sounded ridiculous because, why would the Chinese government need to make such a promise since the NGOs were simply participating in the normal activities of a UN meeting? Then it became a terrible thought. Obviously, in China, an NGO could face reprisals simply for doing legitimate work. The Chinese NGO representatives in the meeting shared the same apprehension.
Yet the Chinese government is unable to keep just such a promise.
Women’s rights activist Ye Haiyan (叶海燕) didn’t attend the meeting, but she participated through Weibo posts, webcast and other means. One of her actions was posting a nude photo of herself on Weibo, with a few A4 sheets covering parts of her body that read, “Do you really not know the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW)?” “Wake up, Chinese women!” She made it clear that she did this to raise awareness of the CEDAW and the UN periodical review.
A week later on November 3, police took Ye Haiyan away from her home in Wuhan. She was charged with “intentionally exposing the body in a public place” in violation of China’s Law on Public Security Administration and Punishment (《治安管理处罚法》), and given ten days of detention. Before that, Ye Haiyan also expressed support for the ongoing democracy movement in Hong Kong. In China, over 50 people have been detained for voicing similar support.
“Act within legal bounds”
In Geneva, Chinese officials also said that China is a country with rule of law, and NGOs and activists (who they simply addressed as “persons”) must act within legal bounds. This statement, meant to intimidate, completely negated the promise they had just made, opening doors for any gratuitous crackdown or reprisal.
But my point is, even by their often random “legal bounds,” it is still absurd to legally punish Ye Haiyan.
Article 44 of the Law on Public Security Administration and Punishment stipulates that, “When acting obscenely toward others, or intentionally exposing the body in a public place, the person can be given five to ten days of detention in particularly egregious cases.” To begin with, this article is infested with imprecisions. Public bathhouses and beaches are also “public places”, are they not? Exposing which parts of the body would constitute “exposing the body?” In addition, whether exposing the body or parts of the body constitute a violation needs to be considered in connection with the motivation of the person who exposes himself or herself as well as the feelings of the victims. At least the “or” in the clause should be removed, otherwise it would make it illegal to display the body in order to receive emergency medical care.
Even if we accept this muddy regulation as it is, it calls for a penalty only “in particularly egregious cases.” What is so egregious when Ye Haiyan called for attention to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women?
Nudity is an expression
More importantly, any content posted online, including text, pictures and videos, is an expression. If, picking on Ye Haiyan, the Chinese police accused her of “spreading obscene information,” then they would look a little less ridiculous. But of course, the Chinese government has been, over the last few years, punishing online expression as actual deeds, and charges such as “inciting subversion of state power,” “separatism,” and “picking quarrels and creating disturbances” are really all variations used against free expression.
Needless to say, online expression is merely an expression. Furthermore, protests in the real world, including nudity protests, are also a form of expression. And this is a basic view long accepted by civilized societies as a matter of freedom of expression. In April, 2012, an American man named John Brennan stripped himself naked in Portland International Airport to protest airport security checks. A judge later ruled that he was innocent and that his freedom of expression should be protected.
Women’s nude protests often have more serious and profound connections to sex discrimination and women’s rights. For many feminists, each layer of packaging of a woman’s body has the marks of a male hegemonic culture. Therefore, stripping them off is the biggest challenge to patriarchal society. Members of the Ukrainian feminist organization Femen, best known for nude protests, use their bodies as a weapon for political struggle, crashing into places such as churches and conference halls where nudity is particularly repulsive. While their actions are controversial, almost everyone agrees that it is a form of expression.
Principal, have sex with me, let the primary school girls go!
The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women states at the very beginning that the States Parties note that “the Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirms the principle of the inadmissibility of discrimination and proclaims that….everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth therein.” Freedom of speech is of course among them. The Convention also clearly requires the States Parties “to take all appropriate measures” to guarantee that women enjoy these human rights and basic freedoms.
Culture of rape has never gone away
In 2013, Ye Haiyan and I both attended the 11th Human Rights Film Festival in Geneva. It screened an award-winning movie in which a young Pakistani girl was vilified and threatened after being raped, and she was then forced to marry the man who had raped her. At the time I thought, luckily China didn’t have too many of these tragedies anymore, but I realized later that the culture of rape that forces the victim to marry the perpetrator has in fact never disappeared from Chinese society. Last year, Ye Haiyan famously displayed a cardboard sign that shouted, “Principal, have sex with me, let the primary school girls go!” to protest a scandal involving a school principal taking young school girls to a hotel room. What Ye Haiyan and other women’s rights activists are fighting against is precisely the same culture of rape.
Chang Ping (长平), former chief commentator and news director of Southern Weekend whose work was censored by the Chinese government. He lives in Germany now and is a current affairs commentator for South China Morning Post.
Ye Haiyan, Rights Campaigner, Is Detained Over Photo Posted Online, the New York Times, November 4, 2014.
(Translated by China Change. This translation is based on a version edited by the author.)