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By Yaxue Cao, published: February 14, 2016
She is a renowned public interest lawyer, a pioneer of China’s NGO movement, a defender of women’s rights, a writer, a legislative advocate, a recipient of some of the world’s top awards for women, and her work has been recognized and supported by the likes of the United Nations. What could go wrong?
On January 29 a message on WeChat read that Zhongze had been ordered to close before the Spring Festival by the “relevant authorities.” Not long after this, the head of the Center, Guo Jianmei (郭建梅) sent out a WeChat message: “Announcement: Beijing Zhongze Women’s Legal Counseling Service Center (众泽妇女法律咨询服务中心) will close from February 1, 2016. Thank you to everyone for your attention and support for the center’s work over the past 20 years!” The same “closedown notice” appeared on Zhongze’s website, drifting slowly and silently like a cloud across the page. She declined interviews.
The Chinese government has conducted a widespread crackdown on NGOs over the past two years. NGOs working on issues that used to be considered relatively “safe,” such as the rights of the disabled, the sick, women’s rights, employment equality, and labor rights, are now no longer tolerated by the Chinese government. For 20 years, Zhongze provided legal services for women who were victims of domestic violence, gender discrimination, sexual abuse, and various kinds of injustice, and its work was widely praised in China. Some even thought that it was a semi-official body. The fact that it was closed demonstrates the government’s determination to completely get rid of all NGOs working in the field of rights advocacy, and confirms the widespread consensus that the space civil society had to grow in China is now all but closed.
1995, The 4th World Conference on Women in Beijing
Beijing of 1995 was a forest of scaffolding with new buildings springing up everywhere; workmen were laying cables in the dug up streets, and deeper underground new subway lines were being built. The air was still clear, with little smog. Memories of the Tiananmen Square democracy movement and the June 4th Massacre were fading, and the Beijing government was eager to win back the acceptance of the international community. “Aligning with international norms” was one of the most trendy phrases in both state discourse and everyday parlance. To that end, that September, Beijing hosted the Fourth World Conference on Women, while “equality for women” has long been considered one of the Mao Zedong’s and the Communist Party’s achievements to flaunt.
As was the custom, prior to the World Conference on Women, a NGO Forum on Women was held for several days as a supplementary meeting to the Conference. It covered a wide range of issues and was the main venue for civil society to discuss women’s issues. Participants often outnumbered those attending the main conference itself.
Guo Jianmei took part in the World Conference on Women as a journalist for the magazine China Lawyers (《中国律师》). She originally only planned to do interviews for one day, but became fascinated and ended up staying for the full ten days of meetings. She graduated in 1983 from Peking University’s Department of Law and then worked for the Ministry of Justice and the All-China Women’s Federation. Dedicated to protecting women’s rights, she had been involved in drafting the Law of the People’s Republic of China on the Protection of Rights and Interests of Women and helped lead a project that studied the problems and solutions to implementing this law. As part of the project, she conducted research nationwide and published articles advocating women’s rights.
During the Conference, at a lawyer’s forum, one report described the scene as: “When a foreign participant asked whether there were any civil society organizations offering specialized legal aid services to women, the room suddenly fell silent.” Guo Jianmei was one of those present. Of course, later, she also heard the then US First Lady Hillary Clinton’s famous keynote speech: “Women’s rights are human rights.”
“The participants’ concern for the protection of women’s rights and for the NGOs and the passionate vibes at the Conference worked like a warm current, wiping out the sense of aimlessness that I had felt for years. I instantly felt that I had found my home,” she recalled in 2009.
It was then and there that the idea to start a women’s legal aid organization began to take root. She quit her job not long after the conference finished, and that December, along with several teachers from Peking University, founded the Center for Women’s Law Studies and Services of Peking University (北京大学妇女法律研究和服务中心，the predecessor to Beijing Zhongze Women’s Legal Counseling Service Center). She was China’s first public interest lawyer working full-time defending women’s rights. The Center’s start-up capital came from a US$30,000 grant from the Ford Foundation. “I was 34 years old, the assistant editor for the All-China Lawyers Association’s China Lawyers magazine, with a professional title the equivalent of an associate professor. I had an ‘iron rice bowl,’and good job prospects,” Guo said. Although the Center bore the famous name of the Peking University, the offices were located in the basement of a guesthouse in Zhongguancun, outside the university campus.
1995-2010, ‘the 15 Most Rewarding Years’
The first client she helped was a woman from Xuzhou, a city in Jiangsu province, whose son had been beaten to death by local police. She had come to Beijing to petition the authorities, to no result. Instead, she was hit by a tourist bus, sustained multiple fractures, and lost one eye. Even though the traffic bureau found her not responsible for the accident, the owner of the vehicle, a state-owned enterprise, only awarded her compensation of 30,000 yuan (about $3,600 at the time). The woman refused the compensation and took the company to court, but she quickly lost the case. According to a report from a few years ago:
When this woman found Guo Jianmei, her eye was inflamed, and her body stank. “I was shocked and agreed to help her with her lawsuit,” Guo said.
“When I took her to the courthouse and the judge saw her dishevelled state, he said to me: ‘Couldn’t you find other cases? How did you come to represent this kind of person?’ I said: ‘I’m a public interest lawyer.’ The judge just ignored me and, holding his nose, kicked us out of his office.”
Guo Jianmei wrote an 8,000-word statement on behalf of the woman, but in court, ‘the judge didn’t even give me the time to finish reading the statement.’ In the end, she lost the case and when the helpless mother asked her: ‘Didn’t you say we could win?’, Guo broke down in tears.
Over the next year, she and her team of four lawyers kept losing cases. Two of the lawyers left the Center, but Guo persevered, and she and her Center would go on, in the next 15 years, to provide free legal advice to more than 70,000 people, take on close to 3,000 cases, carry out more than 80 training sessions and seminars on women’s rights, submit over 70 recommendations on laws and regulations, and publish 13 books and over 200 articles, according to an April 2010 report.
From the assortment of cases on Zhongze’s website, we can see that their work mostly focused on gender discrimination in the workplace, women’s labor rights, sexual harassment in the workplace, violence against women, the rights of female migrant workers, and the land rights of women in the countryside.
At the same time, the Center acted consciously as an incubator for public interest lawyers: in 2002, it initiated a legal aid coordination group so that more organizations could join legal assistance work; in 2007, the Center established a public interest lawyers network that would attract hundreds of lawyers to provide legal service to disadvantaged members of society. In 2009, the Center established the Beijing Qianqian Law Firm (北京千千律师事务所) with an exclusive focus on public interest cases, not limited to women’s rights, but expanding its ambit to defending the disabled, migrant workers, and the elderly. Starting in 2005, the Center also launched the Women Watch website, a Chinese/English bilingual site that “investigates, researches, observes, analyzes, evaluates and tests the state of Chinese women’s rights protection from an NGO point of view.”
The Center recognized that behind each individual case lie larger issues concerning many women. So it chose “significant, typical, and difficult cases of gender discrimination that can also be used for theoretical studies and legislative advocacy.”For example, in China, workplace sexual harassment of female subordinates by male bosses is extremely common. Following the Song Shanmu rape case, Guo Jianmei and her team issued a Guide to the Prevention of Workplace Sexual Harassment, with the financial and professional help of the International Labor Organization. The Center worked with companies to hold trainings and build internal prevention mechanisms. At the same time, the Center held seminars where experts exchanged opinions and shared research findings. These opinions and findings were then submitted to the government for legislative action.
In rural areas across the country, married women who no longer live in the village are often treated as any other members of the village, due to unchanged household registration—they’re considered responsible for cultivating their share of the land, paying taxes, and fees, and fulfilling obligations in public projects such as roads and schools. But when the village sells the land to the government or a developer, the married women are often excluded from their share of the profits. In 2007 the Center successfully won a case for 30-some married women in Huizhou, Guangdong. In the same year, the Center recovered a total 90 million RMB for 28 married women in the city of Hulunbuir in Inner Mongolia. The Center went on to work with local chapters of Women’s Federations, providing training and conducting surveys which were published so as to push local governments to change rules and protect the property rights of women.
A young staff member described the Center’s work as “holistic head-to-toe service.”
Few reports on the Center describe their day-to-day work, but a careful analysis is able to capture some of the more exciting, and dangerous, moments: in Dengfeng city, Henan province, Guo Jianmei and Li Ying, deputy director of the Qianqian Law Firm, were helping a group of married and divorced women claim their rightful compensation for land sold to developers. In the rain, over a hundred of raging male villagers brandishing sticks had trapped the two lawyers inside their hotel, telling them they couldn’t interfere with “family discipline” and “village rules.” Once, in Yinchuan, Ningxia, she came close to being handcuffed when she clashed with a local judge.
In 2002 Guo had a nervous breakdown. “She didn’t want to go to work, or take anyone’s phone call in the office; during meetings she would burst into tears as soon as she opened her mouth to speak.” Her doctor diagnosed her with “moderate to serious depression and serious anxiety.” She asked for half a year’s leave. She recovered thanks to the care of her husband, the well-known writer Liu Zhenyun. Her husband told her that if her work really made her unhappy, she should stop doing it. Her friends hoped she would switch to working as a commercial lawyer. But she told her husband that in her dreams she kept seeing the pleading eyes and hearing the “thud” of women dropping on their knees to entreat her help. Once she recovered, she went straight back to work.
In 2009, Guo Jianmei described her organization to Xinhua News: “Nothing holds swings over us, nor are we enticed by any self interests. No one can slander us or attack us anymore. International organizations have been seeking us out; I’ve just been given a project from the United Nations, and every year the Center gets about a dozen big international projects.”
It’s hard to imagine that the Center only had nine lawyers and three administrative staff. Each lawyer had to take on at least 15 cases each year, according to a 2009 article in Southern Weekend. But the Center was a magnet for many young volunteers, including from overseas. This is how one young former staff member described the atmosphere: “Everyone just got down to work; colleagues got on really well with each other, and the work was incredibly rewarding,” even if the compensation was not ideal.
Revocation in 2010
In March 2010, the Office of Social Sciences of Peking University announced that it had revoked the affiliation of the Center for Women’s Law Studies and Legal Services, along with three other organizations: the Public Law Research Center, the Constitution Research Center, and the Finance News Research Center (公法研究中心、宪政研究中心、财经新闻研究中心). The statement said that “the above (four) agencies from today forward have no affiliation with Peking University, and Peking University takes no managerial responsibility for any of their actions.”
It’s important to note that in the early years of NGO development in China, many organizations depended on universities and colleges to survive, because they provided both a legal organizational form and a talent pool.
Due to the fact that these four organizations had become well known, the sudden revocation led to much speculation. In the case of Guo Jianmei’s Center, observers wondered whether it was because they had gotten involved in the Deng Yujiao case (邓玉娇, in which a spa attendant stabbed to death an official attempting to rape her), or the case of Li Ruirui (李蕊蕊, the prisoner of a black jail who was raped), both of which had attracted widespread national attention and support. Xinhua reported: “Last year, the Peking University leadership spoke to the Center, and hoped that it would not longer accept such ‘outside cases.’ It’s believed that this is the primary reason for the cancellation of the Center’s affiliation.”
Foreign funding may have been another issue—although a large number of organizations affiliated with the Chinese government also received foreign funding, and often receive the lion’s share of it.
Soon after Peking University’s move, China’s National Legal Aid Foundation (国家法律援助基金会) also severed its project with the Center. In this project, the National Legal Aid Foundation provided 100,000 yuan (about $14,600) to the Center and asked it to take on 35 cases (at $419 per case), a harsh project by any standard. Guo Jianmei nevertheless accepted these onerous conditions in an attempt to gain recognition from, and build a relationship with, the government.
In June 2010, the Public Interest Lawyers Network (公益律师网) was shut down after it had been launched for only a year. In 2011, “Women Watch – China” (妇女观察-中国) also faced the threat of being shut down, but managed to survive.
This series of closures and cancellations was actually just part of an overall crackdown in the post-Beijing Olympics period. In 2009, the Open Constitution Initiative (公盟) was fined 1.4 million yuan in tax payments, the OCI Legal Research Center (公盟法律研究中心) was banned, and Dr. Xu Zhiyong and an accountant were arrested on charges of “evading taxes” by Beijing police. OCI, founded by three Peking University Law School PhDs, committed itself to constitutional research and advocacy, and sought to provide legal support for disenfranchised citizens. The same year, the Beijing Yirenping Center (北京益仁平中心), which made a name combating discrimination against Hepatitis B sufferers, as well as a newly established organization advocating for gay rights, were raided. And then in 2010, the State Administration of Foreign Exchange promulgated a “Notice on Issues Concerning the Administration of Foreign Exchange Donated to Domestic Institutions,” which created obstacles for domestic organizations receiving funding from abroad. An internal document by China’s Ministry of Education claimed that the Hong Kong branch of Oxfam was infiltrating China and striking up alliances with rights defense organizations, and demanded that universities prevent Oxfam from seeking volunteer workers among students. And at about the same time that the Center for Women’s Law Studies and Legal Services at Peking University was being cancelled, the Guangzhou-based volunteer network NGOCN was also shut down. NGOCN had become one of China’s largest NGO exchange platforms, and nearly all NGOs in China would share information on it. (Later, through internal lobbying, the site was reinstated, though not at the same scale as previously.) At the beginning of 2010, one of China’s earliest NGOs, the Beijing Aizhixing Research Institute (北京爱知行研究所), which advocates for the rights of HIV-AIDS patients, also had its activities brought to a halt. The founder, Wan Yanhai (万延海), suddenly left China with his family “out of fear for safety.”
Prof. Wang Zheng, a gender scholar at the University of Michigan who used to hold academic meetings on gender studies in Fudan University in Shanghai with funding from the Ford Foundation, told me recently that as early as 2004 or 2005, the Chinese government banned foreign funding for programs at institutions like Xinjiang University. In 2011, Fudan suddenly told her that they could no longer host conferences funded by the Ford Foundation. Prof. Wang said that the university had a blacklist of foreign foundations.
Yu Fangqiang (于方强), founder of the the Nanjing-based NGO Justice for All (天下公), pointed out in an article : “the period from 2009 to 2010 saw a wave of crackdown on civil society that was organized, premeditated, and forceful.”
After the Center for Women’s Law Studies and Legal Services was disaffiliated, it published a firm statement: “For 15 years we’ve engaged in an enterprise that’s ‘brighter than the sun.’” It continued: “The Center has made contributions in the fields of women’s rights, legal support, and NGO. At the very least, it makes this much clear: the survival of civil legal support groups in China is crucial and indispensable. The reality of China is that if you want to establish a forward-thinking enterprise, you need a group of brave people who are willing to struggle and dedicate themselves, and you need to give them recognition and encouragement.”
Determination aside, this also sounded like an appeal to the government.
Zhongze, ‘A Profound Symbol’
After its affiliation with Peking University was revoked, Guo Jianmei and her colleagues registered Beijing Zhongze Women’s Legal Counseling Service Center. But in China, a NGO like Zhongze cannot register as a non-profit organization with the Ministry of Civil Affairs ; it can only register as a for-profit business with the State Administration for Industry and Commerce. This, of course, opens the door for charges like “illegal business operations” or “tax evasion,” whenever the government wants to apply arbitrary punishments.
Over the past six years, Zhongze seamlessly continued the work of the Center for Women’s Law Studies and Services at Peking University. It has worked in areas where Chinese women need help the most, and played a role in filling many gaps in legislation in China, including the recently-enacted Anti-Domestic Violence Law. At the same time, it aligns its work with the Beijing Platform for Action, approved by the 4th World Conference on Women. Zhongze’s website specifically illustrates its work in 8 of the 12 areas defined by the Platform for Action: education and training of women, women and health, violence against women, women and economy, women in power and decision making, human rights of women, women and media, the girl-child.
Over the past 20 years, Guo Jianmei and the two Centers she has led have received many awards and accolades from many sources, including the Chinese government and media, as well as the international community. Guo Jianmei was the recipient of the 2007 Global Women’s Leadership Award, the 2009 Prix Simone de Beauvoir pour la liberté des femmes (shared with Professor Ai Xiaoming), and 2011 International Women of Courage Award. Many female dignitaries have visited the Center, including American First Lady Hillary Clinton, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Madame Annan, UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Madame Mehr Khan Williams, Madame Margerida Barroso, among others.
But compared with the Peking University revocation, this closure appears to have a much more permanent character. In the past two years, Xu Zhiyong has been jailed, and the New Citizens Movement that was inspired by the work of the OCI has been repressed all over China. Large numbers of NGOs have been shuttered and raided, including the China Rural Library (立人图书馆), the Transition Institute (传知行), and Yirenping (益仁平). Labor rights NGOs have been eliminated, Christian churches have been suppressed, and frontline activists in the rights defense movement, such as Guo Feixiong (郭飞雄), and advocate of civil disobedience Tang Jingling (唐荆陵), have been separately arrested and tried. Human rights lawyers have suffered large scale arrests and been accused of “subverting state power.” Then there are all the agencies that have been silently shut down—like the Center for the Rights of Disadvantaged Citizens at Wuhan University (武汉大学社会弱者权利保护中心), established in 1992.
Even though the work that Zhongze engaged in seemed not to concern itself with the topics typically considered politically sensitive, the comments on its closure indicate otherwise. A few commentators attacked Zhongze as a “running dog” of the Americans, or a tool used by foreign hostile forces to subvert China, or a spy organization using the banner of public interest.
And if these remarks sound like the malicious gossip of idle Internet users, think again. Peng Xiaohui (彭晓辉), a professor of sexology at East China Normal University, and a friend to many feminists in China, remarked on Weibo: “There are signs that certain feminists in China won the praise and support of Hillary Clinton. Last year after President Xi speaking at the UN Women’s Summit, Hillary immediately attacked China’s policies on women. The political motives behind this make one pause to consider. A society in which men and women are equal is of course the direction to which mankind needs to strive, but China cannot allow a foreign politician who views China with hostility to meddle in this undertaking.”
Foreign Funding; the Aspiration of the ‘New’ Chinese; and the Hostility of the Government
The question of foreign funding was brought to the attention of Guo Jianmei by “the relevant departments” years ago. They wanted her to stop receiving money from abroad. Guo’s response was to ask them: “You say that foreign funding is sensitive, but Chinese entrepreneurs are only willing to fund projects supported by government policies—they have no interest in our work. We have no other source of funds, so what are we supposed to do?”
But money wasn’t the only problem. The Open Constitution Initiative (公盟), for instance, avoided this danger by not accepting any foreign funds, only making itself available to donations from Chinese citizens and businessmen. But its orientation toward constitutional democracy and rule of law made it one of the earliest targets for attack by the authorities. Wang Gongquan (王功权), a businessman who offered financial support to OCI, spent several months in jail.
For foreign funders, organizations like Zhongze are the most ideal recipients of their largess: they’re located in urban centers, led by social elites; they’re professional, accepted by the government, and they don’t get involved in issues considered politically sensitive. Funding them allows these groups to fulfill their mission as a foundation, whether in assisting the poor or advocating for rights, without irking the Chinese government.
The wider meaning of all this is that Guo Jianmei and her colleagues represent a new kind of Chinese citizen. They’re spread across Chinese cities and the countryside, factories and schools, in industry and from all other walks of life. Their worldviews are open, they share a strong modern civic consciousness, they identify with the international standards advocated by the United Nations, and they want to throw their energy into helping China progress. “I’m completely comfortable with what I do,” Guo Jianmei says, “it’s only because of my love for my motherland that I do all this. The function we serve is to resolve social conflicts.”
But after 30 years of reform and opening up in China, China has not only failed to align itself with international norms, but has set itself up for a direct clash with them. Chinese leader Xi Jinping just addressed issues of gender equality last September at the UN Women’s Summit, but a few months later he shut down the most influential NGO in China that protected women’s rights.
Dissident intellectual Mo Zhixu (莫之许) points out that, in mid-1990s, Chinese authorities made many concessions on human rights in order to quickly integrate into the global economic system—for instance, signing the United Nations’ International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and becoming a signatory to, though not ratifying, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, allowing Chinese to access the Internet, and granting more space for NGO work. The mid- 1990s to 2010 has often been thought of as a period of vitality and opportunity. As a result, an optimistic narrative took hold not only among Chinese liberals, but international observers and policymakers too: the middle class is growing, Internet use is expanding, civil society is developing, and new media is emerging—inevitably, the power of civil society will begin contending with the government, eventually change the power balance, and a constitutional transformation will then take place.
But the reality is, as Mo Zhixu points out, that the Communist Party authorities have since 1989 “not once wavered from their determination to maintain their dictatorship, and political structural reform has never been an option. Instead, the allowances and concessions they have made will not continue; furthermore, they have been the cause of harsher repression, until everything is frozen.”
But there are Chinese who don’t want to give up. Two hours after she announced the shutdown of Zhongze, Guo Jianmei added: “The Beijing Qianqian Law Firm is still around.” Once again, she’s faced with the difficult question of how to take her work forward.
Yaxue Cao edits this site. Follow her on Twitter @yaxuecao.
Chinese version 《郭建梅，众泽，与妇女赋权》， translated by Dinah Gardner, Matthew Robertson, and Yaxue Cao.
Wu Rongrong: How I Became a Women’s Rights Advocate, April 27, 2015.