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Yaxue Cao, July 26, 2016
Li Tingting (李婷婷), also known as Li Maizi (李麦子), is one of the “Feminist Five” in China who were detained on the eve of the International Women’s Day in 2015; they were planning a protest against sexual harassment on public transportation, which is insidiously prevalent in China. The women were released after 37 days in detention following an unprecedented international outcry. I met with Li Tingting recently over a Sunday brunch, and we spoke about her detention, women’s rights, LGBT advocacy, and civil society. — Yaxue Cao
YC: Let’s begin from your experiences during the arrest of the Feminist Five on March 6.
Li Tingting: At that time my girlfriend and I were living in a rental. The police came knocking on the door at about 10:30 pm, but I didn’t open it — initially I thought that they weren’t looking for me. I didn’t want to deal with the hassle, and had the event the following day to get ready for. But they knocked on the door continuously for about 30 minutes, and from their conversation I knew they were after me. They said they’d been monitoring my phone calls, and that I’d just called so-and-so. Then they called in a locksmith company to pry open the lock, so I opened the door for them. They looked flustered and furious and made a show of trying to frighten me. They took out a blank warrant of detention as well as a blank notice of criminal detention, slapped them onto the table, and began searching the apartment. They confiscated all of our electronics, including computers and cell phones, of which I had more than one. Then, they took us away. Downstairs, they were going to put Suan Xiaola (酸小辣, Li Tingting’s partner) and myself in different vehicles, and I told her: just say you were only staying with me for a couple of days and had planned to leave tomorrow. The police then forbade us from talking. Suan never acknowledged our relationship — if she did the police would exploit our intimate relationship to get information from her. At the local police station, the police went through our private conversations, listening to them one by one. It was infuriating. Later an opportunity presented itself: an officer asked me how to unlock my phone. I said: “I can do it for you,” and then went in and deleted my entire WeChat history. At that point I didn’t think that they’d detain us, because we hadn’t even carried out our activities — there was nothing we’d done for them to lock us up.
On that first night we arrived at the police station at 12am. The following evening we were led into a basement carpark and taken away in a 9-seater van. At that point they’d already let my girlfriend go. The whole time they were afraid I’d escape, and held me by the arm the entire trip. Wei Tingting (韦婷婷) was in front of me. I was in the middle. Wang Man (王曼) was in the back.
YC: Had the other two been brought from elsewhere to the same police station?
Li Tingting: Right. We drove for a long time. I don’t know where we ended up. Wei Tingting was in front of me, and it was easier to speak with her. I said: “It looks like we’re going to a detention center. Let’s keep our mouths shut for 37 days, and then we’ll be let go.” My thinking at that point was really naive. When we got to the detention center we were handcuffed and made to stand and wait. I was chatting with Wei Tingting. She remarked: “This is on my to-do list.”
YC: Ah — going to jail being on one’s to-do list. That would have to be a “Chinese characteristic.”
Li Tingting: Wei Tingting asked me: What is there to do in jail? I said, you can have a one night stand. She said: can you really? In the end when she left jail she really did find a girlfriend.
YC: Based on the interrogation, what did the police primarily want to find out?
Li Tingting: Their early questions were all about this anti-sexual harassment activity that we had planned, and they asked about it thoroughly, again and again. Then they asked about foreign forces, whether we were being used by foreign forces. They were extremely nervous about these “foreign forces.” “Who are paying for your activities?” they asked. But I didn’t know, and I really had no idea.
YC: Do these kind of activities need much funding at all?
Li Tingting: They do — for instance to cover the cost of printing materials. Some activities are paid for by volunteers themselves. The police asked about this over and over again. Then they asked about our other public protests: Occupying Man’s Room, the Wounded Bride protest, and the head shaving protest, as well as how we exposed our breasts to oppose domestic violence. When they printed out photos of our bare chests, they even censored out our nipples with black crosses. I thought it was hilarious.
YC: Where was that topless protest?
Li Tingting: The photos were posted to social media, but they were professional shots taken in a studio. They asked again and again: “Why are you doing these activities?” I said that everything we did was for gender equality in China, it’s not for anything else. Another question they asked was: Why are you working at an NGO? I said: “I have to work, I need to survive.”
YC: What kind of question is this? Is working at an NGO illegal or scandalous in China?
Li Tingting: There was a period in which every day they asked us about our organization. They also raided our office.
YC: At that time you were at Yirenping. What specific work did you do there?
Li Tingting: I did gender equality advocacy. Later I did LGBT work. They were asking about the details of those projects — they wanted every possible detail of them. They asked so many questions, but I was not in charge, nor in control of a lot of resources, nor did I receive any money from “foreign forces.” Besides, even if we did receive money from abroad, did the law prohibit it? Now China has passed the NGO law, but there wasn’t the law at that time.
They’re very good at scaring us. They’ll suddenly burst into the room and yell: “Li Tingting, you haven’t been honest with us, you’re lying again!” Then they’ll intimidate me, saying: “We’ve gathered such-and-such new evidence.” I thought it was quite amusing. Just like a cops and robbers movie, like they were deliberately acting out the drama, trying to scare you.
YC: Were you scared?
Li Tingting: I was at first. But as they just kept doing this, I got used to it and wasn’t afraid anymore. I feel that, while you are in their clutches like that, it’s like playing a game of chess with them. When you’re locked inside, you can’t think about when they will release you. I always expected the worst, so I’d be psychologically prepared.
YC: Did you ever think that your work would land you in jail?
Li Tingting: I was more prepared for it than others. Before we were arrested, lawyer Chang Boyang (常伯阳) was taken in, and the offices of Yirenping (亿人平) in Zhengzhou were raided. At that point I knew that there was risk in doing what we did. Actually, even earlier, when Xu Zhiyong (许志永) was arrested, I’d considered this possibility.
YC: Do you know Xu Zhiyong?
Li Tingting: I don’t know him. But the fact that he can be charged with disturbing public order and sentenced for four years, just for helping the children of parents with non-Beijing household registration (户口) attend school in Beijing, means that the authorities could use the same charges against us.
When lawyer Chang Boyang was released, he told us a lot. It was a very good preparation for me. He said, firstly, don’t collaborate with the police; secondly, don’t go along with the kind of predatory behavior that inmates often resort to to survive; and thirdly, if someone bullies you, ring the alarm. These points were extremely useful for life behind bars.
YC: How have these 37 days in prison changed and impacted you, a young NGO worker and rights advocate?
Li Tingting: For a long time after being released I had a very hard time focusing. After a period of mental training, I improved to some degree. Another thing is that I often had nightmares of being arrested. Others in the Feminist Five were the same. Also, we’re now all on the Chinese media blacklist, so no one dares to speak about or report on us.
Another direct impact is that our NGO was shut down, so I had no stable work and source of income. We became a “model case” in the NGO crackdown, and the surveillance against us was increased as a result. In the past we were just “troublemakers,” but now we’ve become political offenders in their eyes. Even though the platform of our movement is gender equality, once the government arrests you, life becomes harder. The government is still resorting to all sorts of methods to prevent the issue from reaching a wider audience.
YC: I recently saw the film Hooligan Sparrow (流氓燕). An elementary school principal in Hainan province took 11-year-old students from his own school to a hotel room, and it was suggested that these young girls were offered up as gifts for the “use” of local officials. It’s such a revolting act that you’d think the All China Women’s Federation (妇联) would immediately come out and condemn it. But the Women’s Federation didn’t make a sound. But when rights lawyers and activists went to the scene to protest (lawyer Wang Yu and lawyer Tang Jitian, as well as several other female activists, went to Hainan with “hooligan sparrow”), they were stalked, violently confronted, and later harshly retaliated against. This incident demonstrates how important citizen power is in China. If civil society doesn’t come out and organize protests, this society has no effective channel for seeking justice or resolving problems.
We also know that in February of this year Beijing Zhongze Women’s Legal Counseling Service Center (众泽妇女法律咨询服务中心) was closed. As far as you know, what’s the current state of affairs in terms of civil advocacy on behalf of the rights of women and children in China?
Li Tingting: Right now the “path struggle” (路线之争) is more obvious than ever. When us young people began doing street activism, a lot of the older generation of feminists were supportive — including when we went to universities to give speeches, a lot of the teachers in the state system were very welcoming. Now the number of teachers that invite us to speak has dropped considerably. In 2012 and 2013 many universities invited us to come and give speeches. When I went to the Shandong University of Finance and Economics, I was received by the dean of the law school. At that time, even though we were considered sensitive, we weren’t so sensitive that state-affiliated teachers didn’t dare cooperate with us.
YC: What exact is this “path struggle” that you just referred to?
Li Tingting: It’s that there are women’s rights activists in China who think we’ve made this issue politically sensitive and have negatively impacted their own work. They keep a distance from us now. We used to work with the Women’s Federation, but not anymore.
YC: The detention and release of the Feminist Five was quite a shock to me in different ways. I had never heard of any of you, nor had our site written about women’s rights before then, because I had never really considered it part of our focus. When you were detained right before International Women’s Day, I was slow to react, thinking you’d be released after a few days at most. I was shocked because, firstly, I never thought the kinds of activities you engaged in would land you in jail, and it was an alarm bell for how bad things were deteriorating for activists — activists of any kind. Secondly, the global response was something rather amazing, unprecedented in speed and scale. The fact that feminist organizations and LGBT networks like All Out came out, in the tens of thousands signing petitions, also created a classic case study for effective activism, because these are not the “usual suspects” who speak out for human rights in China. And as it happened, Xi Jinping and his wife were to preside over the UN Women’s Summit. What a joke, but also, what an opportunity!
So ever since the release of the Feminist Five, I have been talking to the usual suspects about identifying the unusual suspects in each case, and about exploring potential opportunities.
Now, let’s talk about the state of LBGT rights in China.
Li Tingting: Most of mainland China’s LGBTs are still living in the closet. They might come out of the closet in their circle of friends; they might have their own communities, or bars, but they do not come out to their parents and employers, because the cost would be very high.
YC: The costs include?
Li Tingting: If you’re homosexual, you will be fired. If you tell your parents, they will beat you, curse you. There’ll be family discord. Some have been sent to mental hospitals, others have been stalked or detained. There are a lot of such cases. I knew a case where parents twice sent their daughter to a mental hospital and forced her to take medication until she promised her parents that she’d never engage in homosexual relationships again. Such private violence against LGBT is prevalent in China.
Take myself for example. My aunt, who is my mother’s eldest sister, cursed me in the most vicious language when she learned that I’m a lesbian. When I had my wedding ceremony with Suan Xiaola, she said I was a pervert and my parents would die as a result of me marrying my partner. It was so hurtful. I’ve never been close to her — what makes her think she has the right to judge my life? Well, just because she’s my mother’s older sister, she feels she has the authority to do so.
YC: What about your mom?
Li Tingting: My mom was embarrassed by me. She didn’t attend my wedding, my dad wouldn’t let her. She also said to me: “Can you not have your ceremony so close to us?” In other words, don’t shame us on our doorsteps. But my girlfriend’s parents were supportive. They spoke to my mom, so my mom called my aunt, telling her that “my daughter’s life is not your business.”
YC: Are there individuals and organizations openly advocating the legalization of gay marriage?
Li Tingting: Yes, there are. Some couples advocate gay marriage, like us, by holding marriage ceremonies to make a political statement about their rights and their desire to see the legalization of same-sex marriage in China. In Changsha, a gay couple went to the government asking to register their marriage. There has been an effort to rally support for same-sex marriage from parents whose children are homosexuals. This is a very good strategy, because Chinese culture values family, and parents want to see their homosexual children living in a family setting. Also, when parents support their children, it greatly increases the visibility of the issue.
YC: I read in the news recently that, in a college in Guangzhou, a lesbian proposed to her partner on the day of their graduation. Yesterday I noticed that there is an All Out signature campaign that collected over 20,000 signatures in two days since its initiation. According to Wang Xiaoyu — one of the lesbian students, though that’s not her real name — Party officials at her college outed her to her parents, and threatened to withhold her diploma. The police also raided her apartment.
Li Tingting: I know this case. The university sent people who opened her apartment, and had the police search it.
YC: That’s right, to collect “evidence.” Evidence of what?
Li Tingting: They said these students were manipulated by foreign forces.
YC: You’re kidding! “Foreign forces” everywhere! In a way, this incident reflects the official attitude of the Chinese government: it’s like, we’ll hold our nose and tolerate you homosexuals, but don’t “overdo” it, or we’ll get you. So, it’s worrisome. Now on top of that, we all know that over the last three years the rights advocacy work, not only in political rights but also women’s rights, has all but been shattered as a result of severe crackdowns and the promulgation of laws, especially the foreign NGO management law. Is there room for LGBT advocacy work?
Li Tingting: Yes, there is, because it hasn’t been politicized. But as soon as an LGBT activist is arrested for his or her work, it will become political.
YC: Give us some examples.
Li Tingting: The more mainstream advocacy that I just spoke about, the homosexual friends and family associations that identify with mainstream family values — they are occasionally reported on in mainstream media outlets. And they raise funds from the public, because they want the support of average citizens. There is also the Chinese Rainbow Media Awards given to media outlets that are friendly to the LGBT subject. In other cases, advocacy groups work with companies to hold job fairs just for gays and lesbians. One such event was held by a foreign company.
There is also a network of public interest lawyers known as “the rainbow lawyers” — they help meet the legal needs of the LGBT community.
The other recourse is lawsuits. The first case was in 2013, when a lesbian named Yanzi in Chongqing sued a psychological counseling center that used electric shocks to “treat” homosexuality. The court ruled that homosexuality is not a mental illness. That was a historic ruling. Since then there have been other lawsuits, but not all of them were successful. [Here, here, and here.]
But with litigation, if you are getting support from NGOs, the government can accuse you of working with foreign forces, because most advocacy NGOs receive funding from foundations overseas.
YC: Are you saying then that the civil advocacy work right now is still being done by NGOs?
Li Tingting: Right. Work done by civil society has already decriminalized and depathologized homosexuality, but they haven’t managed to normalize it. The wider public and the government are still prejudiced against homosexuality, like it’s something dishonorable. The problem is that they simply have no interest in actually understanding this group of people. But because LGBT groups have started to spring up in recent years, the police need to monitor them, and they also need to understand them. The reason this issue is still fairly safe is in part because the authorities don’t really want to touch it. So the government’s lack of advocacy and support also protects this population, allowing them to continue their advocacy in the current climate.
YC: Have you gotten involved yourself?
Li Tingting: Of course. Getting married is a prime example. When I was in second year university in Xi’an, myself and three others founded a “Lesbian Community Training Group.”
YC: Doing what?
Li Tingting: We played board games the first time. When we grew in number, we begin some advocacy work. Mainly it was service delivery: for instance, psychological counselling, providing all kinds of other support.
YC: One thing I noticed was that, when the five of you went to prison, the lawyers who took on your cases were all human rights lawyers. I was puzzled: you’re advocating women’s rights — are there no other lawyers who are willing to represent you?
Li Tingting: They were the only ones who dared. Our’s was a political case. There were also public interest lawyers willing to take it on, but their defense strategy was completely different to that of human rights lawyers. And I definitely prefer the human rights lawyers.
YC: When I meet you, the impression I get from you is that you’re really free — your facial expressions and gestures, everything about you seems to proclaim: I’m free. And yet this totalitarian system every day presents you with another message: I’m controlling you, you’re not free. You make me think of myself when I was in my 20s. At the time I was still living in China, and every single day I felt a fundamental, intrinsic sense of freedom clashing sharply against the external oppressiveness. But at that time there was no internet, no so-called civil society, so disgust and helplessness became a state of life. But I had never thought, in 2016, the term “freedom” still remains a remote, dangerous expression. You’ve been jailed, and you’re gay — tell us about your existential state.
Li Tingting: I think that the pressure is inescapable — it affects your personal relationships, and it affects your daily life. So we’ve all had to become superhuman: we have to stand against the pressure, and also work while under it. The government’s invisible tentacles are reminding you every single moment: “I’m watching you.” I’ve always been a rebellious person, incompatible with a mainstream lifestyle. Other people have said I’m “radical.” But once you choose your way of life, you have to walk the path to the end. So, freedom has its costs. Every way of life has its costs, it’s just a matter of what costs you choose.
YC: I hate the very thought, but have you considered the possibility that you’ll be jailed again? You didn’t think you’d be jailed when you planned the anti-sexual harassment protests on buses and subways. Maybe one day you’ll do something that you don’t think is dangerous in the least, and yet you might get arrested.
Li Tingting: Right. We can’t control whether we’re arrested or not, so there’s no point thinking about things we can’t control. We can’t censor ourselves excessively.
Yaxue Cao edits this website. Follow her on Twitter @yaxuecao.
Wu Rongrong: How I Became a Women’s Rights Advocate, April 27, 2015
By China Change, published: March 6, 2016
Just before International Women’s Day on March 8, the Feminist Five activists in China, as well as their defense counsel, have been spoken to and put under pressure by police, according to friends and lawyers of the activists, communicating via social media.
On March 3, Internal Security police, the branch of the Public Security Bureau focused on internal political threats, sought out the defense lawyers of the feminist activists. They said that they knew that five lawyers had sent a legal opinion to the authorities recommending that the case against the the Feminist Five be withdrawn. Security police asked them which lawyer was in charge of that letter, what their motive was, and to which governmental departments it had been sent.
One lawyer responded: “Firstly, you can take me as the leader. I signed the postage for it and take full responsibility. Secondly, the motive was in the hope that the Beijing police would exhibit a modicum of legal awareness, adhere to procedure, respect human rights, and protect human rights.”
The lawyer then introduced the basic facts of the case of the Feminist Five, and added: “China is supposed to be known as a country of etiquette. Equality between men and women and respect for women is a sign of the level of civilization of a society. That women shouldn’t be subject to sexual harassment is something that all males in a civilized society should be taught. The five feminist activists were arrested by Beijing police simply because they had arranged some events to raise awareness about sexual harassment. The actions of the Beijing police not only have no legal standard, but completely violate normal social ethics. They seem to have a distorted sense of what is good for society and what bad. Do they really want to see, in public places in China, men harassing and humiliating women, with no sense of shame? Do they want to see China’s men turned into a bunch of hoodlums?”
Officials in the judiciary also called several of the lawyers in for talks, and among the Feminist Five, some were called in by police and talked to.
Wu Rongrong: How I Became a Women’s Rights Advocate, April 27, 2015.
Guo Jianmei, Zhongze, and the Empowerment of Women in China, a profile of China’s first public interest lawyer and renowned women’s rights advocate. February 14, 2016.
By defense counsels of the Feminist Five, published: March 3, 2016
To: Haidian Precinct, Beijing Public Security Bureau
CC: Supreme People’s Procuratorate
National People’s Congress Internal & Judicial Affairs Committee
Beijing Field Office of UN Women
Last year, on the eve of the March 8 International Women’s Day, the five Chinese feminist activists Wei Tingting (韦婷婷), Zheng Churan (郑楚然), Wu Rongrong (武嵘嵘), Li Tingting (李婷婷), and Wang Man (王曼) were placed under criminal detention by police in Beijing’s Haidian District on suspicion of “provoking a serious disturbance” and “gathering a crowd to disrupt order in a public place.” Later, they were released on bail pending additional investigation. These women came to be known as the “Feminist Five,” and their case sent shock waves throughout China and the world.
As the defense counsel for these five young women, we believe that the case against the “Feminist Five” was a miscarriage of justice deliberately perpetrated by certain police officers and that this case has become a laughingstock outside China and tarnished the country’s image.
Unfortunately, one year later the Feminist Five remains under the coercive measure of “release on bail pending additional investigation,” and the Haidian District police have not withdrawn this case in accordance with the law. So, we are now urging the Haidian police to drop their investigation immediately and restore these five women’s personal freedom and dignity without condition.
Our reasons are as follows:
- The police have no evidence to support their accusations, and the procuratorate refused to approve arrest.
Last year, the police applied for permission to formally arrest the Feminist Five, but the procuratorate held to the law and refused to approve the arrest. The Feminist Five were released after being held for 37 days. However, out of frustration the police not only did not withdraw the case but placed bail restrictions on the five under pretext of continuing the investigation against them. They proceeded to make a big show of continuing their investigation and summoning the women for further questioning, but to date they have yet to uncover any evidence of guilt. Meanwhile, these five women remain under the shadow of the label of “criminal suspects.”
- The Feminist Five have done nothing illegal; on the contrary, they have performed a service by protecting women’s rights.
For many years, the Feminist Five have acted in the public interest to promote the protection of women’s rights. Whether it was performance art like “Occupy the Men’s Toilet” or “Bloody Brides” or taking to the street to campaign against sexual harassment, these were all acts done for the good of the public. If you search for “Occupy the Men’s Toilet” on Baidu, you will see how mainstream media outlets endlessly praised this action.
They chose to use performance art to promote the public interest because equality between men and women is not simply about equal rights; it is also about opening up people’s mindsets. They wanted to influence the mindset of not just the government but also the general public. In terms of effectiveness, their actions were truly necessary and taken in the absence of other alternatives.
Even more importantly, while they were carrying out these artistic acts, they had no intention of disrupting order in a public place and their actions resulted in no such consequences.
- The police acted illegally in many ways, seriously infringing upon the rights of the Feminist Five.
According to these five women, the police acted illegally many times:
- On several occasions, they used blank summons documents to summon Li Tingting and Wu Rongrong;
- After summoning or detaining her, police failed to notify Li Tingting’s family members in accordance with the law;
- Li Tingting was also subjected to questioning to the point of exhaustion and had bright lights shone on her to prevent her from getting enough rest, to the point where she was only able to sleep two hours a night;
- During detention, Wu Rongrong and Wang Man were refused prompt treatment for their illnesses, and Wu Rongrong was forced to suffer the humiliation of sleeping on the floor despite her illness;
- Knowing that several of the suspects were homosexual, interrogators used coarse language to humiliate them;
- Police smoked during Li Tingting’s interrogation and blew smoke in her face;
- Police broke the lock as they burst into Li Tingting’s residence, resulting in serious damage to her property and loss of personal items;
- Li Tingting was denied access to her lawyer many times on the excuse that she had been taken away from the detention center for questioning.
Defense counsel made complaints about the above illegal acts to the relevant authorities in accordance with the law, but to date the police who carried out these acts have yet to be punished. If society allows police to deliberately misrepresent the truth and invert right and wrong in the course of exercising public power, then the people will inevitably suffer disaster.
- The detention of the Feminist Five and infringement of their rights goes against public opinion and violates internationally recognized values, and these acts continue to be the focus of both domestic and international attention.
Just recently, at the end of 2015, the case of the Feminist Five was named by the Chinese Lawyers for Human Rights as one of the “Top 10 Chinese Human Rights Cases of 2015.” As a group, the Feminist Five were named one of the “10 Most Inspiring Feminists of 2015” by the famous international publication Ms. magazine. One of the five, Li Tingting, was chosen as one of the “100 Leading Global Thinkers” for 2015 by Foreign Policy magazine. In September 2015, an art exhibit reflecting the work of the Feminist Five was unveiled. To date, it has made three stops around the world.
Clearly, the actions of the police in this case were not only illegal; from the beginning the case took on national, even international importance and influence. National authorities at the highest levels should intervene, the case should be discussed at the “Two Meetings” of the National People’s Congress and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference that are about to open in Beijing, and UN Women should pay attention to the case.
In order to safeguard rule of law and protect human civilization, we call on the relevant state bodies to withdraw this case, investigate those who committed illegality and criminal acts in manufacturing this miscarriage of justice, and restore the valuable reputation of the Feminist Five and the good image of China!
Defense counsel for Wei Tingting: Ge Wenxiu (葛文秀), lawyer with Guangdong Lü Cheng Ding Bang Law Office, 258 Dashadi East Road, Suite 301, Huangpu District, Guangzhou 510730, Tel: 020-82387045
Defense counsel for Li Tingting: Yan Xin (燕薪), Beijing Laishuo Law Office, South Courtyard, Fangze Pavilion, Ditan Park, Dongcheng District, Beijing 100011, Tel: 136-0129-7308
Defense counsel for Zheng Churan: Chen Jinxue (陈进学), lawyer with Guangdong Lü Cheng Ding Bang Law Office, 258 Dashadi East Road, Suite 301, Huangpu District, Guangzhou 510730, Tel: 020-82387045, 138-2600-2506
Defense counsel for Wu Rongrong: Lü Zhoubin (吕洲宾), lawyer with Hangzhou office of Beijing Yingke Law Firm, Supor Development Building, 8th Floor, 240 Dongxin Road, Hangzhou 310004, Tel: 0571-86799616 or 139-6809-6061, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Defense counsel for Wu Rongrong: Liu Shuqing (刘书庆), lawyer with Shandong Tianyuren Law Firm, Sanqing Fengrun Tower, Suite 1108, 100 Gongye South Road, Ji’nan, Tel: 133-5541-5256, email: email@example.com
February 26, 2016
Wu Rongrong: How I Became a Women’s Rights Advocate, April 27, 2015.
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.
Published: May 6, 2015
Below are excerpts of the letters they posted following their release on April 13, 2015.
Wei Tingting (韦婷婷), April 17, 2015
Since the first day home, I have been constantly trying to make up for what I missed during the detention, reading your articles, tracking your chats, browsing through various reports from various venues, and then allowing tears to flow. I am moved and excited each day by your spirit, bravery and love, so much so that I can hardly sleep at the night. Having too much to say and too much to write about, I do not know how to start, overwhelmed by waves of feelings.
On the way back, I got to know the various voices of support from all over the world. I shed tears when I read how Po Po cried when she took out my clothes to dry on the line. I shed tears when I read how Xiao Tie prepared for me a T shirt/poster of the handsome Esther Eng. [Esther Eng was a Chinese–American film director and the first female to direct Chinese-language films in the United States.”] I shed tears when I read, one after another, articles posted in the two public [WeChat] accounts.
I saw the protest photos you took and loved especially the one featuring two half-naked girls. I saw your declaration that the feminist activist group (女权行动派) would never die, and there are too many of us to be all put in jail. My tears swelled uncontrollably when I saw you walking in cities wearing our photos as masks, so cute yet so determined, so warm to the heart. I already shed a flood of tears when Lawyer Wang, on his visit, told me about the mask protest for our loss of freedom. I was about to shed tears again when S said that those outside were, in fact, suffering more than those inside [the jail].
A few hours ago, Huang Ye said she was so concerned that she wanted to help find psychological assistance for me. So many people have called to inquire after me since I was released, and so long was the list of friends who want to take me out for dinner to comfort me. Even more touchingly, some of my college alumni had spoken up on my behalf, and a younger male alumni had written an article about me. Isn’t this what motivated us to do what we did from the very beginning: to let more people understand gender equality and to become one of those who make a difference?
Our faces have turned up in different countries. Because three of us are lesbians, All Out have collected over 100,000 signatures, promising they will help whenever we are in need of support. Upon hearing that my cellphone and computer were taken away, some friends wanted to bring me new ones. Friends in the gay/lesbian circle started posting my earlier articles, speeches, calling gays and lesbians to support the feminists. I was nominated for the Asian LGBT Milestone Award. Now I believe that, whether they like feminism or not, they understand that this is not just about women, or sexual harassment; the issues of the disadvantaged are always interconnected.
All of these have filled my heart with love, hope, and courage, inspiring me to go forward with surer steps.
I was disheartened at first, thinking this would be the end of the young feminist activists. But what each of you did has ushered in a new era of magnificent and persistent feminist activism, which shall live on, which cannot be locked up or shut down. You have also managed to bring the young feminist activists beyond China, and onto the international stage. As Sile (赵思乐) puts it: Whether or not we will be able to continue all depends on ourselves as a group. When some of us got into trouble and are imprisoned, the others did not disperse in fear. Instead, we overcame our fear and took action.
Although we cannot meet at the moment, I feel we are closely and profoundly united. I feel blessed to share such a bond with you, and I love you more than ever.
I’m in my hometown recovering now. So far so good. I shall take this experience as part of life’s trials and tribulations. The only regret I have is that, for the time being, I cannot leave here to hug you all. We of this generation love freedom. Cheers for freedom. A cup of wine until we see each other. Love you.
Li Tingting (李婷婷, a.k.a. Maizi), April 20, 2015
Thank you for your support, my friends in China, including my feminist allies, LGBT comrades, college alumni, close friends and netizens who care for me. Thank you for your help. In a domestic situation as critical at it is now, you have great power to speak up for justice and truth regardless of the cost. It was just for your efforts that I could walk out of the house of detention and see the smog of the capital city again.
Thank you for your support, lawyer Yan Xin, Xu Rong, and Wang Yu. You have never stopped providing me with strong support when I was illegally detained or since I was released on bail. Thank you for stepping out to represent me. Your timely visits and legal efforts helped make it possible to defend my legitimate rights, your effective communication and constant encouragement helped instill confidence in me that I’m innocent when I was interrogated and faced the pressure of self-incrimination.
Thank you, friends from all over the world, I may or may not know you but you are our allies and fellow-travelers. Your concern for our case and your demand for our freedom enabled more people to know us, to understand us, and you have made China and the world witness the strength and power of the young feminist activists. If we eventually achieve the dignity and freedom we deserve, you will be among those whose contribution is indelible.
Thank you, my family. You have fought fearlessly in the face of danger. You pushed back the pressure and refused to write a letter to persuade me to confess to a crime that I had not committed. You have been my most solid backer and my safe haven, and you have freed me from all family concerns.
Thank you, my girlfriend. In face of hardship, you endured insult and humiliation to secure the best outcome for me. Today, you are still doing everything you can to handle issues after my release. Xiao La (小辣), I’m sorry to put you through all this.
There are more feelings in me than I can express in words. There is so much to thank. I hope to have a chance to thank each of you in person. Our struggle has yet to succeed, and there is still hard work ahead. I will continue to fight for my innocence and freedom, and I will keep up the pursuit of justice. My belief in feminism has become only stronger after this episode. Thank you all again.
Wang Man (王曼), April 20, 2015
Hi, my caring and loving friends:
It’s been a full week since I came out of the Haidian Detention Center. Encouraged by friends and loved ones, I have been recovering. Please be assured that I am all right now.
Since the first phone call I answered upon my release, what I have wanted to say the most is simply thank you all – my family, friends, and lovers of justice in China and abroad, whom we may or may not know, who voiced their support. Without you, we might still be in prison enduring brutalities.
I want to thank Ms. Zhao Xia, my lawyer. The moment I saw her, I was reassured by her succinct and powerful remarks, which strengthened my belief in my innocence and informed me of the support in China and beyond.
I want to thank my four “co-offenders.” Their singing, which soared above the barbed wire walls, and their firm glances helped me to hold back tears.
I want to thank my fellow inmates (I hope they will see these words when they are freed). They did chores and duties for me, and they gave me the corner, the best spot in the cell, to me so that I could rest better, encouraging me to “get recharged and persevere to the end.”
I want to thank my friends, my elders, my lawyers and media friends for their rescue efforts on our behalf. They have embraced personal risks when they campaigned for us. Whether they carried it on or were forced underground, I imagine you have endured no less than I did.
I want to thank various women’s rights groups and people from all walks of life inside and outside China. Loud and clear, you supported us, strangers and ordinary people tens of thousands miles away, and your voices from beyond the national boundaries have impressed me profoundly.
The 38 days behind bars have strengthened me. We have yet to regain our rightful freedom and justice, we shall continue to demand them, and we appreciate your continuing support.
Thank you again!
Zheng Churan (郑楚然, a. k. a. Datu)
I thought I would cry only when I was detained, and I thought I would stop crying once released. No, not at all. I am still crying. As I browsed through the multitude of voices of support posted in the past 38 days, I was shaken from head to toe! During my only meeting with the lawyer, I was moved when Mr. Hu said “many people are campaigning for you, international, domestic, and especially from Sun Yat-san University,” but I had no idea that the campaign was so large, so earth-shaking, so beyond what I had ever seen. I was so moved, so flabbergasted that I did not know what to say but let tears flow.
Using a borrowed cellphone, I browsed articles that had not yet been censored (of course, most WeChat posts had been deleted with a big red exclamation mark in their places), crying as I read. My heart thumped when I saw photos of the five of us being carried from city to city around the world. I couldn’t stop crying when I learned that my schoolmates in Sun Yat-san University were summoned by police, warned by school administrators, and the campus was being “interrogated.” I can’t tell you how proud I am of my alumni and friends from other university campuses for their moral clarity.
Belatedly I received greetings from almost all corners of the world. I saw feminism being widely discussed. Feminists, women’s rights activists, LGBTQIA supporters, NGOers, our lawyers, legal professionals, citizens, my factory worker friends, students, scholars, researchers, media friends, and everyone else……I browsed through the posts of the friend circle, and I’m still reading it today, still crying now and then. And I read over and over again articles by teachers and mentors who I had always admired.
How vulnerable I was when I was cut off from information, and how my self-confidence and self-esteem ebbed in isolation. Once out of jail, I realized all the worries I had about you all while I was in detention were completely unnecessary—you are braver and stronger than I had thought and you are my pride. Your posts in the friend circle helped me to restore my confidence. Reading those legal analyses of this case, I saw that I was innocent (I will start reading the criminal law and the criminal procedural law). Law is not a doll to be dressed by someone at will; it is based on reason. Oh, I digressed.
Thanks to all of you, thanks for everything you are, past, present, and future.
Wu Rongrong, April 18, 2015
With your caring thoughts and well-wishing over the last few days, Rongrong has been slowly reviving, finding again her inner strength.
The night I was released, my husband choked several times telling me what had happened while I was in jail. I felt inspired as never before. As Teacher Wang Zheng put it, this is a world-wide women’s rights movement.
I have been catching up for the past few days, reading once and again some articles. The love and care emitting from those pages gives me the strength to start anew. I saw the signatures of my Hepatitis B friends; I saw the signature campaign launched by the lawyers; I saw feminist sisters inside China and abroad wearing masks of our photos; I saw people tirelessly passing on information and speaking out for the sake of justice; I saw photos of Big Sis Ye Jinghuan being taken away by police as she showed up in the detention center to bring me medicines; I saw the nursery rhymes professor Ai Xiaoming wrote and the letter from Professor Wang Zheng. Indeed, help and concern came from many and from all over the places. I feel love and strength.
On behalf of my family, I thank you all. While in custody, I had a dream one night. I dreamed of a roomful of balloons and smiles. And I believe I felt then the power of your support. It will accompany me wherever I go.
I look forward to seeing you again one day, when we will talk and cheer.
Meet the 5 Female Activists China Has Detained, April 6, 2015.
Wu Rongrong: How I Became a Women’s Rights Advocate, April 27, 2015
The Education of Detained Chinese Feminist Li Tingting, an Excerpt from “China’s Millennials: The Want Generation” by Eric Fish.
Taking Feminist Battle to China’s Streets, and Landing in Jail, April 5th, 2015.
Lawyer’s Account of Second Meeting with Li Tingting, March 25, 2015
(Translated by Li Sumiao)
By Wu Rongrong, published: April 27, 2015
Wu Rongrong (武嵘嵘), though released along with the four other feminist activists on April 13, was subjected to grueling, humiliating interrogations on April 23rd and 24th. Don’t let the CCP machine destroy the very best of China. – The Editor
Fate and chance made me a social worker and a feminist: gentle and timid in appearance, but a staunch defender of women’s rights.
After four years of college social work studies and volunteer experience, I set off on a path of social advocacy
At college, I majored in social work. I fell in love with the ideas, values and curriculum of that major, its concern for society’s most vulnerable groups and its quest for fairness and justice. My Alma mater, China Women’s University (中华女子学院), was papered with images of heroic women who had been tireless campaigners for women’s rights. During my college years, apart from studying the book, I spent a lot of time volunteering at various public interest NGOs. I spent nearly two years as a volunteer at the China Children’s Press and Publication Group’s “Heart-to-Heart Hotline,” and nearly four years as a volunteer at the New Path Foundation’s Big Brother/Big Sister Program, where I served until I moved back to Hangzhou. In addition, I did a variety of volunteer work for other NGOs, pitching in for periods of days or weeks.
In the second half of my senior year at college, a friend who had opened up a bookstore couldn’t believe that I managed to be so actively involved in various kinds of social work while I was still bunking with roommates in a tiny, less than 8-meter-square, 600-yuan-per-month [then about $75 US dollars] apartment near Tsinghua University. But my material needs were few, and I realized that what made me happiest was using what I’d learned to do something of value to society.
In addition to my volunteer work during those years, I also did some personal advocacy, speaking up for the legitimate rights of many disadvantaged people. For example, when I heard about a female student who had been infected with HIV and was being pressured by her college to drop out, I took action at my own college—telling my friends, classmates and roommates to tell their friends and classmates about the young woman’s predicament, in the hope of drawing societal attention to the fact that she and other HIV-positive individuals have a legitimate right to an education. I was involved in many such efforts.
As a young student striving for academic success, I applied for scholarships and grants that required me to obtain certain certifications from officials of my home village. These officials frequently took advantage of the situation to sexually harass me or make me clean their houses for free. As a young student in that sort of environment, I had no advocate or supporter to turn to. Had I tried to speak up for myself, it would have resulted in humiliating gossip and innuendo and made me unable to show my face in the village.
In 2005, instead of returning to my hometown for Chinese New Year, I decided to stay in Beijing and find work. When I found myself in a car headed for Shunyi [a district in the far northeastern corner of Beijing] with a man who had posed as an employer to lure me there, I began to understand just how helpless I was—a weak and feeble woman versus a large and powerful man. Fortunately, thanks to some quick thinking on my part, I managed to call for reinforcements and get away. Like me, all of my female friends encountered harassment when looking for full-time or part-time work. As eighteen- or nineteen-year-old girls, all we could think of was buying a fruit knife for self-defense.
I am interested in public service, not only because of my vocation, but also because of a beautiful misunderstanding. While in college, en I entered university, a physical exam revealed that I was a “healthy carrier” of hepatitis B. Growing up in a small mountain village in Luliangshan (山西吕梁山), I had never heard of such a thing, but the doctor at the Sino-Japanese Friendship Hospital [in Beijing] told me not to worry, I could be 28 years old before I got sick. I took this to mean that I had only 10 more years to live, so from then on, I made a habit of trying to live each day to the fullest, and make sure each day was meaningful.
Why I stood up for Deng Yujiao (邓玉娇) and spoke out against sexual harassment— courage and conviction in the struggle for women’s rights
As a child, I grew up in an extremely patriarchal environment where girls were regarded worthless. Too many times, I witnessed promising young girls from our village forced to abandon their studies and go to work to support their brothers’ educations. My close friend and neighbor, who was one of four children, was only thirteen years old when she left school and started working. After a large portion of her body was burned in an explosion of a fireworks factory, she eventually got married to a very elderly man. As the daughter of a poor family, my quest for an education was hampered not only by severe economic hardship, but also by well-meaning people who tried to dissuade me from continuing my education.
In 2009, when a young sauna employee named Deng Yujiao used a fruit knife to stab to death a government official who had been sexually harassing her, it made me think of the harassment that many of my female classmates and I had experienced. To show our support for Deng Yujiao, a younger female classmate and I put on a work of performance art called “Deng Yujiao could be any one of us.” Although that was over six years ago, during my recent detention the interrogators asked me about that performance repeatedly, and kept demanding to know who or what was behind it. I told them exactly what I’ve described above, and while I don’t know if my explanation elicited any compassion from them, I hope that it did, at least from those with daughters of their own at home. I’m not some mastermind conspirator working behind the scenes to disturb the social order; I just want to call attention to the plight of women facing sexual harassment, and call for more public measures to punish and deter perpetrators.
Don’t cry, friends—you’re not alone
The reason my fellow feminists and I were detained was because of our planned campaign [to distribute stickers with anti-sexual harassment slogans] on March 8, International Women’s Day. But in fact, by March 6, we had already made separate promises to local police not to go forward with the event, and had even submitted our stickers and printed materials to the authorities. The original intention was simply to bring the community together to oppose sexual harassment, and to extend loving support to women who had experienced sexual harassment. Time and again, I’ve blamed myself…blamed myself for getting my fellow feminists detained. I wonder if they, like me, are being treated as political prisoners. Just thinking about it makes me even more upset. Every time I think about it, I worry that they’ll hate me for it.
Several of my fellow feminists were detained a day before I was. Some people, not understanding the situation, asked why I didn’t try to hide. The thought did occur to me, but only for a moment, and then I pushed it aside. I told some of my younger friends, the ones who hadn’t been detained, that I was going to go back to Hangzhou to explain the situation [to the authorities]. I naively thought that if [the authorities] had me in hand, other friends with minimal involvement in the campaign would be released. I naively thought that keeping my friends company would make them safer than if I went into hiding, so I made up my mind and boarded a flight to Hangzhou.
Big Rabbit [Zheng Churan’s nickname] and I were interrogated separately but on the same floor in the evenings. Twice I heard her crying. I worried whether she had a vicious interrogator, or whether she was under too much pressure or suffering too much. At the time, I stopped and strained to hear what was happening in her room. Every day I prayed that my younger friends wouldn’t lose hope, that they wouldn’t feel alone. Sometimes we saw each other, and I wished I could tell them I’m here, I’m staying strong, and just knowing that we’re not suffering alone makes it easier to bear.
Making the best of a bad situation: my creative life in detention
My beauty regime: Of the 38 days in detention, I spent 19 days in a public security bureau hospital. 19 days, that’s all it took to transform my usual sallow complexion into a beautiful rosy glow. The secret was the leftover congee [rice gruel], which I would stir and stir (of course, as I stirred, I thought of my adorable little son, whose current pet phrase is “stir, stir the chocolate”). When applied to the face and body, the pale green gruel not only rids one’s skin of sallowness, it also keeps one’s hair soft and supple. Although the hospital had no “Yumeijing” brand beauty products or good shampoo, still I managed to emerge snow white and squeaky clean.
DIY fashion to beat the heat: During my first days in the detention center, the indoor temperature was kept too high, so I had to get creative by ripping out the stitching of my shirt with my teeth and removing the sleeves. It was a very fashionable look, but unfortunately the shirt was later confiscated, so I was unable to keep it as a souvenir. However, I would not recommend that others try the same, as some detention centers prohibit detainees from altering their uniforms.
Staying in shape by running in place: This is the very best medicine for curing pain and loss. Naturally, when running in place, keeping the arms elevated the entire time is an effective treatment for both neck pain and rheumatism.
The simple pleasures of reciting classical poetry: Before, I was never really able to relax and enjoy reciting classical poetry by heart—majestic lines like [Su Shi’s] “Eastward flows the Yangtze River, washing away all traces…”, or the bold optimism of Li Bai’s “Bringing in the Wine”, or the gentle beauty of [Xu Zhimo’s] “Taking Leave of Cambridge Again.” With such enjoyment, I would feel there wasn’t anything too difficult to get through.
There’s more, so much more. Later, someone will pick up where I left off.
You see, life is beautiful, I love you all, you who give me strength and warmth. You also give me the courage to describe my experience. I believe that, at the end of all this suffering, there will be a rainbow.
(Original title: Don’t Cry, Friends—You’re Not Alone)
Chinese Officers Harshly Interrogated Women’s Rights Activist, Husband Says, the New York Times, April 28, 2015.
Chinese feminist: Long hours of interrogations after release, AP, April 25, 2015.
(Translated by Cindy Carter)
Chinese original (the Chinese was posted in a friend group as a set of jpegs; China Change transcribed them for easy reading.)