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Legal Opinion on Dropping the Investigation Against the “Feminist Five”

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the coercive measure of “release on bail pending additional investigation,” and the Haidian District police have not withdrawn this case in accordance with the law.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:

  1. 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.”

  1. 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.

  1. 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:

  1. On several occasions, they used blank summons documents to summon Li Tingting and Wu Rongrong;
  2. After summoning or detaining her, police failed to notify Li Tingting’s family members in accordance with the law;
  3. 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;
  4. 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;
  5. Knowing that several of the suspects were homosexual, interrogators used coarse language to humiliate them;
  6. Police smoked during Li Tingting’s interrogation and blew smoke in her face;
  7. Police broke the lock as they burst into Li Tingting’s residence, resulting in serious damage to her property and loss of personal items;
  8. 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.

  1. 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:

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:


February 26, 2016




Detention of Five Chinese Feminist Activists at the Juncture of Beijing+20 – An Interview with Gender Scholar Wang Zheng, April 12, 2015.

Wu Rongrong: How I Became a Women’s Rights Advocate, April 27, 2015.



Open Letter: Chinese Feminist Five Seek UN Help to Have Case Against Them Dropped

July 6, 2015

Delegates to UN women's conference show solidarity with Chinese feminist five in front of UN in March.

Delegates to UN women’s conference show solidarity with Chinese feminist five in front of the UN in March.


Dear Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and Under-Secretary-General, UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka,

We are the five feminist activists from China, Wu Rongrong (武嵘嵘), Wei Tingting (韦婷婷), Li Tingting (李婷婷), Wang Man (王曼) and Zheng Churan (郑楚然). We were detained on the eve of International Women’s Day in 2015 for planning events against sexual harassment on public transportation in China. Thanks to the national and international pressure on the Chinese government, we were released on bail in mid-April.

After our release, we learnt from the media that UN Women was deeply concerned with our case. As reported by the Reuters, UN Women “has been closely engaged with the developments throughout and welcomes the release of the five women from detention.” We are grateful for your support.

However, our case is not over. Even though the Haidian People’s Procuratorate in Beijing decided not to approve our formal arrest in April, for lack of evidence that we had committed any criminal offense, the police have not dropped our case. Since our release, we have been under investigation and strict surveillance as “criminal suspects.” Our travel and social activities have been restricted, and we have not been able to resume our NGO work. Organizations that supported us have been raided. Some have been threatened, and others have been forced to suspend their operations. Some of our supporters have been treated as suspects, too, and, among them, two male activists have recently been secretly detained on groundless charges.

The last few months have been the most depressing period for the Chinese feminist movement. We are witnessing a time when civil society in China is unable to continue to work with the Chinese government and the UN system as productive partners. This is an unexpected and shameful setback, as well as a historical mistake, on the 20th anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing.

All these years we have dedicated ourselves to ending gender-based violence and discrimination in China, and to promoting the wellbeing of disadvantaged groups, including young girls, the LGBT community, and women affected by AIDS, disability and poverty. We have earned recognition from the public in China for our efforts, and for our constructive communications, which have resulted in an improvement of gender-related policies. Our activities have resonated strongly with the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the Beijing Declaration, and the Beijing Platform of Action. They have also contributed to good governance and social stability in China. The effective termination of our work, and the constraints on our political freedom, are not just our losses, but also losses for China’s society and government.

July 7 marks the fourth full month since our detention. The abuses we underwent are still too disturbing to cope with. We are writing to you, Mr. Pan and Ms. Mlambo-Ngcuka, to ask for your continued attention to our plight. It may be the case that our situation can only be solved through the Chinese legal system, but we believe that as a member state of the United Nations and a signatory to multiple human rights conventions, China will be willing to heed your recommendations. Please help us!

We thank you in advance. Our family and supporters also wish to convey their thanks.


Chinese Feminist Five:

Wei Tingting, Zheng Churan, Wu Rongrong, Li Tingting, and Wang Man


Contact the feminist five or their lawyers:

  1. Wu Rongrong : +86 18698558680
  2. Li Tingting: +86 18612707010
  3. Ge Wenxiu (Wei Tingting’s lawyer): +86 18028627307
  4. Liu Shuqing(Wu Rongrong’s lawyer):+86 13355415256
  5. Wang Yu (Li Tingting’s lawyer): +86 13911070328




Meet the 5 Female Activists China Detained, the New York Times, April 6, 2015.

Wu Rongrong: How I Became a Women’s Rights Advocate, April 27, 2015.

Chinese Officers Harshly Interrogated Women’s Rights Activist, Husband Says, the New York Times, April 27, 2015.

Feminist Five Thank Domestic and International Support That Secured Their Release, May 6, 2015.

Detention of Five Chinese Feminist Activists at the Juncture of Beijing+20 – An Interview with Gender Scholar Wang Zheng, April 11, 2015.




Wu Rongrong: How I Became a Women’s Rights Advocate

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.

Detention of Five Chinese Feminist Activists at the Juncture of Beijing+20 – An Interview with Gender Scholar Wang Zheng, April 12, 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.)


On the Release of Five Feminist Activists in China – Statement by Gender Scholar Wang Zheng

By Wang Zheng, published: April 13, 2015


Professor Wang Zheng, of University of Michigan.

Professor Wang Zheng, of University of Michigan. Online phot. 

It is to my great relief that the authorities have decided to release the five feminists on bail. However, we insist that the police drop all charges against the five rather than treating them as “suspects”, restricting their physical mobility and job opportunity, and deprive them of their freedom and rights as citizens. Our fight for their total freedom continues.

In the Chinese context, this is the first time that a group of detained social activists are released all at once. This decision suggests: one, the unprecedented huge mobilization of global feminist and other non-governmental organizations’ support is effective. The massive grassroots based petitions not only pushed their own respective state politicians to respond, it also demonstrated clearly to the Chinese government that this petition is not instigated by a nation- based political enemy, but by a global political force – transnational feminists and other grassroots organizations for social justice and equality.  This global political force cannot be suppressed by the Chinese state, or any national state. And no nation state should treat this global political force as its enemy. That would be too foolish.

Two, the Chinese government is not a monolithic entity and the decision is a compromise among different political factions or state branches. It can be imagined how ferocious the contentions behind the scenes were over how to handle this hot potato in their hands. The final compromise shows clearly that there were officials in the system who pushed very hard towards a positive solution.

For both above reasons, today I am hopeful. History does not end but evolves with contentions of various forces in an indeterminate manner. I am grateful for the amazing transnational support to five Chinese feminists. I feel fortunate that there are still officials in the Chinese government who chose to stand on the side of social justice, or who simply have the sensibility of not sticking to a stupid mistake.

That said, I am fully aware of the grave challenges Chinese feminists confront with. As long as non-governmental organizations’ activism for advocating and implementing laws relating to gender equality or any other issue is defined as criminal, there will be no safe zone for feminists as well as activists working in other realms for social justice. Thus, our efforts cannot stop here with the release of the five. We need to further help the government understand that feminists are an extremely important social group to move China towards the realization of rule of law. The five young feminists should be treated as exemplars of modern citizens who have a strong sense of citizens’ rights and responsibilities and who have the capacity to take action to not only advocate for new laws but also to implement the laws in a country where there remains a huge gap between the laws on paper and the actual implementation.

And we have all noticed the UN’s awkward silence in the global uproar against the detention. Now the global activists are shifting their gaze to the UN who has the plan to co-host the Global Summit for Women with China, and see if they will do something constructive to set the five feminists totally free.

Finally, I am hopeful also because throughout this process I have been witnessing the rise of an increasingly large group of extremely brave young feminists that include men. The detention and the global support have totally galvanized a whole cohort of young Chinese in and outside China, turning them into social activists with deep commitment and a global vision. They are absolutely my sunshine through this ordeal. As Yan Wenxin, a male lawyer who involved in the case, commented, “The feminist group’s amazing solidarity, tenacity, and braveness is truly admirable.” Yes, the event has turned the term “feminist” a glorious one. Today so many young women on the Wechat proudly declared, “I am so proud of being a feminist!”


Wang Zheng (王政)

April 13, 2015




Detention of Five Chinese Feminist Activists at the Juncture of Beijing+20 – An Interview with Gender Scholar Wang Zheng, April 11, 2015

Lawyer Wang Qiushi’s statement (he represents Wei Tingting) via @Stone_SkyNews:

Statement by lawyer Wang Qiushi

Statement by lawyer Wang Qiushi

Detention of Five Chinese Feminist Activists at the Juncture of Beijing+20 – An Interview with Gender Scholar Wang Zheng

Published: April 11, 2015

“You must know the global picture of women to understand the international response to the detention of the five feminists in China.”


Professor Wang Zheng spoke at the Brookings Institute in Washington, DC, on April 3, 2015.

Professor Wang Zheng spoke at the Brookings Institute in Washington, DC, on April 3, 2015. Photo credit: @LetaHong

Professor Wang Zheng (王政), of the University of Michigan, is a scholar whose research focuses on the modern and contemporary history of Chinese women and gender, and Chinese feminism in the era of globalization. Since 1993, Professor Wang has been working with Chinese domestic feminist scholars to promote feminist scholarship and establish courses in women studies and gender studies. She has also participated in the feminist movement itself in China over the years. On April 3rd, Professor Wang gave a speech at Brookings Institute in Washington, DC, about the recent arrest of the five Chinese feminists (starts around 48:00). On April 7th, the editor of this website talked to Professor Wang, further discussing the Chinese and global background of the incident and how it will impact the women’s rights movement in China.

YC: (Yaxue Cao): In your speech at Brookings, you hinted that you had known beforehand these young feminists’ action plan on March 8th, International Women’s Day. Do you know them?

Wang: They are either my students or the students of my students.

YC: Oh, how so?

Wang:  In 1989, when a group of Chinese PhDs or PhD candidates studying abroad attended an academic conference, we said, since we were all interested in women’s studies, we hoped to foster the development of feminist scholarship in Chinese universities, given that feminism and gender studies had already been well established in American higher education. At the same time, we also hoped to help the west to learn about changes in China in this area. We wanted to be this bridge. So we founded Chinese Society for Women’s Studies (海外中华妇女学学会), and I was one of the founders. In 1993, we applied and received a grant to hold seminars and training in partnership with Chinese universities and research institutes

Professor Wang Zheng (far right on 2nd row) in a Chinese feminist forum at Nanjing University, 2014.

Professor Wang Zheng (far right on 2nd row) taking part in a Chinese feminist forum at Nanjing University, 2014.

on women. We also translated and published many titles of feminist scholarship.  In 1999, I went back to China to work there. Working with colleagues in China, we initiated programs for women and gender studies, and the participants included government officials, China’s Women’s Federation, the China Social Science Academy, and the university faculty and students. In China, women’s studies can be traced back to the 1980s, but it was suppressed following the Tiananmen democracy movement in 1989. But after that, seeking ways to return to the international community, China hosted the Fourth World Conference on Women. To host the Conference, there must be a NGO forum, and China had to accept that. So the Chinese government gave a special pass for NGOs on women’s issues. So along with the Fourth World Conference on Women, NGOs on women’s issues began to flourish in China. It was against this backdrop that our Society worked in China legitimately and smoothly.

YC: How many members does the society have?

Wang: Over 100 scholars. The number fluctuates. It’s not just us who came from mainland China; it also includes scholars from around the world who study Chinese women’s issues. After returning to China in 1999, my Chinese colleagues and I secured a big grant from the Ford Foundation to train teachers in colleges. Our objective was very clear: we wanted to establish this field of scholarship to produce knowledge and to become interconnected with the international field. Speaking of interconnection with international scholarship, one of the most disconnected areas is feminist scholarship. We charged no fees for our training, and more, we disseminated large volumes of feminist translations and textbooks.

At the beginning, we held five-day training sessions, and we covered many people and many schools. In 2002, we partnered with China Women’s University (中华女子学院) and Hong Kong Chinese University and launched a three-year program. And later, China Women’s University became the first higher education institute in China to offer an undergraduate degree in women’s studies. After I began to teach at the University of Michigan, I still went back to China every year, and I established a base in Fudan University in Shanghai, the Michigan-Fudan Joint Institute for Gender Studies (密歇根大学-复旦大学社会性别研究所) where we offer courses during the summer. A number of feminist activists, not the ones who were detained, attended my classes. I know very well one of the five detained feminists who at one point attended my class.

YC: Wu Rongrong, one of the five, is a graduate of China’s Women University. Nine were arrested initially, and I think there must be a lot more feminist activists out there. So the feminist activism has been closely related to feminist studies in China, right?

Wang:  Right. They are the generation of feminists who grew up during a historical time when feminist discourse had been disseminated and making tremendous impact in China, centering on the two documents of the Fourth World Conference on Women – the Beijing Declaration and the Beijing Platform for Action, the implementation and the review. And these are the key documents of global women’s rights, and gender, which is a feminist concept, is the core concept of these two documents. Comparing global feminism with the work of the Women’s Federation (妇女联合会) under the auspices of the Chinese government, there are commonalities in both ideology and practice, but the difference is significant.

YC: As such, feminist studies and practices in today’s China are closely tied to the Fourth World Conference on Women held in 1995 in Beijing, and they are part of the global women’s rights movement. Specifically, how did you learn about these young women’s action plan for International Women’s Day?

Professor Wang lectures at Nanjing Normal University in 2010. Online photo.

Professor Wang lectures at Nanjing Normal University in 2010. Online photo.

Wang: Through WeChat. We are all in a WeChat group. I taught a lot of students in China over the years, and my students in turn have students, and we have a very big network. In addition, I’m also a participatory observer as a historian of Chinese women’s rights. Some of my earliest students have long become influential organizers. Among them, there are lawyers, professors, journalists, students, and they are very effective action-takers. Some work in public, and others prefer to stay less visible. They have different strategies. Before they were scattered in smaller WeChat groups, for example, the students I taught last year had their own WeChat group. But last July, after the sexual harassment case of a Xiamen University professor, an anti-sexual harassment WeChat group was formed to facilitate interaction and discussion. They are very capable women. They launched a signature campaign before Teacher’s Day (September 10) to mobilize university faculty and students, and they wrote letters to the Ministry of Education. All of these were done on WeChat. The young activists, including the detained five, did an enormous amount of work among college students, disseminating pamphlets telling them what to do when they are sexually harassed by their teachers. So, this year, approaching the International Women’s Day, people in the group asked: What do we do to mark International Women’s Day this year? Lively exchanges ensued. These young activists said they were going to be distributing leaflets against sexual harassment on public transportation, and everybody cheered them: Great, that’s a creative idea! Then all of a sudden, the news came that they are taken by the police. At first, people in the group didn’t think it was anything serious. “Probably just drinking tea,” they said.

[“Drink tea” refers to police summons for interrogation, an extralegal practice used by Chinese security police to intimidate dissent and social activism. – the Editor]

YC:  I didn’t think it was serious either at first.

Wang: Then they were brought to Beijing, and that’s very serious, something different altogether. I was puzzled at first: why are they detaining people in Guangzhou if it was related to the Two Sessions in Beijing? When they were brought to Beijing, everyone realized something was wrong. Their laptops and cellphones were also seized. We couldn’t get in touch with them anymore, and the police can read all of our WeChat conversations.

YC: WeChat is watched and monitored closely anyway.

Wang:  So people in the group stopped talking, knowing that the police will be reading whatever they said. At a time like that, I felt I had to speak up. So I did. Through WeChat, I wanted to shout out to the police. The detention is so stupid. When you detain feminists on the eve of International Women’s Day, you not only trample over the basic national policy of gender equality, you also provoke the international feminists. So I wrote and wrote, hoping that they would be sensible and release the five. Of course they don’t give a damn to what I said. Others in the group became nervous, “Teacher Wang, stop talking, the police are watching.” I said, “I know. I’m talking to them.” The detention of the five drove others underground, because the police had intended to arrest more, not just these few.

YC: Why did the Chinese authorities do this? What’s their thinking?

Wang: They want to smash Yirenping (益仁平). Yirenping is a NGO [that promotes rights for the disabled, workplace discrimination, etc.] These young feminists are affiliated with Yirenping where they have a group working on gender equality. The authorities probably don’t want to make too big a splash by arresting the head of Yirenping, so they detained these young women to send the message. They succeeded in terrifying Yirenping. Once these young feminists were detained, everyone working at Yirenping knew this was about Yirenping. But the police are so ignorant, and they have no idea what a force the global feminists are.

YC: They also raided Yirenping’s Beijing office. And Beijing police investigated feminist activists who took part in the Occupy Men’s Room (“占领男厕所“) campaign a few years back. But the Chinese authorities are probably surprised by how big a global response they caused and how fast it occurred.

Wang: That’s because they are ignorant. These male Chinese officials have not an iota of an idea about the women’s rights movement and organizations around the world. Nor are they informed about the international situation. In their mind, these young feminists are less than nobody, with no power and no impact.

Let me give you the global picture. You must know this picture to understand the global response. March 9th to 22nd, for two weeks, the United Nations’ 59th Commission on the Status of Women met to assess global progress for women 20 years after the Beijing Conference, and in attendance were more than 1,100 NGOs and a total of 8,600 representatives from around the world. Thousands marched in New York City on March 8, 2015, in support of women’s rights and gender equality, and there were already signs in the march calling for the release of the five. On March 9, the UN Chinese delegation announced that, in September, China will co-host the global women’s summit with the UN. Xi Jinping will be visiting the U. S. in September, and he will be giving a speech at the summit. These were arranged and prepared a long time ago, and the stage has long been set. The detention of the five is like lighting a match and throwing it on a pile of firewood. China barbarically detains feminists who campaign against sexual harassment, meanwhile on the world stage, China is co-hosting a women’s summit with the UN. No one can disregard such incongruity. So before the two-week conference was over, feminist leaders from around the world, not just the U.S. but also India, South Korea, and many other countries, organized protests in front of the Chinese embassies. World women’s rights leaders stood in front of the UN headquarters, holding signs that read, “No Release, No Summit.” Therefore, whether or not Chinese authorities release the five activists will determine how Xi Jinping will be greeted during his US trip. There will be consequences, but the Chinese patriarchal leaders have had no clue.

YC: This Monday, April 13, is the deadline for prosecutors to decide whether or not to formally arrest the five. If all five, or four, three, or even one, of the five are formally arrested, what do you think international feminists and women’s rights organizations should do? What can they do? In your speech at Brookings, you urged Americans in the audience to contact the American government, contact President Obama, asking them to pressure the Chinese government. But if you ask me, in my own experience as an activist over the last two years or so, I have come to placing less and less hope on the American government. Instead, I feel there is a lot that NGOs and civil society can do to effect change. For example, this time, I think the most effective and impactful action would be to boycott the global women’s summit in September.

Wang:  They are already taking actions and doing a lot of things. They are already asking among themselves: What leverage do we have? I just told you the global picture.

Masked activists pose on a subway with tea cups. Being "invited to drink tea" is a common euphemism Chinese authorities use for bringing activists in for interrogation. Credit: China File.

Masked activists pose on a subway with tea cups. Being “invited to drink tea” is a common euphemism Chinese authorities use for bringing activists in for interrogation. Credit: China File.

YC: You touched on this the other day when you said China’s political climate is uncongenial to NGO activism, and you talked about the apolitical strategy of the Chinese feminists. Dr. Leta Hong Fincher used the word “merely” several times to emphasize the apolitical nature of these young women’s activism.

Wang:  I have worked with Chinese colleagues on women’s rights for over 20 years from 1993 to the present, and I know very well that every feminist in China understands where the line is. As I said, benefiting from the Fourth World Conference on Women, the Chinese authorities gave special tolerance to NGOs on women’s issues. So there are anti-domestic violence organizations, there are gender development groups, and there are organizations that help women in countryside to fight poverty. A lot has been done, but the work must limit itself within the boundaries of protecting women’s equality as defined by Chinese law, and never get involved in the so-called sensitive issues. Chinese women’s rights activists have been very vigilant against such involvement.

YC: This is exactly my question. The Chinese feminists, or any Chinese citizen for that matter, think they know clearly where the boundaries are and are careful not to step over them. The feminists in your WeChat group obviously didn’t think these young women were crashing the limits when they proposed action plan against sexual harassment on public transportation. So ultimately, it still comes down to the question of political rights and civil rights. There is no escaping it.

Wang: I wrote a lot on WeChat, and I said the detention busted the bottom line. These young women didn’t organize a political party, nor are they against the communist party, nor did they engage in separatism. They did not do anything that can be accused of threatening your regime. They were defending women’s rights safeguarded by the law. It is a turning point for women’s rights in China when these activities are outlawed.

YC: Is this what you meant when you said, in your Brookings speech, that the detention of the five changed the field of feminism in China?

Wang: Yes, “field” in the same sense of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. From the Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995 to the present, we have strictly limited our discourse and actions to address the social and cultural inequality in a patriarchal culture, and we have never had anything to do with the issue of regimes. Now they say, “No, you can’t do this either, no more talking about gender inequality and discrimination.” Now, even the words “women’s rights” become prohibited.

YC: You have been engaged in women’s rights education in China for so long and you have many interactions with Chinese universities and organizations. Going forward, what kind of impact will the detention of the five have on NGO work to promote women’s rights?

Wang: Can’t go on anymore. These women didn’t even go on the street yet. They were only planning it when they were apprehended. In universities, when many students made calls to release the five, the administration and student counselors found each of them and intimidated them: What did you do on Sunday? Cease these activities! So, white terror everywhere.

YC:  This is promoting women’s rights in a big iron cage. The Chinese feminists might have felt that they enjoyed a special freedom, but now they see the barbaric and brutal reality where every Chinese citizen, man or woman, is denied of basic political rights. You are the director of the US-China Gender Studies program, and you have a partnership with Fudan University. How will this event affect your teaching and research in China?

Wang: If these five young women are tried and sentenced, if the Chinese government decides to follow their course to the end to wipe out these feminist activists, then I’m prepared to be arrested too next time when I return to China. Of course I’m an independent scholar and all I have done is speak out. They have been censoring the news to prevent people from knowing what happened. Then my task as a scholar is to inform the public. This is my responsibility, because I believe you are wrong to arrest these women and you are wrong to suppress the news of their detention. If you think you are doing the right thing, why are you trying to hide it? Since you are sneaky about it, I have to speak up. To me, the logic of this is very simple.

YC: Will they cancel your programs in Chinese universities?

Wang: They may, but it doesn’t matter. For all the work I have done in China since 1993, I have not taken one penny from the Chinese government. I applied for and received grants from various foundations to do my work.

YC: There, you are the “foreign force” and must be driven out.

Wang: They can’t say foreign funding is foreign force. The Chinese government entities receive far more money from foreign foundations than Chinese NGOs. I can tell you all about it. To say I’m “foreign force,” I tell you, I am still a Chinese national with a passport of the People’s Republic of China.

YC: I remember someone did a study and concluded that foreign charities, such as the Ford Foundation, give most of their money to Chinese government programs than to civil groups and NGOs.

Wang: Yes, as a grantee of the Ford Foundation, the project officer once said that a lion’s share of their money was given to government programs or government-sponsored programs. So the Chinese authorities are being disingenuous, very disingenuous.

YC: Even if they don’t arrest you when you go back, they probably will interrogate you.

Wang: Oh, interrogation is nothing.

YC: Have you been interrogated before?

Wang: I have organized many international seminars in China. In Fudan for example, I organized three large-scale ones. The police came every time, not interrogating me but my Fudan partners. They would say, “Give us the complete list of attendees,” and they would review it. Last time they told us one of the persons on the list was not allowed to come. Everything I did in China had been under their surveillance. I’m an academic and I didn’t do anything they could construe as illegal. But the problem is, you don’t have to break the law for them to arrest you. If they want to criminalize you, they will find or create charges against you. They can do that and they have done that. So I’m prepared.

YC: My sense is that the detention of the five is part of the broad suppression of public-interest NGOs in China since last year, especially NGOs receiving foreign funding. Do many women’s rights NGOs in China receive foreign funding?

Wang: Of course, they all have to, because nobody in China gives you money to do what you do. Besides, wealthy Chinese are not doing such charity work. All they do is indulge in extravagance. Are there public-interest charities in China? Very few. Domestic NGOs all have to apply for funding from foreign foundations.

YC: So in the end, it’s all about the Chinese government’s suppression of civil society. They can take money from left and right, but if you do, you are colluding with foreign forces.

Wang: Right, they alone are the ones who decide the rules of the game.

YC: My last question. The Chinese women’s rights movement has purposefully separated women’s rights from the underlying political rights, but with the persecution of the five feminist activists, the Chinese government now has politicized it, perhaps even politicized it internationally. Is this a promotion of the Chinese women’s rights movement?

Wang: It is. Before there was the illusion, now there is no more illusion. That’s why I keep saying the government is stupid. These young women represent a big section of the population – college students and beyond. This generation grew up in the last twenty and thirty years, most of them not keen on politics. But they are being politicized by this event. Any young women who have had experience of sexual harassment would be angry, and this will raise their consciousness. These young feminist activists have been using performance art as their choice of action, because they have little influence in the system, in academia, or in media. They can only draw attention to issues through performance. That’s why I said their detention is their most successful performance to date, and the police are their prop. It’s going to be a grand performance, impossible not to be.



Signature campaigns:

1 Billion Rising

Feminists all over the World

The Association for the Advancement of Feminism

Amnesty International


Twitter hashtags: #FreeBeijing20Five #FreeTheFive



Meet the 5 Female Activists China Has Detained, April 6, 2015.

Taking Feminist Battle to China’s Streets, and Landing in Jail, April 5th, 2015.

Supporters of Detained Feminists in China Petition for Their Release, April 1, 2015.

Lawyer’s Account of Second Meeting with Li Tingting, March 25, 2015

US Foundations Boost Chinese Government, Not NGOs, Yale Global Online, 2012.


(Translated from the Chinese transcript by Yaxue Cao)

Chinese original

Evernote link accessible from behind the GFW