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The Chinese Communist Party started marking International Women’s Day in 1922, making it an official holiday upon establishing the People’s Republic in 1949. It’s now preparing to host the 20th anniversary of the United Nation’s Fourth World Conference on Women (resulting in the “Beijing Declaration”). At this week’s gathering of the National People’s Congress (NPC), China’s quiescent legislature, Spokesperson Fu Ying proclaimed the importance of women in society, and urged that “ordinary people play an active role” in the development of long-overdue legislation on domestic violence.

But the government’s decision to detain at least 10 women’s rights activists on this year’s holiday tells a different story. Those detained had simply wanted to raise awareness about sexual harassment by posting signs and distributing leaflets in cities such as Beijing, Guangzhou, and Hangzhou – actions protected by Chinese and international law. Some have been instrumental in recent protests against high-profile cases of violence against women, and are behind the push for the new proposed legislation. Xu Ding, Yu Lian, Ai Ke, Gao Lei, and Xiao La have now been released, but Li Tingting, Wei Tingting, Wang Man, Zheng Churan, and Wu Rongrong remain in detention, and have reportedly been denied access to their lawyers in violation of Chinese law. This development, sadly, is consistent with the reality that other activists have faced in recent years: being treated by the government not as partners in solving critical problems, but as criminals.

Discrimination against women remains deeply entrenched. Job advertisements regularly either stipulate only male applicants, or, if females can apply, specify particular physical and temperamental attributes, such as being “very graceful.” It is telling that the NPC dragged its feet for years before making legislation that will help combat domestic violence, which affects at least one in four women in China.

Hostility toward activists is not new: in October 2014, authorities prevented two activists from participating in a UN review of China’s discrimination against women. Ye Haiyan, China’s most prominent sex worker rights activist, was placed under administrative detention, while HIV/AIDS activist Wang Qiuyun’s passport was confiscated.

Does Beijing intend to mark the 20th anniversary of the 1995 conference by detaining more activists? If China is to claim any real progress – since 1922, 1995, or today – it should immediately free the detained activists, move swiftly to adopt and enforce robust anti-domestic violence legislation, and address gender discrimination in the workplace, in access to education, and in antiquated social perceptions.  

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