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New detentions, denial of medication, lengthy interrogations, blocked visits with lawyers – that’s the Chinese authorities’ uncompromising response to a growing domestic and international outcry over the recent detention of five women’s rights activists.

Let’s review the story so far: Chinese authorities in the Beijing district of Haidian, alarmed by women’s rights activists’ plans to raise public awareness about sexual harassment ahead of International Women’s Day, detained 10 activists on March 6 and 7. Five were soon released but Wu Rongrong, Li Tingting, Wei Tingting, Wang Man, and Zheng Churan continued to be held on charges of “causing a disturbance.”

Since that time, 16 supporters of the detainees who went to the detention center to protest their conditions were themselves briefly detained. Lawyers for Li, Wei, and Wu have said that Haidian detention center authorities have not allowed them access to their clients in the past few days. Wu and Wang have since been transferred to a Public Security bureau hospital for chronic liver disease and a heart condition, respectively. Their medical conditions appear to have been aggravated by their detention: for days authorities denied Wu access to the medication she carried with her and made her sleep on the floor of the cell. Both women have been subject to lengthy, late-night interrogations.

Chinese authorities do not seem to care that this conduct reminds the world of the death of activist Cao Shunli in 2014 after she was denied adequate medical care during months in detention, or of their 2013 denial of adequate treatment to Chen Kegui, the imprisoned nephew of rights defender Chen Guangcheng. Nor do they seem to feel obliged to uphold their own recent legal commitments to improving treatment of detainees by ensuring “needed rest” during interrogations and better legal access.

The United States and European Union have called for the women activists’ releases, but those efforts will have to be escalated considerably if the detainees who need urgent care are to get it, and if the women are to be released before they are formally arrested – the next stage in the legal procedure, and one after which it is extremely difficult to secure an acquittal. The EU, US, and all other governments with a commitment to promoting human rights in China and women’s rights globally should hit the pause button on plans for summits and high-profile visits until these activists are released, free of charges. 

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