(New York) – The Chinese government’s decision to release five feminists on bail who had been held arbitrarily in Beijing for more than a month is a welcome step, yet until all charges against them are formally dropped, the five remain criminal suspects and can still be indicted, Human Rights Watch said today.
In a related and worrying development, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said on April 14, 2015, that Yirenping, an anti-discrimination organization, was raided on March 24 in retaliation for its affiliation with the five activists and will be “punished” because it is “suspected of violating the law,” though authorities have not publicly provided credible information to substantiate that threat. The remarks are an alarming indication that the cases against this group and the five activists remain active.
“That these activists were in detention at all marks a new low for human rights in China in the past decade,” said Sophie Richardson, China director. “For Chinese officials to be so frightened of women simply raising awareness about sexual harassment prompts profound questions about the country’s commitment to women’s equality and the protection of human rights.”
Wu Rongrong, Li Tingting, Wei Tingting, Wang Man, and Zheng Churan were released on April 13 after being held for 37 days, the maximum allowed under Chinese law before the procuratorate must decide whether to approve their formal arrest and continue to hold them in pretrial custody. They had been charged with “gathering crowds to disrupt order in public places” after planning protests against sexual harassment on public transport on International Women’s Day. While out on bail for the coming year, the five are not allowed to leave their hometowns without police approval.
The detentions appear to be intended to intimidate independent civil society and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Wu Rongrong is also the founder and director of Hangzhou Women Center, which has also been raided by the police. Another civil society leader subjected to baseless charges of “creating a disturbance” is Guo Yushan, the founder of the legal aid NGO Gongmeng and the public policy think tank Transition Institute. He has been in custody since October 2014. The Chinese government is poised to adopt a Foreign NGOs Administration Law sometime this year to further control and restrict access to foreign funding, which will most negatively impact civic groups that have striven to operate independently despite strict government control.
Their detention calls into question the government’s rhetoric about gender equality – particularly in the year that is to mark the 20th anniversary of the 1995 landmark Fourth World Conference on Women and the adoption of the Beijing Platform for Action to promote women’s equality rights – and also China’s commitments to the rule of law.
In addition, international condemnation – from governments, activists, and scholars – over the detention of the five appears to have caught the Chinese government by surprise.
“The release of the five feminists shows that international pressure can work if it is strong enough,” said Richardson. “The question now is whether the rest of the world will continue to support the courageous – and costly – efforts by peaceful individuals to promote change within China.”