China Detains Several Women’s Rights Activists

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Originally published by New York Times on March 8, 2015

BEIJING — China detained at least 10 women’s rights activists over the weekend to forestall a nationwide campaign against sexual harassment on public transportation that was to overlap with International Women’s Day, according to human rights advocates and associates of those detained.

At least five of the detained were still being held on Sunday evening, while the others had been released after being interrogated. All were women.

The women still in detention on Sunday evening live in the eastern metropolises of Beijing, Guangzhou and Hangzhou, and had timed the start of the antiharassment campaign to coincide with International Women’s Day on Sunday, according to Chinese Human Rights Defenders, an advocacy group based outside China that had posted on Twitter about the detentions.

“Ask Beijing & Guangzhou police: Is it a crime to speak out about sexual harassment in China?” the group said in a Twitter post early Sunday. Hours later, the group said it had learned of another activist, Wu Rongrong, who had been detained by the police in Hangzhou and was still being held.

Li Tingting, who works under the pseudonym Li Maizi, has been known in advocacy circles since 2012.

Ms. Wu, 30, who founded a women’s center in Hangzhou last year, has been in police custody since Saturday. She and the others detained have all supported or worked with Yirenping, a nonprofit group with offices throughout China that advocates equal rights for people with hepatitis, H.I.V./AIDS and disabilities, said a friend of the women who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of official reprisal.

On Friday evening, police officers in Beijing detained Li Tingting, who works under the pseudonym Li Maizi. Ms. Li has been known in advocacy circles since 2012, when, as a 22-year-old student, shestarted a campaign to push officials to build more public toilets for women. Also on Friday, an activist in Guangzhou, Zheng Churan, was detained by the police. The homes of the activists were both searched.

The two other women being detained were Wei Tingting and Wang Man, both in Beijing.

“We’ve always thought the country supports equal rights for women,” said Wang Qiushi, a lawyer representing Ms. Wei. “Speaking as a lawyer, this act is beyond our imagination and has shocked us.”

Mr. Wang said that he and other lawyers had tried to obtain details from the police at Haidian Police Station in western Beijing, where Ms. Wei and two others were being held, but that the police had refused to say anything.

A woman answering the telephone at the police station denied that any of the activists were being held there.

Most or all of the women were working to mobilize a nationwide campaign against sexual harassment on subways and other public transportation, their friends said. People partaking in the campaign were supposed to put antiharassment stickers on transit vehicles.

“The attack this time is a big deal for us because the people who have been taken away formed the growing core of our movement these last few years,” said a young woman in Beijing who spoke on the condition of anonymity, also out of fear of official retribution. “They are the core strength of the women’s activist movement.”

The detentions began on the second day of the annual meeting in Beijing of the National People’s Congress, a nominal legislature that is supposed to represent, under the authoritarian system of the Chinese Communist Party, civic participation in political decisions.

Since taking power in late 2012, Xi Jinping, the president and party leader, has clamped down on grass-roots activism and civic discourse in China, making it harder for many nonprofit groups to do their work.

Officials on Friday ordered Chinese websites to delete a hugely popular online documentary about China’s deadly air pollution, “Under the Dome,” that had been produced and financed by one of the country’s most famous journalists, Chai Jing. Another veteran female journalist, Fan Ming, had directed the film and had worked with Ms. Chai for many years at the main state television network, China Central Television. Both had left the network recently.

Their documentary was released online at the end of February and got hundreds of millions of views on Chinese websites within days. The new environment minister, Chen Jining, was among its most vocal supporters, but he made no mention of the documentary at a news conference on Saturday after officials ordered the ban.

The New York Times reported last month that an examination of corporate records in China revealed that women make up fewer than one in 10 board members at the country’s top 300 companies. Women hold only two of 25 seats on the Communist Party’s ruling Politburo.

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