The Guardian view on Chinese women’s rights: free the feminists

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Originally published by The Guardian on April 5, 2015

It is a month since Chinese police seized five feminists who planned to distribute stickers and leaflets to highlight sexual harassment. China under Xi Jinping has proved increasingly intolerant of civil society; last year alone, almost 1,000 activists were detained, according to the Chinese Human Rights Defenders group. Late last month, another vanished after taking part in traditional rituals to commemorate two students killed in the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protestors in Tiananmen Square.

Even in this context, the five women’s detention has sparked shock and dismay. The women were not challenging government policy, let alone touching on sensitive issues such as Tiananmen or Tibet. They were not planning to take to the streets, nor to organise others, something that has always worried China’s authorities. They sought only to uphold the law: to remind other women of their right to travel unmolested, gropers that they must keep their hands off, and police that they should arrest offenders. All of that makes it more baffling and alarming that the authorities should accuse them of “disturbing public order” with an act that never actually took place.

What is truly extraordinary is that China was calling for progress on gender equality even as the women were detained. State media announced in March that in September the country will co-host a UN women summit to mark the 20th anniversary of the world conference on women in Beijing, which declared that “women’s rights are human rights”. Mr Xi will stand alongside the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, and will address the summit.

It is admirable that Mr Xi should emphasise an area of policy that many Chinese leaders still neglect. China has bolstered women’s lot in some regards, though inequality is still glaring in others and has worsened in some cases. Maternal mortality rates have plummeted and the government has made genuine if insufficient efforts to close the disturbing gap between male and female birth rates. A law on domestic violence is finally in view.

But to go ahead with this autumn’s meeting while continuing to lock up these women protesters would be a near-guarantee of embarrassment for Beijing. The EU, Britain and others have already demanded that the authorities let them go. Even if foreign leaders seek to turn a blind eye to the detentions, rights groups will not let them do so easily. In China itself, supporters have put aside fear of reprisals to call for their release, and the UN summit will take place in New York, where campaigners will be free to expose the evident contradiction.

Mao Zedong famously proclaimed that women could “hold up half the sky”. Women’s equality is enshrined in China’s constitution. Now is Beijing’s chance to demonstrate its real commitment. No high-profile event or keynote speech could send as strong a signal of its values as the immediate release of Li Tingting, Zheng Churan, Wei Tingting, Wu Rongrong and Wang Man. Freeing them would give real reason to celebrate alongside Mr Xi this autumn.

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