Ji Sizun Named 2019 Recipient of Cao Shunli Memorial Award for Human Rights Defenders

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Ji Sizun Named 2019 Recipient of Cao Shunli Memorial Award for Human Rights Defenders

(Chinese Human Rights Defenders—March 14, 2019) Human rights defender Ji Sizun (纪斯尊) is the winner of the fifth Cao Shunli Memorial Award for Human Rights Defenders. The decision to give this award to Mr. Ji recognizes the long-standing “barefoot lawyer” for his contribution in promoting legal rights and education at the grassroots level in China. 

March 14 marks the fifth anniversary of Cao Shunli (曹顺利)’s death in detention, and is the date designated as “Human Rights Defenders Day” by rights activists in China. Several human rights organizations established the award in 2014 to honor the memory of Cao Shunli, her life, and her work. The award has been given to those who carry on Cao’s grassroots advocacy while facing threats and risks in promoting human rights, protecting vulnerable social groups from abuses, pushing for civil society participation in international human rights mechanisms, and monitoring the Chinese government’s implementation of its human rights obligations. The award includes prize money to support ongoing initiatives and assist the recipients, who have suffered government reprisals.

Cao Shunli died on March 14, 2014, after being held in detention for six months and denied adequate medical treatment. Police seized her in Beijing on September 14, 2013, as she was boarding a flight to Geneva, where she was to attend a session of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) and an international human rights training. Starting in 2008, Ms. Cao had worked to push Chinese authorities, without success, to allow civil society participation in drafting China’s National Human Rights Action Plans and its state reports for China’s first and second Universal Periodic Review at the UN HRC. She faced reprisals as a consequence of her role in such efforts.

Meet the honoree 

Ji Sizun, born on December 10, 1949, is a Fujian-based activist who has defended the rights of disadvantaged groups for years by providing legal aid and offered legal training. Ji is considered a “barefoot lawyer,” a self-taught legal activist without a formal law license, who is skilled in teaching others how to defend their rights using the law. In 2008, police detained Ji after he applied for a permit to demonstrate in an official Beijing Olympics “Protest Zone.” For this activity, he was convicted and sentenced to three years in prison on charges of “forging official documents and seals.” After his release from prison, Ji continued to promote legal education. 

In October 2014, police seized Ji after he publicly supported the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong that began earlier that month and while he was on his way to Beijing to take part in a conference at the invitation of People’s Daily. Authorities initially held Ji in a black jail and then put him under administrative detention, before eventually criminally detaining him in mid-November, a delay likely caused by authorities searching for so-called “criminal activity” to justify holding him. Ji was then charged with “gathering a crowd to disrupt order of a public place” and “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” for helping petitioners to organize two protests in August and September 2014. A Fujian court put Ji on trial on December 2015 and convicted him in April 2016, handing down a 4.5-year prison sentence. Ji appealed his sentence, but the appeal was turned down in December 2016. Ji Sizun’s health has seriously deteriorated during his incarceration, and he suffered a debilitating stroke in 2016 and has not received sufficient medical treatment for a number of severe health conditions. He will be released from Putian Prison in Fujian Province on April 26, 2019. 


“For decades, Ji Sizun has persistently stood up and defended the rights of disadvantaged social groups. He has devoted himself to pushing for improvements in the human rights situation for Chinese people and for progress in rule of law in China. Though he has repeatedly suffered from police suppression and periods of detention, his spirit has not been broken.”

– Judging Panel of the Cao Shunli Memorial Award for Human Rights Defenders


The Cao Shunli Memorial Award acknowledges the efforts of human rights defenders in China who have demonstrated a deep commitment to promoting human rights, typically in the face of great personal risk. The award has been announced annually on March 14, the anniversary of Cao’s death. In 2015, disability and labor rights activist Zhou Weilin (周维林) was the first recipient of the award. Housing rights activist Jia Lingmin (贾灵敏) received the award in 2016. Women’s and housing rights activist Su Changlan (苏昌兰) won the award in 2017. In 2018, human rights activists Chen Jianfang (陈建芳) and Li Xiaoling (李小玲) were the co-recipients of the award. 

Visit a new webpage on CHRD”s website bringing together materials on Cao Shunli’s background, activism, detention, and the reaction to her death and efforts for accountability.


Renee Xia, International Director (Mandarin, English), +1 863 866 1012 reneexia[at]nchrd.org, Follow on Twitter: @ReneeXiaCHRD

Frances Eve, Deputy Director of Research (English), +1 661 240 9177 franceseve[at]nchrd.org, Follow on Twitter: @FrancesEveCHRD

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