CHRD Civil Society Report Submitted to CEDAW

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CHRD Submission to the

UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women

for its Consideration of the Ninth Periodic Report of

the People’s Republic of China (85th Session)

April 8, 2023

Gender-based State Violence & Reprisals against Women Rights Defenders

Executive Summary

The Chinese government has failed to take effective measures to eliminate gender-based violence against women. As a State party to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the Chinese government is flouting its obligations under the Convention, which requires States to effectively address and provide a meaningful remedy for gender-based violence (GBV) against women and girls. Indeed, Chinese state officials often perpetrate such violence–– ranging from policemen sexually abusing women human rights defenders to “family planning” officials in Xinjiang who carry out forced abortions and sterilizations to prevent Uyghur births.

In this submission, CHRD focuses on gender-based violence, including police harassment and brutality, online abuse, arbitrary detention, torture, and enforced disappearance, which targets women human rights defenders (WHRDs) in retaliation for their work to promote and protect human rights, including women’s rights. WHRDs also face intimidation and reprisals when they seek to cooperate with U.N. human rights mechanisms. Since the Committee’s last review of China, the government has been cited in each annual reprisals report issued by the Secretary-General (most recently, September 2022 (A/HRC/51/47)). In its reply to the Committee’s LOIs (CEDAW/C/CHN/RQ/9), however, China claims: “There is no reprisal against cooperators with human rights treaty bodies” (para. 37). 

CHRD’s key suggestion to the Committee is that it recommends to the State party that it effectively fulfill its obligations under the Convention, as elaborated by General Recommendations No. 19 and No. 35 regarding the elimination of GBV against women, including WHRDs, and cease all reprisals against them.

I. Gender-based State Violence against Women Human Rights Defenders

A. “We strip your body naked to crush your spirit!”

In about a dozen interviews conducted by CHRD with women human rights defenders in China during 2021 and 2022, the women described a pattern of GBV used by state actors to subjugate and punish WHRDs. They told CHRD of being forcibly strip-searched in police stations and detention facilities, often in front of male police officers and filmed by security cameras. Perpetrators have enjoyed complete impunity despite victims’ efforts to hold them accountable.

Several WHRDs said the strip-searching of women in police custody is quite common. They said that police officers would sometimes claim they were searching for drugs or weapons, but in fact, strip searches were used as a tactic to humiliate and intimidate WHRDs, or to coerce a WHRD into confessing to “crimes” she was accused of. The strip searches were carried out after WHRDs were taken to police stations without any arrest warrant or detention notice, and thus the strip searches likewise had no legal basis. Many women are unwilling to speak about their experiences publicly out of fear of retaliation and social stigma.

One WHRD told CHRD that, in 2018, after she spoke out about the detention of her husband, a human rights lawyer, police monitoring her in Beijing,

“…once took me to the police station. There they forced me to strip bare ‘for a search.’ They made me take off my clothes piece by piece. It was clear to me that their purpose was to humiliate me. There were many police officers, including plainclothes officers hanging around, mostly male. … I saw men outside who had been videotaping the entire time.”

This Beijing-based WHRD said she had heard from other WHRDs that when they were taken into custody they were also forced to undergo a strip search, which sometimes was videotaped and watched by male police officers.

Another WHRD, ZLF, described a similar ordeal in 2017 in Fujian province after she was taken to a police station:

“At the station, I was strip searched. A policewoman stripped me completely naked, took away all my belongings. Then, they forcibly drew my blood, fingerprinted me, and photographed my face.”

The abuses continued for seven hours before ZLF was let go around midnight.  “I have suffered a mental breakdown,” she told CHRD.

WQL, a lawyer and the wife of then-detained human rights lawyer LHP, and LWZ, the wife of then-detained human rights lawyer WQZ, both spoke publicly about their experiences of being strip searched after they were taken to a Beijing police station in 2016. WQL said:

“When the police chief, surnamed M., reached his hands into [LWZ’s] bosom to probe for her cellphone, we cried out, ‘How could you, a man, do that?’ ‘It’s illegal!’ We shouted: ‘Get some policewomen!’ M. left in a huff and ordered two female police officers over. One, whose name was ZXF … yelled at me and LWZ as she searched our bags. She then brought us behind a curtain to be strip searched, saying if we refused to cooperate, then we’d be forced to undergo the search. To avoid the humiliation of having my clothes torn to pieces, I decided to cooperate. When LWZ was undergoing a forced strip search, the policewoman said to us maliciously, ‘Say hi to the camera!’”

The objective of this common police practice of strip searches is clearly a form of reprisal to humiliate and punish WHRDs, especially those who persist in continuing their human rights activism despite government pressure and intimidation.

The case of Guangdong-based lawyer SSH abuse by the police and the obstacles she encountered in seeking redress and accountability demonstrates the de facto impunity enjoyed by police officers.

In September 2018, SSH was in a police station in Guangzhou applying for bail for a client when a policeman falsely accused SSH of assaulting him. The officer shouted at her and then choked her while other officers also beat her. SSH lost consciousness and was subjected to a strip search with many eyes on her, she later wrote. After suffering this unlawful treatment and humiliation, she filed multiple complaints with authorities, but to no avail.

SSH also said that “police seldom use strip searches as a means to humiliate male detainees.”  

Many women are reluctant to speak out about their experiences. SSH attributed the silence to social stigmatization of the victims who disclosed the sexual abuse they experienced, and also to the normalization of the misconduct of authority figures who represent the state (and its power): 

“After I disclosed my own experiences, many women activists including lawyers told me of similar abuses that they suffered, sometimes in front of their young children. But many women are not willing to speak out… they have become numb.”

Veteran human rights defender NYL, who has suffered much physical abuse and humiliation at the hands of the police over the years, described its long-lasting and profound harm to CHRD:

“They tortured you in ways that you would not remember, or that you couldn’t talk about. When they tortured me in 2008, they jokingly told my husband that he’d become other people’s laughing stock. My family cared about appearances and would not let me talk about it. My lawyer in 2008 was female, so I told her, but not everything. I also didn’t want my family to be ridiculed. That’s the dilemma women face… only women could understand the wrong we suffered, it’s really very cruel!”

B. “I sought legal remedy… [instead] I cracked my head open and got bloodied”

Chinese authorities have refused to investigate unauthorized strip searches. In the case of ZLF, her lawsuit against the police was dismissed by the court after a trial in December 2018. 

Lawyer SSH filed a criminal complaint for “abuse of power” and “insult” against the policeman who put her in a chokehold causing her to lose consciousness. The police department has denied any wrongdoing and retaliated against her, even detaining some witnesses. Officials threatened her with further reprisals, including revoking her license to practice law if she continued to seek accountability. She sought assistance from various governmental entities, including the All-China Women’s Federation and the All-China Lawyers’ Association for her sexual abuse claim against the police. SSH received no response. “I exhausted almost all the channels to seek a remedy,” she said. “I cracked my head open and got bloodied!”

The Committee has repeatedly raised concerns about women’s lack of access to justice.  In its 2014 Concluding observations, for example, the Committee recommended that China provide legal aid and support NGOs that facilitate women’s access to justice and that China establish an independent judiciary to prevent political interference in disputes involving women’s human rights. (CEDAW/C/CHN/CO/7-8 para. 15 (a)(b))

China’s ninth periodic report (CEDAW/C/CHN/9) failed to identify specific provisions of law that prohibit the government’s interference in judicial affairs in general as well as in specific legal cases. Indeed, during the past 10 years, the government has clearly tightened control of the judiciary. An “independent judiciary” is out of the question, according to China’s top leader, Xi Jinping.

II.        Women Human Rights Defenders Face Government Reprisals   

A. “I’m no match to the onslaught of online sexual harassment!”

The government’s gendered cyber-harassment targets WHRDs in China. And it also reaches far beyond its borders. An online smearing campaign, carried out by Chinese diplomats and state-sponsored trolls, has targeted female journalists in international media organizations and female members of international human rights organizations, who have covered or engaged in advocacy campaigns relating to human rights atrocities against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang. 

One high-profile target has been VX, an Australia-based Chinese national who worked as a journalist for the Australian media outlet ABC, and later for the Australia Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI). In February 2020, ASPI published a detailed investigative report on the risk of forced labor in global supply chains in China, titled Uyghurs for Sale. The report showed that Uyghur and other Turkic Muslim minorities were working within the supply chains of 82 multinational companies throughout China in a “state-sponsored labour transfer scheme” and that the conditions under which they were employed “strongly suggest forced labour.”

After the report’s release, VX faced severe online retaliation on social media from agents of the Chinese government. Fake nude images of VX circulated on the Chinese internet. According to the Washington Post, “the flood of attacks posted and re-posted by state-media outlets and nationalist bloggers followed similar themes: [VX] … was a traitor, a pawn controlled by the West, or a ‘female demon.’ Queries for her name turn up thousands of results, including videos claiming to reveal details of her dating life, calling her “promiscuous” and “drug infested.”

CHRD interviews with WHRDs inside China revealed that online bullying targeting WHRDs who are outspoken or on the forefront of activism is both widespread and perverse. Such cyberbullying often uses gender discriminatory language or sexual slurs.  And such gender-based cyberbullying occurs in the context of heavy online surveillance and censorship by the state. State agents often engage in cyberbullying, directly or indirectly––another form of reprisal––to harass and discredit WHRDs.

Several WHRDs noted that due to the risk of censorship of their Chinese social media accounts, they used Twitter since it is outside the Chinese government’s control. But even on Twitter, they could not escape harassment and bullying and attacks by “bot” trolling campaigns.

“Online platforms, including these [women’s rights] organizations’ accounts, staff’s personal accounts, their Weibo (blog) on Sina, have drastically dwindled in numbers in recent years,” one women’s rights activist told CHRD.

“Any content I post or that’s re-posted on Sina Weibo, if it has to do with women’s rights, would be deleted. For instance, during the court trial of [XZ’s] #MeToo case [a lawsuit against a prominent TV news anchor for sexual harassment], I could not post anything in my friends’ groups on Sina Weibo. And [XZ’s] own account was blocked.”

A WHRD who engaged in labor organizing said that an important reason behind her decision to shun social media was “the sexually abusive messages and rumors sent anonymously to me via email and on chat platforms.” The senders of these messages called her a “slut,” spinning lies about her sexual life and relationships.

“I can handle sporadic attacks, I can pretend they didn’t exist, since these are from anonymous attackers anyway, I can ignore them. I am no match to the onslaught of online sexual harassment!”

She said she reported the anonymous bullying to authorities but got no response.

Efforts to hold the online platforms, such as Sina Weibo and WeChat, accountable for permitting this online sexual harassment have been unsuccessful. Lawsuits filed by victims of online harassment, such as WHRD ZCR, for defamation and reputational damage, have met with defeat in court. Another WHRD told CHRD that her group’s efforts to report online abuse through official channels have gotten nowhere.

CEDAW recognizes that gender-based violence can occur through the Internet, a “technology-mediated environment” (GR 35, para. 20), and that State parties are responsible under the Convention “…for acts or omissions of its organs and agents that constitute gender-based violence against women.” (GR 35, para. 22)

The State party has neither identified nor prosecuted gender-based cyberbullying against women as a specific category of prohibited behavior on the Internet. Such behavior and omissions amount to a form of GBV given the serious psychological harm inflicted on the targeted women. This failure constitutes a dereliction of the State’s obligations under the Convention and General Recommendation No. 35 (paras. 21-24).

B. Deprivation of Liberty and Police Brutality

1. Police “built a little makeshift guard post” outside a WHRD’s home

Police surveillance has been a fixture in the lives of rights defenders in China for many years. Surveillance has become increasingly more sophisticated and is the most commonly used police tactic to intimidate WHRDs.

CHRD has documented numerous cases involving WHRDs whose movements have been closely monitored by the police. A woman disability rights advocate told CHRD:

“They installed CCTV surveillance cameras outside my home. Now, whenever I leave my home, the police will follow me… This has greatly reduced my space, and it’s very difficult to engage in rights activism. Police surveillance has increased over time.”

YSS, an outspoken activist whose husband, a human rights lawyer, was detained in 2015, wrote that she spotted at least eight CCTV cameras installed outside her apartment in 2016. In addition to being closely followed by the police everywhere, there were around 20 policemen and “neighborhood committee” officials and several police vehicles outside her building around the clock. This continued even after her husband’s release in 2017.

YSS was not alone. Another family member of a detained human rights lawyer described her experience to CHRD:

“… every time I tried to go downstairs I would be met by a contingent of policemen, about 10 usually. They even built a little makeshift guard post down there… For a period of time, I couldn’t leave my apartment building. They had threatened me with the same charge against my husband and warned me against doing media interviews or meeting any foreigners.”

Such threats and warnings are often issued during “tea” with police officers, which the targeted rights defenders can’t refuse. Police try to extract information or threaten defenders with serious consequences if they don’t comply.                       

2.  Police beating left her with permanent injuries

Many WHRDs, especially those in rural areas and small towns, have been subjected to violent beatings by policemen in retaliation for their work. Rural WHRDs seem particularly vulnerable, as policemen in their locales seem more perverse. One rural WHRD said:

“… many women haven’t spoken out about it. I think it’s because sometimes they may worry that such violent beatings might scare off others from getting involved in activism, . . . or they may just not want to re-experience the trauma as they’ve already suffered enough humiliation.”

Some WHRDs have spoken out about police brutality.

WHY, a WHRD based in Jiangsu province, who has sought redress for violation of her land/housing rights, said that authorities put her under administrative detention six times, criminal detention once, and in a “re-education through labor” camp for one year in 2008. She has also been held in extralegal “black jails” almost 100 times for a total of roughly 700 days. In early 2019, police detained her again and subjected her to a severe beating, which left her with permanent injuries.

In Fujian province, WHRD LHP and her family suffered a violent assault in December 2016. Approximately 20 men hired by local authorities forcibly evicted her family from their farmland and beat up her elderly parents. When LHP arrived on the scene, the men tore her clothes off, grabbed her breasts, and poured water on her body, while village officials looked on. The violence against her continued when she tried to seek redress, and the authorities eventually jailed her for several years.   

Also in Fujian, LZY, another WHRD who fought forced eviction, has faced reprisals in the form of police violence and frequent deprivation of liberty, including a two-year jail term. In 2019, LZY was abducted by hired thugs or plainclothes officers who proceeded to beat her and her elderly father, who suffered five broken ribs. LZY was left with multiple injuries. When she spoke out about the violent assault, police criminally detained her for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” LZY told her lawyer during a visit that guards inside the detention center frequently abused her, both physically and verbally.

3. Arbitrary detention and enforced disappearance

Chinese authorities have increasingly used arbitrary detention and enforced disappearance to punish and retaliate against human rights defenders in China, including women HRDs.

In March 2015, the “Feminist Five” were detained on the eve of International Women’s Day. Chinese police rounded up at least 10 WHRDs who had planned a public event to draw attention to sexual harassment on public transportation. Five of them—WRR, LTT, ZCR, WTT, and WM—were later criminally detained on the charge of “picking quarrels and provoking troubles.”

While the Feminist Five were held at a detention center in Beijing, they were subjected to cruel and inhumane treatment. LTT said that she was interrogated 50 times and bullied for being a “disgusting” lesbian.

Since then, authorities have detained or forcibly disappeared more WHRDs, including:

– #MeToo and labor rights activists, e.g., journalist HXQ and LQC;

– activists such as XQ, who have sought official accountability for abuses;

– land/housing rights defenders CJF and LYF;

– health rights defender HFM, and ZZ who reported on the COVID outbreak in Wuhan, and CZX who joined protests against excessive lockdowns;

– and human rights lawyer LYH.    

In his most recent reprisals report issued in September 2022 (A/HRC/51/47), the UN Secretary-General raised concerns about government reprisals against LQC, LYH, LWZ, WQL, CJF, and other WHRDs relating to their cooperation with the UN.


The Committee should recommend the Chinese government:

1. To establish a robust, nationwide framework for “prevention, protection, prosecution and punishment, redress, data collection and monitoring and international cooperation in order to accelerate elimination of gender-based violence against women,” as set forth in General recommendation No. 35, paras. 28-35.

2. To guarantee all women, including WHRDs, their right to personal security, liberty, and dignity, and to respect and protect the fundamental rights necessary for WHRDs to safely conduct their human rights work, including the rights to freedom of expression and to peaceful assembly and association, and the right to an effective remedy for violations of their rights.

3. To immediately release all women human rights defenders who are currently in custody–– including those who have been disappeared––for defending human rights, to hold rights-violating officials accountable, and to provide redress to the victims.   

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