Xi Turns Back the Clock on Women’s Rights in China
An emboldened Beijing clamps down on civil liberties
Chinese security officials stood guard in April at the entrance of Hongtongying village on the outskirts of Beijing where freed feminist activist Li Tingting is staying. Ms Li and four other recently released Chinese feminists say they are still being treated as criminal suspects. PHOTO: ASSOCIATED PRESS
By ANDREW BROWNE
July 21, 2015 12:57 a.m. ET30 COMMENTS
Although it would be almost unthinkable today, as a political chill descends over Beijing, two decades ago close to 30,000 women from around the world converged on a muddy tent village outside the Chinese capital to promote a host of social and political causes.
The carnival-style NGO Forum on Women made the authorities nervous, but it was part of the U.N.’s Fourth World Conference on Women, which China agreed to host as a way to polish its international image still tarnished by the army’s brutal suppression of student protests at Tiananmen Square in 1989. Hard-liners in charge at the time evidently figured the political discomfort was worth the gains to China’s global prestige.
Tibetan activists set up stalls. Amnesty International, in China for the first time, rebuked the Chinese government over its human rights practices at a news conference. Then U.S. First Lady Hillary Clinton, one of the celebrity attendees, made herself popular with the women by lecturing her Chinese hosts about free speech and assembly after they withheld visas for some of the delegates.
The event became a watershed moment for the Chinese women’s movement. Because foreign NGOs would be there, Chinese authorities had to allow local NGOs to set up and participate.
They never looked back—until now.
Ironically, just as President Xi Jinping prepares to attend a U.N. summit in New York in September to mark the 20th anniversary of the landmark women’s conference, his administration has begun to clamp down on independent women’s groups for the first time since the NGO Forum.
The restrictions underscore just how far Mr. Xi is turning back the clock on civil liberties in China—all the way to the days of harsh political repression that followed the crushing of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations. They also reveal a transformation in the mind-set of the government, still fearful of organized political opposition but so confident in China’s elevated place in the world that it no longer feels much compulsion to make concessions to its international critics.
One of the first signs of trouble came when police detained a small group of activists on the eve of International Women’s Day in March for planning events to draw attention to sexual harassment on public transport.
One of China’s "Feminist Five," Wang Man, shown here in 2012 with a paper demanding financial disclosure from the Chinese state administration of taxation, was recently released from custody. The five activists complained to the U.N. that it is now impossible for women’s groups to work with the Chinese government PHOTO:LU JUN/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES
Even though the so-called “Feminist Five” were released from custody in April, they say they are still being treated as criminal suspects.
In an open letter this month to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moonand the Executive Director of U.N. Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, they complained that it is now impossible for women’s groups to work with the Chinese government and the U.N. on issues from preventing violence against women to assisting their battles against AIDS and disability. It is an “unexpected and shameful setback,” the letter said, adding: “Please help us!”
The treatment of the “Feminist Five” is connected to what rights advocates describe as the most sustained assault on civil society in China since 1989. In recent days, police have detained some two dozen human-rights lawyers and interrogated close to 200 more lawyers, law firm staff and activists.
While the authorities never fully trusted NGOs, they recognized they had to deal with them given the increasing complexities of urban China, and the overwhelming burden on government resources imposed by disease, pollution other social challenges. Today, Chinese NGOs are under more intense scrutiny than ever, suspected of colluding with “hostile foreign forces” to subvert the regime. A new law in the works will put all foreign NGOs under police administration.
To be sure, China hasn’t abandoned gender causes: new legislation on domestic violence is due later this year. But the harassment of the “Feminist Five” sends an unmistakable message that when it comes to women’s rights, as all other rights, the Communist Party—and only the Communist Party—will drive the agenda.
A sweeping effort is under way to consolidate the party’s power over all aspects of Chinese society.
And there’s not much that the U.N. or anybody else can do, even though international pressure may conceivably have played some role in the release of the “Feminist Five.”
Mrs. Clinton herself underscored the new realities when, ahead of her first visit to China as Secretary of State in 2009, she made clear that she wouldn’t allow human rights to get in the way of other business, including the financial crisis raging at the time. As presidential candidate, she responded to the detention of the “Feminist Five” with a tweet that called it “inexcusable.”
In response, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said, “We hope that public figures in other countries can respect China’s judicial sovereignty and independence.”
To Chinese feminists, what’s so perverse about the clampdown is that when it comes to women’s rights the Communist Party has a good story to tell. One of its proudest achievements was to emancipate women after the revolution. “Women hold up half the sky,” Mao famously proclaimed.
Tell that to the “Feminist Five” and groups that trace their heritage to the NGO Forum. They sought to collaborate with the party, not challenge it. No matter: their skies are now falling in.