Campaigners welcome China release for 5 feminists
Campaigners on Tuesday welcomed China’s release of five feminist activists held for more than a month, saying the surprise move after an international outcry showed Beijing does sometimes respond to outside pressure.
The five, all aged 32 or younger, were taken into custody shortly before International Women’s Day last month as they were preparing to hand out leaflets about sexual harassment on public transport.
The European Union, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his predecessor Hillary Clinton had all issued calls for their freedom, while Beijing said it was an internal issue.
Their lawyers said all five were released on bail on Monday, the deadline for prosecutors to formally charge them.
But authorities said Tuesday an anti-discrimination group connected with them, Yirenping, was suspected of breaking the law and would be punished “in accordance with the law.”
China’s ruling Communist Party does not tolerate organized opposition, and often clamps down on small activist groups, with controls tightening since President Xi Jinping came to power in 2012.
Nonetheless the women’s detentions were seen by rights groups as unusually harsh given the small scale of their stunts, and previous positive coverage they received in China’s state-run media.
If Chinese activists are charged, prosecution and a guilty verdict normally follow but the women’s release showed that Beijing had bowed to the “unprecedented global response” to their case, said Maya Wang, China researcher for Human Rights Watch.
Chinese President Xi Jinping is expected to co-host a women’s summit at the U.N. in September, and rights groups called for a boycott of the event unless the five activists were released — a potential embarrassment for Beijing, which is seeking to build an image as a “responsible stakeholder” on the global stage.
“The optics of this arrest were obviously pretty terrible,” said Joshua Rosenzweig, a human rights researcher based in Hong Kong.
The EU delegation to China said in a statement it noted the release “with relief.”
‘Ruled by law’
The five were held in Beijing, Guangzhou and Hangzhou during a meeting of China’s rubberstamp parliament in the capital, when security is stepped up nationwide and activists often detained or warned not to travel.
The fact that they were linked to actions in different Chinese cities may also have raised concerns among Communist authorities, despite them highlighting issues such as domestic violence and the poor provision of women’s toilets.
Police originally told lawyers the activists were suspected of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” a vague charge increasingly used by authorities under President Xi Jinping to detain and jail protesters for holding smallscale demonstrations.
They later changed the accusa- tion to “illegal assembly,” which carries the same maximum punishment of five years imprisonment.
Their release comes with conditions and Liang Xiaojun, one of their attorneys, said: “In the eyes of the police, they are still suspects ... they will need to regularly update authorities on their whereabouts.”
Several of the women were involved with the Chinese advocacy group Yirenping, which campaigns to end discrimination against women, the disabled, people with HIV/AIDS and others.
Foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei told reporters Tuesday that Yirenping was “suspected of violating the law and will face punishment in accordance with the law.”
He denied Beijing had bowed to foreign pressure over the five, saying China was a country “ruled by law.”
In a statement, Yirenping co- founder Lu Jun called the women’s detention “a glaring injustice” and said the organization was “impressed by advocacy for their release from inside China and outside China.”
“What they’ve done has actually furthered legal protection of women’s rights and strengthened the rule of law in China,” Lu said.