Several women’s rights activists were detained in China over the last week, the latest targets in a widening crackdown on freedom of speech in the country.
Ten women’s rights activists were arrested in the lead-up to International Women’s Day on Sunday. Five were released after questioning by police, and five are still in custody. The women still in detention include Li Tingting, Wei Tingting, Wang Man, Zheng Churan and Wu Rongrong.
"The important thing to note right now is that at Amnesty International we're noticing just an across the board crackdown on NGOs, civil society, and especially international organizations that fund human rights work. So within that context unfortunately this isn’t that surprising,” said William Nee, a China researcher with Amnesty International.
But although China has tightened restrictions on the work of many activists, academics and journalists over the last year, the arrests of these women, who are at the forefront of the women’s rights movement, has surprised observers like Nee.
“However I think that this type of move to detain women’s rights activists on the eve of International Women’s Day, women who were calling for the end of sexual harassment on public transportation, which is a well known phenomenon in China. It’s just really shocking,” Nee said.
The women had planned to put up leaflets and affix stickers to public transit vehicles as part of a nationwide campaign against sexual harassment on public transportation.
Several of the women were affiliated with Yirenping, a nonprofit group that advocates equal rights for people with AIDS or disabilities. Their arrests came during an annual meeting of China’s national parliament, when Beijing steps up security and police presence throughout the capital.
Nee says that the arrests appear to be systematic and well-coordinated by the Chinese government, as the women were arrested in three cities in eastern China. Their release or continued detention will indicate the significance of the situation.
“I think a lot will depend on whether or not they are released in the next day or two, and to what extent this was related to the National People’s Congress, because the National People’s Congress is usually a sensitive time in China where the government and state security try to monitor activists and not allow for any public disturbance. So hopefully they will be released soon. But if they’re not that will show that it’s another example of the crackdown on civil society in China,” he said.
The arrests came as Chinese legislators review the first national law against domestic violence during the National People’s Congress. The new bill defines domestic violence for the first time. Nearly 40 percent of Chinese women who are married or in a relationship say they have suffered domestic abuse.