China detains female activists ahead of International Women’s Day

Player utilities

Listen to the story.

Marco Werman: I’m Marco Werman and this is The World. Here is a big question to start the week with: what is the status of women across the globe? That’s what thousands of women’s rights activists are discussing in New York this week, and next. There’s a big meeting at the United Nations marking the 20th anniversary of a landmark UN conference on the status of women, that was in 1995 in Beijing. We’re going to hear more on that anniversary and this week’s meeting in New York in just a few minutes. First though, let’s keep our focus on Beijing itself. Yesterday, as you might have heard, was International Women’s Day and some women in China were planning to mark the date with a campaign to raise awareness about sexual harassment. Chinese authorities didn’t like that, and they stepped in to detain at least ten activists in three different cities. Among them are some of China’s best known activists for gender equality. Sophie Richardson is a China expert with Human Rights Watch. She’s been following the story from Washington.


Sophie Richardson: These women represented a couple of different communities who had worked either on legal aid, or on public health, or on domestic violence, and they had wanted to raise awareness about sexual harassment particularly on forms of public transportation. They had planned to hang up signs, put stickers on buses and other conveyances, but apparently even this was too much for local authorities, who have now detained at least ten women and potentially more. This is sadly consistent with the pathologies of the Xi Jingping regime, which has demonstrated an extraordinary intolerance of criticism over the last couple of years.


Werman: As far as women’s rights go, why do you think the authorities are taking what seems to be a harder line?


Richardson: I wouldn’t necessarily say that women’s rights activists are coming in for worst treatment. Just in the last 24 hours, we’ve seen a couple of people who were engaged in an incredibly mild protest about environmental issues also detained. In the last two years, there has been an incredible crackdown on lawyers, writers, bloggers--anyone who appears to be criticizing the government and particularly anyone who appears to be trying to organize in any way.


Werman: Chairman Mao, as you know, had this famous quote: “Women hold up half the sky.” But now we go online and the Communist Party’s mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, has a photo slideshow called “Beauty With Brains,” showing female reporters covering the National People’s Conference in Beijing. It just seems out of step with “Women hold up half the sky.” Where does the Communist Party in China stand today on women’s rights?


Richardson: If you took as one metric the government’s willingness to finally adopt national legislation on domestic violence, you would see a lot of hesitation. This is an issue on which there is a great deal of international consensus about laws and social services and the Chinese government continues to delay adopting precisely this kind of law largely because it’s going to challenge some deeply entrenched social norms, that domestic violence is a family issue and it should stay behind closed doors, that women are meant to be cooperative. Even just yesterday, on the occasion of International Women’s Day, two of China’s biggest online search engines, Youku and Baidu, chose to use a logo that characterized women as being gentle and pretty rather than using images that people had submitted of women as scientists, or lawyers, or engaged in other kinds of professions. I think that reflects not just the social attitudes having failed to make much progress but also the party’s willingness to propagate these very stereotypical images.


Werman: I spoke with the head of UN Women last friday and she said today there is so much discord around the globe, hard to see any consensus on gender parity, that actually there couldn’t be a UN summit for women today like the one in Beijing 20 years ago. Do you think Beijing would even be prepared to host it if there were one today?


Richardson: That’s a great question. The Chinese government wants to be able to host major events like this--for example, it’s bidding again for an Olympic games. But it’s up to other agencies like the UN, like the IOC, to decide whether China is the appropriate place to hold those kinds of events. It’s our view that if the government won’t even tolerate people standing up in public and calling for an end to domestic violence, it’s not a place to showcase discussions about rights protections.


Werman: Sophie Richardson, China expert with Human Rights Watch. Great to speak with you. Thank you.


Richardson: Thank you.