China Releases The Feminists Jailed For Protesting Sexual Harassment


On March 6 five Chinese women were detained by Police because they were suspected of creating a disturbance. What they were really doing was preparing for a protest on March 8, International Women’s Day, to raise awareness about sexual harassment. Sound like a punishable offense to you? Of course the majority of us would say no. But in Communist China, it is a completely different story.

We have to remember this is a country where they vehemently police citizens’ internet use and ban certain websites (facebook and twitter for example). They also don’t allow for freedom of speech or freedom of press the same way America does, so their media and the flow of information is closely monitored by the government and controlled the way they choose, rather than allowing for the truth in some circumstances. It is a tough situation to live under, but the 5 women, who have been nicknamed the “feminist five” plus others were determined to take a stand against injustice.

If they were sentenced they could have faced up to five years prison. Thankfully, they have just been released on bail, however the investigation is still pending. But their release is what is the most shocking part about this ongoing story, not just their arrest.

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Li Tingting, 25; Wu Rongrong, 30; Zheng Churan, 25; Wei Tingting, 26; and Wang Man, 33, are the women who have become the center of an international media storm amidst growing unrest toward authority figures and religious groups who seek to trample on the freedom to speak publicly and share opinions (for example the many stories of police brutality against unarmed black men, and the shooting of French cartoonists by religious extremists after printing depictions of the Prophet Muhammad).

During the ongoing investigation of the feminist five, they will be monitored by the police for a year and are not allowed to travel overseas without express permission from the Chinese government. If they do violate these rules the police can and will detain them again and interrogate them further.

Their release on Monday, April 13 brought great relief to activist organizations and people from all over the world who have been keeping track of this story. The girls’ lawyer expressed caution at celebrating the victory of their release just yet.

“Their release is not a victory – they are still on bail and still are suspects,” lawyer Liang Xiaojun who represents Wu told the Guardian newspaper. “Though released, the feminists’ activities are still being restricted and they are yet to gain their complete freedom.”

“Detaining people and locking them up for 37 days has now become a common practice for the police to put pressure on civil society … a great threat to everyone who seeks social justice.”

In Hong Kong there have been several protests including an action involving Defend China Feminists Campaign, Socialist Action (CWI) and other groups on 11 April as the deadline for the authorities to press ahead with formal charges approached. Because the women were held for more than a month and police and Chinese authorities could not give enough of a case for charges brought against them, they were released.


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 small-scale demonstrations.

They later changed the charge to illegal assembly, which carries the same maximum punishment of five years imprisonment. It is clear the authorities were unclear about the charges against the women, given that their concern went from the protest on IWD, to being interrogated about the 2012 “Occupy Men’s Toilets” campaign, an activity designed to showpiece the unfair allocation of facilities in shopping malls and other public places. Some of the other women were interrogated about the “Bloodstained Bride” campaign against domestic violence, which took place in 2013 and 2014.


China’s ruling Communist party does not tolerate any opposition of any kind, but the jailing of these women were seen as especially harsh and uncalled for given that they weren’t expressly protesting against the government.

The pressure to release the women also had a hand from leaders around the world, including Secretary of State John Kerry.

“Each and every one of us has the right to speak out against sexual harassment and the many other injustices that millions of women and girls suffer around the world each and every day,” he said.

“We strongly support the efforts of these activists to make progress on these challenging issues, and we believe that Chinese authorities should also support them, not silence them.”

Hillary Clinton, not too long before announcing her second run for the 2016 presidency, tweeted her support for the release of the women, as well as expressing her sentiments regarding the killing of Walter Scott, an unarmed black man who was shot by the police in the back while running away.


The Chinese government didn’t take too kindly to the US speaking publicly about their decision to detain the women, saying they should not “interfere” in foreign affairs.

Parents of the girls, before they were released, also added their voices to the growing pressure to release the protesters, by writing an open letter to Beijing authorities, saying: “[The women are] young, kind-hearted, and full of a sense of responsibility to society. Supporting gender equality and the interests of women is no crime!”

The circumstances surrounding the feminist five are all too familiar. You may have heard of Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei. In the 1990s he became a controversial and well-loved figure in the art world globally for taking pictures of himself in front of iconic world monuments, flipping the bird. One of those monuments was Beijing’s Forbidden City, which he took a picture of not long after the horrific Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989. He started getting attention of the police after using a Chinese social media platform to express his anti-establishment views, and even pulled out of contributing artwork to the Beijing Olympics because he didn’t want to be part of China’s “fake smile” as he put it.


After a devastating earthquake in China’s Sichuan province, killing 69,000 and injuring 374,000, Ai Weiwei wrote a series of scathing blog posts on the government’s lack of information provided and the way they clamped down on media reporting the incident so they could do “damage control” they way they desired. That was the final straw for the government. Ai attended the trial of an earthquake activist, and one night the police broke into the hotel where he was staying, beat him to a pulp so bad he required emergency brain surgery.

Over the following years he started to get even more attention from around the world, and in 2011 he was arrested without charge for 81 days. He was interrogated incessantly and finally the tax authorities said he owed them millions of dollars. A year after he was released on custody, the Chinese government placed a ban on him traveling abroad, and to date that ban has been in existence for over 500 days which coincided (funnily enough) with the release of the feminist five.

A documentary called ‘Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry‘ was made about him, and his art installations continue to travel the world as does his story.

But perhaps a more familiar tale of government clamp-down on free speech is the story of the Pussy Riot girls from Russia, who were arrested in 2012 after staging anti-Putin displays inside an Orthodox Church. They too were speaking up about freedom under Russia’s communist rule, and the need for greater human rights in the country.

After being jailed for months and then going to trial, their story captivated the international media audience for the blatant suppression on freedom of speech by Vladimir Putin. Now based overseas, the girls continue to use their music to raise awareness about issues that seek to violate basic human rights. Their story can be seen in the HBO documentary ‘Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer‘.


The story of the Feminist Five is yet another example of politics gone wrong. When ordinary citizens cannot express their fears and concerns in public without fear of being shut down in drastic measures, what hope is there for human rights?

What’s ironic about this incident is that it falls on the 20th anniversary of the Beijing 20 World Conference on Women. in 1995 Hillary Clinton made a famous speech in Beijing saying “human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights”. Yet a report made recently showing just how many countries have reached 50/50 gender equality is a sobering reminder there is a LONG way to go.

Feminism is not a crime. We are heartened by the public outpouring of support worldwide which can often force positive results, but it is not enough. It’s not enough to have stories like this covered by the New York Times, The Washington Post and the Guardian. Where are all the women’s blogs, and media/lifestyle websites rallying behind these women who are fighting for the same thing women in the west also want? Equality is not something that is desirable for certain sections of the world, but unfortunately there are plenty of world leaders who do not believe citizens deserve it.

We will be following this story as it unfolds and pray for a positive outcome not just for the feminist five, but as a symbol for men and women all over the world to not stop speaking up for human rights, women’s rights, against harassment, in favor of free speech and other freedoms that we all deserve.

To find out more about each of the five women protesting and get a more in-depth idea of why they are speaking up about injustice toward women in China, click here.



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