Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Gender, Headlines, Human Rights, Population

CHINA: Women Activists on the Forefront of Human Rights Movement

Gordon Ross

BEIJING, May 12 2010 (IPS) - Thirteen years ago a local official in north-east China’s Heilongjiang province tried to extort money from a woman named Liu Jie, who operated a successful cow farm.

Liu protested at local courts, to no avail. In retaliation, the official destroyed her farm and stole her cows. She took her case to Beijing, where instead of receiving justice, she was detained and beaten.

In all, Liu, who is now 58, lost millions of renminbi, was detained secretly in Heilongjiang and beaten several times. But the chain of events set her on a path that would change her life – in the years following she has become a leading advocate of petitioners’ rights in China.

According to China Human Rights Defenders (CHRD), a non-profit, non- political network of grassroots activists, the contribution of women like Liu to China’s human rights movement is often overlooked in the international media. In fact, said CHRD, there are many women at the forefront of China’s grassroots human rights movement working in various capacities to defend rights.

“A lot of the women are grassroots activists… they do a lot of work on the ground, at the grassroots level, and they are much better known within their own circle than at the international level,” Wang Songlian, research coordinator for CHRD, tells IPS.

Some, like Liu, work with petitioners to more effectively present their grievances. Others offer a voice to the voiceless, including the parents of children who died in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, where poorly built schools collapsed.

Others advocate political reform. The original signatories to Charter 08 – a manifesto published in December 2008 calling for political reform and democratisation in China – included several women, such as Woeser, a Tibetan author and advocate of political freedom, and Liu Di, a prominent Beijing blogger and activist.

These women activists persevere despite intense pressure from the Chinese government. According to CHRD, many are currently detained or imprisoned.

Duan Chunfang, a 49-year-old Shanghai activist, was detained by police at a local government office in July 2009 and later charged with “obstructing official business,” because police claimed she attacked an officer. At the time of her detainment she was negotiating payment of a hospital bill for injuries suffered after a beating by security guards who had been keeping her under residential surveillance.

Last October, she was sentenced to three and a half years in prison, and since being incarcerated, her health has deteriorated greatly, according to CHRD.

Fan Yanqiong, a 48-year-old activist in Fujian province, was arrested last June after posting articles online alleging official misconduct and cover-ups in the case of the death of a young woman. She and two co-defenders were tried on November 11, 2009. Five months later she was convicted of “slander” and sentenced to two years in prison.

Many others continue to fight for their causes despite frequent harassment. Ding Zilin, for example, a former People’s University professor, is the leader of Tiananmen Mothers, a group of parents, friends and relatives of people killed during the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989. She faces regular threats, harassment, detention and interrogations.

What keeps them going is a “sense of striving for justice,” said CHRD’s Wang. “[The women] are usually victims of injustice themselves. They want answers for their own problems but also they see injustices along the way and they want to help others.”

Zeng Jinyan, the 26-year-old wife of imprisoned human rights activist Hu Jia, faces constant monitoring by police. Even though her Internet connection has been cut several times, Zeng manages to use the tools of the Internet – including Skype, Twitter and Facebook – to spread news about the fate of her husband and many other human rights defenders.

“Police and plain clothes men sit in my courtyard and monitor everything I do,” she recounts in an interview at a tea house in east Beijing. Last year, police prevented Zeng from opening a kindergarten in her residential neighborhood.

Still, Zeng, who is also an advocate for people living with HIV/AIDS, holds out hope that things will change. “Without hope, how can we live?” she says.

Liu Jie, the petitioner-turned-activist, has also faced harassment and detention over the years. Between 2003 and 2007, during the annual Party Congress meetings in Beijing, Liu distributed public letters calling for government reform. This and other actions caught the attention of authorities. In 2007 she was sent to a labour camp in Heilongjiang for 18 months.

“I had to work from five in the morning to nine at night,” she told IPS in an interview at a café in downtown Beijing. “The food was awful – terrible. Sometimes it was rotten.”

In prison, Liu spoke out against the routine abuse of prisoners. For this, she was put in solitary confinement for five days, her hands tied behind her back and to her feat. She could not lie down and was denied food and water.

Today, Liu continues her fight for petitioner’s rights, helping organise accommodation and financial assistance and spearheading legal battles. She worries about her health and finances, but says that she still loves her country.

“I have hope for the future that the system and our society will change. I want to tell people my own experience so that they know the truth. I’m not afraid to die. I’ve been close to death several times. I need to do what I can while I’m still alive,” she says.

“The past 13 years have been a nightmare for me. But it’s all been worth it.”

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