Q: Who’s Afraid of A Feminist?

A: Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Chinese protesters wear wedding dresses splattered in red paint to protest against domestic violence in Beijing, 2012. Photo: “Free Chinese Feminists” Facebook page

China has lashed out again at human rights defenders who continue to push for reform despite a worsening crackdown on freedoms. On Friday, Guo Jianmei, the founder of NGO Beijing Zhongze Women’s Legal Counseling and Service Center, reported that Chinese authorities ordered the human rights group to shut down operations.

As of Friday, 29 January, a floating text box on the gender justice organisation’s still-active website reads:

Beijing Zhongze Women’s Legal Counseling Service Center (formerly the Center for Women’s Law Studies and Legal Services of Peking University) will take a rest from Feb. 1, 2016. Thank you everyone for your attention and constant support for the center in the past!
Staff from Beijing Zhongze Women’s Legal Counseling and Service Center talk with rural women in Qinghai in 2009. (Provided to China Daily)

The Beijing Zhongze Women’s Legal Counseling Service Center defends women in child custody battles and domestic violence cases, as well as with land rights and employment disputes. In China, activists fighting for women’s rights, women human rights defenders themselves, and civil society organisations demanding access to justice are persecuted daily.

Ms. Guo’s organisation happens to sit at the intersection of all three. For her leadership of the Zhongze centre, the human rights defender has received both international and domestic recognition and praise in the past. Hillary Clinton presented Ms. Guo with the 2007 Global Women’s Leadership Award, and in 2010 the defender received the US Department of State’s International Women of Courage Award and the Simone De Beauvoir Prize. Within China, the Zhongze centre was selected by China’s Caijing Magazine as one of the 10 most influential non-governmental organizations in China, and in 2006 they won the Outstanding Contribution Award for Chinese charities.

But President Xi seems less and less impressed by the work of women’s rights lawyers in China, and authorities are stepping up efforts to break down networks of activism across the country.

In the past six months, China’s regime has carried out a massive crack down on human rights defenders, detaining more than 250 lawyers and activists since June 2015.

Particularly at risk of persecution in China today are people working to use Chinese law to assert claims to rights that are traditionally violated: free speech, property, access to justice, assembly, political participation, and gender rights.

Despite their domestic crackdown on civil society and women’s rights movements, China has doubled down on its women’s rights rhetoric abroad. In September 2015, China hosted the United Nations Beijing+20 Celebration, marking 20 years since the First World Conference on Women in 1995, which China also hosted. In his address to the global leaders and women’s rights activists present, President Xi Jinping promised to “reaffirm our commitment to gender equality and women’s development.”

China’s government celebrated Beijing+20 by talking up women’s rights on the world stage.

It’s celebrating Beijing+20.5 by shutting down a legal clinic run for and by Chinese women.

Front Line Defenders Executive Director Mary Lawlor said of the closure:

“Access to justice is critical for the full recognition of women’s rights in China. That the authorities shut down such a valuable resource is another sad indictment of the Chinese government’s double standards when it comes to women. President Xi, his wife, and his government express internationally the importance of women’s rights while persecuting courageous women in China fighting to make those rights a reality.”

The juxtaposition between international posturing and domestic repression is stark, but the two are intricately linked. The Chinese government does not merely target women’s rights groups despite its international reform claims, but rather, imprisons against rights defenders and shuts down gender justice organisations because their work discredits the government’s claims of reform.

The Chinese government should not expect, however, that shutting down the women’s rights organisation will be the end of the story.

The fight for women’s rights in China is filled with almost cyclical tales of repression and creative resistance.

Indeed, the Zhongze centre is only located in Bejing because the university where it was originally founded in 1995 shut it down in 2010. Ms. Guo subsequently picked up and moved it to an apartment in north Beijing. Last March, young women human rights defenders were planning to distribute stickers denouncing sexual harassment on China’s public transportation system. Chinese authorities arrested 5 of the activists, less than 48 hours before International Women’s Day. Zheng Churan, one of the “Feminist Five,” later published “A Foodie’s Guide to Survival in a Chinese Detention Center.” Her comedic take on culinary creativity in dire circumstances made the front page of the New York Times website.

For all their alleged gender-savvy, Chinese authorities are either undeterred by or woefully unaware of the resiliency of feminist movements in China. But this much is clear:

Shutting down the Beijing Zhongze Women’s Legal Counseling Service Center will not shut down women’s activism in China.

It may displace it, relocate it, or force it to creatively re-brand from inside a prison cell — but it will not shut it down.

Portraits of Li Tingting (top left), Wei Tingting (top right), Wang Man, Wu Rongrong and Zheng Churan (bottom left to right) during a protest calling for their release in Hong Kong on 11 April. Photograph: Tyrone Siu/Reuters

Front Line Defenders strongly condemns the Chinese government’s orders to shut down the Beijing Zhongze Women’s Legal Counseling Service Center, which works directly with Chinese women to fight for the rights President Xi claims to support.

Erin Kilbride is the Communications Fellow at Front Line Defenders, the International Foundation for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders.