China detains feminist activists on eve of International Women’s Day

Detentions take place as China gears up for 20th anniversary of UN women’s day

Chinese prime minister Li Keqiang   poses with female delegates to mark  International Women’s Day. Photograph: China Daily/Reuters

Chinese prime minister Li Keqiang poses with female delegates to mark International Women’s Day. Photograph: China Daily/Reuters

ChinaInternational Women’s Day

amid fears they were planning a nationwide campaign against sexual harassment.

The arrests appear to form part of a broader crackdown on dissent under President Xi Jinping.

Activists for women’s issues had reportedly been planning to stage a public demonstration on Saturday by pinning posters against sexual harassment on the public transport network in Beijing, Guangzhou and other cities around China.

The detentions on the eve of International Women’s Day took place as China marked the 20th anniversary of hosting the 1995 United Nations’ Fourth World Conference on Women. China is a signatory to the Beijing declaration that came out of the conference, in which it promised to protect and promote the human rights of women and girls.

While Mao Zedong’s dictum that women “hold up half the sky” is often cited to show how the rights of women have improved in China, women still have difficulty getting into senior positions.

A report in the New York Times last month showed women account for fewer than 10 per cent of board positions in the country’s top 300 companies, and hold only two of 25 seats on the Communist Party’s ruling politburo.

Local feminist groups issued an urgent appeal calling for the release of “at least five” young feminist activists ahead of the day to highlight women’s issues around the globe.

The women were detained as Communist Party delegates from all over China gathered in the capital for the country’s annual parliament, the National People’s Congress.

Weibo, the Chinese version of the banned Twitter service, was full of speculation about the detention of the activists at the weekend.

One of the best-known of those picked up was Li Maizi, the pseudonym of university student Li Tingting, who organised a campaign for more unisex toilets to address a shortage of facilities for women.

“They have not given information on why she was detained, but my guess is that it has something to do with maintaining social stability on International Women’s Day,” said Yan Xin, Li’s lawyer.

Another activist, Zheng Churan, known as Datu, was being held in the southern metropolis of Guangzhou, while others picked up include Wu Rongrong, director of an Hangzhou-based NGO called Women’s Centre.

Strict control of public displays of dissatisfaction in China means expressions of dissent such as that by Pussy Riot in Russia would have an even slimmer chance of success.