Women's rights crackdown exposes deepening crisis in Chinese society
Tom Phillips, The Observer
The abrupt closure of a flagship legal service for women in Beijing set up by the renowned lawyer Guo Jianmei has sent shockwaves among women’s activistsJust a few years ago, Beijing hailed Guo Jianmei as China’s “patron of the weak”, a fearless and influential activist-lawyer whose NGO offered solace and support to thousands of disenfranchised Chinese women.
But this week, after 20 years, Guo’s organisation – the Beijing Zhongze Women’s Legal Counselling and Service Centre – abruptly announced it was closing, sending shockwaves through the country’s already embattled third sector.
Details of the group’s closure remain sketchy. Reached by telephone on Thursday, Guo, 55, declined to comment on its apparently forced demise, citing “pressure”. “It is not convenient to say [what is happening],” the veteran women’s rights activist said. “I hope you can understand.”
Human rights campaigners, NGO workers and diplomats are convinced Guo’s group is the latest victim of President Xi Jinping’s escalating clampdown on civil society. Maya Wang, a Hong Kong-based researcher for Human Rights Watch (HRW), said the authorities’ decision to shut it down was designed to send a message that only those toeing the Communist party line would now be tolerated.
“People are saying, ‘If her centre [can be] closed what else might the government do?’ And that is precisely what the government wants: to make people so fearful that they do not even think of trying to challenge or even be seen to challenge the government.”
Born in Henan, one of China’s most deprived provinces, in 1960, Guo went on to become one of her country’s most prominent and revered women’s rights advocates.
“My personality is like a knight, chivalrous,” she said in 2013. “I like to defend against injustice … I don’t like to see bullying.”
In another interview, Guo described how she had been drawn to activism having witnessed the suffering of one grandmother, who was divorced for failing to bear a son, and another who starved to death aged only 41.
“Growing up immersed in such experiences I formed an idea very early on: why did women have to live such miserable lives? Why can’t women be equal to men?” she said.
Guo’s quest to help Chinese women began in 1979 when she enrolled at the Peking University Law School as China emerged from its chaotic decade-long Cultural Revolution.
Like many Chinese feminists, Guo’s transformation into fully fledged activist came in 1995 during the UN’s fourth conference on women in Beijing at which Hillary Clinton famously declared: “Human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights.”
“It was the first time I was hearing the terms ‘public interest lawyers’, ‘NGO’ and ‘women’s rights’,” Guo recalled of the historic summit, which was part of Beijing’s attempts to mend its international image in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre.
“I had the overwhelming feeling that such people were urgently needed in China.”
Within months of the conference, Guo resigned from her job as a civil servant and helped found the group that would morph into the centre.
It was the first public interest group in China to focus solely on providing legal aid to women and it quickly drew powerful supporters.
When Clinton visited the NGO in 1998 it was already offering help to survivors of sexual assault, those affected by the one-child policy, and migrant workers and female engineers who were being forced to retire earlier than their male counterparts.
“In a country where most citizens still go to great lengths to avoid controversy, Ms Guo does not mind jumping into the fray,” the New York Times reported.
Still, Guo was known as a judicious and measured voice who, at least until recently, had successfully managed to navigate a course between effective activism and becoming a government enemy.
Wang, from HRW, said: “She is considered a moderate advocate of women’s rights and over the years she has been very successful in leveraging whatever resources and fame she has to turn into legal advocacy work that has helped thousands of women in China over domestic violence cases, property rights and so on.
“She has walked a very tight rope that exists in the space tolerated by authorities.”
Walking that tightrope appears to have become an increasingly arduous task since Xi’s rise to power, in late 2012, signalled the start of a political chill that has led to the targeting of human rights lawyers, journalists, labour organisers and feminist activists.
In recent years Guo has complained of growing pressure, said one Chinese human rights lawyer who has worked with the veteran activist.
“At the end of each year, Guo would often say she didn’t know if Zhongze would continue into the next year,” said the lawyer, who asked not to be named.
Clinton waded into the controversy this week, taking to Twitter to attack Beijing over the legal aid centre’s closure.