BEIJING (Reuters) - When five Chinese women’s rights advocates were detained in early March, diplomats and activists worked together in an unusual effort to put pressure on Beijing to free them ahead of a Chinese-sponsored women’s summit in New York in September.
It is unclear whether the campaign by Western diplomats, activists and Chinese rights campaigners, including a suggestion that China be dropped as a summit sponsor, led to the surprise release of the women last month.
But behind-the-scenes lobbying by UN Women, the U.N.’s gender equality body, in particular, reveals how the September summit, which President Xi Jinping is due to address, provided the effort with rare leverage over the Chinese government.
When asked about the lobbying campaign, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said: “China’s judicial authorities handled the case according to law.”
China’s U.N. mission did not reply to phone calls and emails. UN Women did not directly respond to questions about the lobbying, but said it “has been closely engaged with the developments throughout and welcomes the release of the five women from detention”.
Li Tingting, Wei Tingting, Wang Man, Zheng Churan and Wu Rongrong were taken into custody on the weekend of March 8, International Women’s Day, after they had planned to demonstrate against sexual harassment on public transport.
John Kamm of the San Francisco-based Dui Hua Foundation, which promotes prisoners’ rights in China, said he met Chinese diplomats in Geneva in March and suggested that the authorities should release the women on bail.
“It wasn’t just me, it was a lot of people, it was a total mobilisation. I think they were overwhelmed,” Kamm said.
Hillary Clinton, front-runner for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry all called for the activists’ release. Britain, Canada and the European Union had also expressed concern about their plight.
Although the women were released, rights activists say their detention underscores the shrinking space for civil society under Xi’s administration.
His government has detained hundreds of activists in the past two years, in what some rights groups say is the worst suppression of human rights in two decades.
The five women were released on bail but were still considered suspects, according to one of the lawyers involved in their case.
One said in a written statement that she was interrogated and verbally abused by police for eight hours, a little over a week after being released on bail.
Reuters was unable to confirm her assertions. Police at the time did not immediately respond to calls for comment.
The Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations, Jan Eliasson, said he spoke about the activists with Chinese officials in Beijing, saying at a press conference that it was brought up “in the margins” of his meetings.
Feng Yuan, a veteran activist on woman’s rights, attended a UN event on women’s issues in New York that coincided with the detentions of the women.
“Some people told us that they will speak to UN Women about this issue,” said Feng. “Their voices were really loud.”
A letter drafted by Zarin Hamid, programme coordinator of the Gender-Based Violence Program, to Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, executive director of UN Women, called on NGOs to urge the body to “deploy the combination of persuasion and strategically low profile pressure on the Chinese government”.
Reuters reviewed a copy of the letter from a foreign NGO.
“The choice of China as a partner for a global summit on women’s rights would in our view be completely unacceptable and ethically inconsistent with the detention of the five Chinese feminists,” said the letter dated April 1.
Nicholas Bequelin, Amnesty International’s East Asia director, said the Chinese government realised that the controversy could risk turning a prestigious event, which China had lobbied hard to host, into an international incident.
The unexpected decision to release the women also comes three months before the International Olympic Committee announces whether Beijing will host the 2022 Winter Olympics.
“My sense is that Beijing might be worried about its potential damage to its bidding for the Games,” said Xu Guoqi, a history professor at the University of Hong Kong, who specialises in China’s sports diplomacy.
Additional reporting by Michael Martina and Ben Blanchard in BEIJING and Michelle Nichols in NEW YORK; Editing by Mike Collett-White