More than a month has passed since five feminist activists, who planned to protest against sexual harassment in public transportation ahead of International Woman's Day, were detained.
One of their lawyers, Yan Xinwen, revealed that the police have reported the case to the Procuratorate of the People's Republic of China seeking official approval for their formal arrest and indictment. The fate of the five will be revealed by April 13, in accordance with Chinese law. [Update April 9, 2015: A New York Times report says the lawyers checked with the prosecutor’s office in the Haidian district of Beijing and found out that no applications had been filed, which means the five activists are now detained illegally as the police are required to file a request for formal arrest with prosecutors within 30 days of the detention of suspects.]
Meanwhile, feminists and human right activists from all over the world continue to demand for the women's release. In an Academic Conference at Brookings Institution on April 3, a number of feminist scholars commented on the arrests. Professor Wang Zheng from University of Michigan pointed out that the last time a Chinese government had arrested a women's right activist was 1913. With Xi Jinping due to visit the US in September, she also called on President Barack Obama to speak up on behalf of the five.
Pressure from US politicians has not made much of a difference so far. After former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton denounced the women's detention as “inexcusable” on her Twitter account, China's Foreign Ministry responded with their standard answer that the incident was an internal affair and that other countries had to respect the China's judicial sovereignty.
Despite international outcry, Chinese authorities have extended their crackdown on domestic feminist networks. They've interrogated women who have taken part in flash mobs in the past, such as Occupy Men's Toilets in 2012, and raided the Beijing Yirenping Center, which is a moderate NGO against all forms of discrimination.
Many have wondered why the Chinese government is taking such harsh action toward young activists who have done nothing to challenge the regime. China Director at Human Rights Watch Sophie Richardson described the crackdown as a telling display of “the combination of power and paranoia”.
He Qinglian, a China observer, believed that the arrests are related to a wider crackdown on NGOs in China, in particular those with strong overseas connections:
关于北京抓捕女权五姐妹，我仔细分析资料，她们的主张活动除爱滋话题之外，其余本不在政治禁忌之内。但今年遇到北京整肃NGO，因此被拿来试刀。《海外背景被调查，境外NGO面临监管严冬》 http://t.co/lgYXiPNc1W 希望海外谴责起作用。
— He Qinglian (@HeQinglian) April 7, 2015
Upon analyzing all the related material concerning the arrest of the five feminists, their actions did not touch on any political taboos except their advocacy work related to AIDS. Yet against the backdrop of the crackdown on NGOs, they became a testing ground for authorities. See: “NGOs with overseas background are facing a tough winter” http://t.co/lgYXiPNc1W I wish more pressure from the international community could change the situation.
Currently, Beijing is drafting a law on “Management of Overseas NGOs” to prevent NGOs with foreign connections from involvement in political activities. It has been estimated that there are more than 6,000 NGO projects that have overseas connections, and Beijing fears that they could eventually trigger a so-called Color Revolution in China.
Prominent mainland Chinese sexologist Li Yinhe described the current situation as absurd:
Gender equity is our country's national policy and is the mainstream ideology. China has been doing great in lifting women's status and has ranked as high as 28 among the 100 plus countries in [gender equity] ratings. In the two congresses this year, the law against domestic violence was put on the agenda and would be introduced soon. How can the Chinese government align itself against those who fight sexual harassment? Isn't this absurd?
She tried to address the issue from the perspective of the government's concern about stability:
It is impossible to eliminate protests in their planning stages. There are 1.3 billion people in China. Things such as a few people sitting together in a house and planning for something in the street take place every minute. If you have to prevent that from happening by arresting them, how much would it cost?
She argued that the government's tactics are actually undermining its desire for stability:
This is like butterfly effect, a butterfly flaps its wings in one corner of the world and it turns into a storm on the other side of the world. Absurdity evolves by itself and intensifies. Once the five are released, the storm can be prevented. Moreover, it is necessary to evaluate the logic of stability control or else it could turn against its purpose: what you want is stability, but the result is instability and restlessness.