Scheduled to draw more than 80 national leaders at the United Nations’ headquarters in New York on Sunday, the meeting co-hosted by China comes 20 years after Beijing held a groundbreaking UN conference on women’s rights in which Hillary Clinton equated women’s rights with human rights.
China has made some progress on women’s rights since then, including the introduction of local-level regulations against domestic violence, but much remains to be done in bringing women into positions of power. Only two women are in the Communist Party’s powerful 25-member Politburo.
Over recent months, any improvement on that front was marred by the detentions of five young women known as China’s Feminist Five. They were detained in March just before International Women’s Day over their plans to hand out flyers denouncing sexual harassment, drawing international concern. They were released 37 days later but remain criminal suspects.
“It seems as if China only pays lip service to the notion that it encourages gender equality,” said one of them, Li Tingting.
The UN conference is “a very important opportunity for China to save its international image,” she said, even if women’s rights appear to be low on the priority list. “We can see it’s so easy for China to issue a national security law, but it’s taken a decade for China to roll out a law against domestic violence.”
Still in detention is lawyer Wang Yu, who represented one of the Feminist Five and who has not been seen since early July when police arrested her. Her husband and 16-year-old son were later detained.
The Feminist Five were previously lauded in state media for some of their campaigns on behalf of women’s rights. Their detentions appear to be part of the Xi administration’s moves to snuff out any potential groundswell of opposition to the Communist Party.
Xi’s crackdown on rights lawyers and social activists, dozens of whom have been rounded up in recent months, is the broadest and most intense since non-government groups were grudgingly allowed new freedoms to operate more than a decade ago.
China’s Foreign Ministry has said the cases of Wang Yu and the Feminist Five have been handled according to law. “The Chinese government has always placed emphasis on safeguarding women’s rights, and taken measures to encourage and support women to defend their own rights and interests,” spokesman Hong Lei said.
US ambassador to the UN Samantha Power this month said Wang and two other women political prisoners had been “unjustly locked up”. The other two are Liu Xia, under house arrest after calling for authorities to release her husband, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, and Gao Yu, a 71-year-old journalist sentenced to seven years in prison in April on charges of leaking state secrets.
In past years, China has prevented activists from travelling abroad to attend UN events and activists have faced reprisals for trying to do so. One of the best-known is Cao Shunli, a longtime activist detained at Beijing’s main airport in September 2013 as she was heading to Geneva to take part in a UN review of the human rights situation in China.
She died in March 2014 after being held for months after suffering pneumonia.