China Frees Five Women Activists on Bail After Outcry [Updated]

Chinese authorities have released the five women’s rights activists who had been in detention for over a month, becoming the first incident in recent Chinese history where a collectively detained group of activists have been released at once. The five were formally detained on March 12 for their roles in planning Women’s Day demonstrations against in Beijing, Guangzhou, and Hangzhou. The international celebration and planned campaigns fell during annual legislative meetings in Beijing and as the Xi administration continues its sharp crackdown on civil society activism. At Reuters, Sui-Lee Wee reports:

China has unexpectedly released five women activists on bail, two lawyers said on Monday, after a vocal campaign against their detention by the West and Chinese rights campaigners.

[…] Wei Tingting, 26, Wang Man, 32, Zheng Churan, 25, Li Tingting, 25, and Wu Rongrong, 30, have been released on bail, Liang Xiaojun and Wang Qiushi, two lawyers involved in the case, told Reuters, citing accounts from family members.

[…] “I’m not surprised at all because they’ve never committed any crimes,” said Liang. “They’ve taken people into custody without any evidence of wrongdoing, so they have to release them.”

Liang said the women were still considered suspects, adding that “their freedoms will be restricted, so it’s not something that we should be happy about”. [Source]

While many English news reports on the release say the five have been released “on bail,” the activists are actually released under qǔbǎo hòushěn (取保候审), which subjects them to surveillance and restrictions during a continued investigation for up to one year. In a 2011 blogpost on qǔbǎo hòushěn, Siweiluozi quoted legal scholar Jerome Cohen defining it as “a technique that the public security authorities sometimes use as a face-saving device to end controversial cases that are unwise or unnecessary for them to prosecute.”

On Twitter, Human Rights Watch’s Maya Wang and gender equality scholar Leta Hong Fincher praise the role that protest from the diplomatic community and outcry from domestic and international activists appear to have had in facilitating the release:

At the Wall Street Journal, Josh Chin has more from Liang on the restrictions the released activists will live under, a quote from Human Right’s Watch’s Sophie Richardson praising the role that international and domestic outrage had on their release, and a note about the relative lack of restriction that women’s activism has enjoyed in the PRC:

“The releases are a profound relief, and they make clear that public pressure from inside and outside China can change the government’s position,” said Sophie Richardson, the director of Asia advocacy at Human Rights Watch. Still, she added, the women shouldn’t have been detained in the first place.

[…] Gender equality has been a central plank in the Communist Party’s platform since its inception, with Mao famously declaring that “women hold up half the sky.”

Activists note that the country recently has made progress on women’s issues, with a landmark law on scheduled to come out later this year.

The last time a Chinese regime arrested women for feminist activity was in 1913, according to feminist Chinese historians, when then-President Yuan Shikai attempted to crush a nascent women’s suffrage movement. [Source]

Amnesty International’s William Nee praises the release as an encouraging but incomplete development, and calls on authorities to drop all charges against the five women:

The Chinese government must drop all charges against each of the five women activists released on bail late on Monday, Amnesty International said today.

[…] “The decision to release all five women is an encouraging breakthrough,” said William Nee, China Researcher at Amnesty International.

“The authorities must now follow through and drop all charges and restrictions against the women.”

[…] “Women’s rights campaigners should be free to advance human rights without fear of intimidation or the threat of detention,” said William Nee.

“Yet the reality today is that rights activists are systematically monitored, harassed and suppressed.” [Source]

The release came as prosecutors faced a deadline for filing charges against the activists and as their families issued a last minute plea to authorities for their release. Just prior to the release, legal scholar Elizabeth M. Lynch analyzed the legality of several issues related to the detentions in the context of China’s Criminal Procedure Law at her China Law and Policy blog:

Two years ago the Chinese government heralded the passing of its amended Criminal Procedure Law, which was intended to bring China more inline with the international community.  Scholars and government officials praised the law for its greater protection of criminal suspects’ rights and improved access to defense lawyers early in the process.  But the detention of these five women, exemplifies the continued weaknesses of the Criminal Procedure Law and its failure to protect suspects’ rights.  Where it does offer some protections, what’s happened to these five women, demonstrate that Chinese police and prosecutors continue to skirt the law with impunity.  This post will review some of the major issues with the detention of China’s five women activists. […] [Source]

Following first reports on the release, which initially said that only three of the five had been released, The Australian’s Scott Murdoch noted mainland censorship of the news:

Read more about the five women’s detention and the international rally for their release, the raid of NGO Yirenping (to which all five activists were tied) that followed, women’s rights, and civil society in China, via CDT.

Updated at 17:01 PDT on April 13, 2015: China Change has posted a statement by University of Michigan Women’s Studies Professor Wang Zheng, in which she mentions her relief following the release but also calls on Beijing to drop all charges and restrictions. Wang continues to offer observations on what precipitated Beijing’s decision:

In the Chinese context, this is the first time that a group of detained social activists are released all at once. This decision suggests: one, the unprecedented huge mobilization of global feminist and other non-governmental organizations’ support is effective. The massive grassroots based petitions not only pushed their own respective state politicians to respond, it also demonstrated clearly to the Chinese government that this petition is not instigated by a nation- based political enemy, but by a global political force – transnational feminists and other grassroots organizations for social justice and equality.  This global political force cannot be suppressed by the Chinese state, or any national state. And no nation state should treat this global political force as its enemy. That would be too foolish.

Two, the Chinese government is not a monolithic entity and the decision is a compromise among different political factions or state branches. It can be imagined how ferocious the contentions behind the scenes were over how to handle this hot potato in their hands. The final compromise shows clearly that there were officials in the system who pushed very hard towards a positive solution.

For both above reasons, today I am hopeful. History does not end but evolves with contentions of various forces in an indeterminate manner. I am grateful for the amazing transnational support to five Chinese feminists. I feel fortunate that there are still officials in the Chinese government who chose to stand on the side of social justice, or who simply have the sensibility of not sticking to a stupid mistake.

That said, I am fully aware of the grave challenges Chinese feminists confront with. […] [Source]

Also see China Change’s earlier interview with Wang Zheng.

At The Diplomat, Shannon Tiezzi also asks why the government decided to release the activists. While she cites outcry from domestic and foreign activist communities and international diplomatic protest as likely contributors (and notes Beijing’s normal strategy of ignoring such diplomatic pressure, as was seen in the cases of Liu Xiaobo and Ilham Tohti), she also notes that Beijing’s stated commitment to bolstering the rule of law could have played a part:

It’s impossible to know exactly what calculations were made before deciding to release the women, but it seems likely that Beijing’s recent push for the “” was at least a partial factor. Though China will not be divesting the legal system from Party control, it does want to reduce the ability of local officials to interfere in the justice system. Beijing also wants to promote the image of an impartial justice system, to restore public confidence in courts seen as corrupt and unjust.

Releasing the women on bail while further investigations are carried out allows Beijing to point to a high-profile example of its legal system in action. As the families of the women put it in a letter to prosecutors, “We believe the case of the five young women is a great opportunity for the Haidian District People’s Procuratorate to show our independent and fair judicial system to the country and the world.”

[…] It’s likely that no one factor led to the release of the five women. Each single one — international pressure, appeals to China’s justice system, and domestic frustration — has been brought to bear before with no success. But the combination of all three may have been enough to tip the scales in the women’s favor. [Source]