In September 1995, government leaders and activists gathered outside Beijing for the 4th World Conference on Women. Then first lady Hillary Clinton delivered a speech declaring that, “women’s rights are human rights”:
This weekend, to mark 20 years since that event, China co-hosted a conference at the United Nations in New York, titled ‘Global Leaders’ Meeting on Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment: A Commitment to Action,’ as part of the the three-day U.N. Sustainable Development Summit. President Xi Jinping delivered a speech in which he pledged to donate $10 million to support women’s rights programs at the U.N.:
In the New York Times, Somini Sengupta reports on the response to China’s hosting of this event, and on President Obama’s decision to not attend:
To both presidents, the women’s summit meeting is important for domestic political reasons, she said. For Mr. Xi, the meeting is a chance to show an audience back home that China is a leader on the world stage, even if it does not convince the world that China has overnight become a champion of women’s rights.
For Mr. Obama, Ms. [Xenia] Wickett said, attending the gathering would be politically costly. “America is in campaign mode. It’s bash China time,” she said. “President Obama would be condemned for attending an event like that, particularly in the political environment we have today.”
[…] Ms. Kanyoro [president of the Global Fund for Women] said she hoped that the United States would “invest heavily” in a shared agenda to promote gender equality at all levels. She expressed the same wish of China, saying she was not troubled by its prominence at the summit meeting.
“China is a player at the table. China needs to take some responsibility through financing and to use part of its own growing influence in the world to pay attention to women,” she said. “We will have an opportunity to hold China more responsible for human rights and women’s rights.” [Source]
But despite the progress in women’s lives in recent decades as noted by Xi, recent years have seen setbacks for women’s rights in many areas. Emily Rauhala reports for the Washington Post:
Though China is right to note improvements in women’s standard of living, welfare and health, the full picture is more complex. While Chinese women are, on average, wealthier, more educated and healthier than they were before, experts say they are losing ground, relative to men.
At the same time, the central government — a sea of middle-aged men in suits — is taking an increasingly hard line on activism, feminist organizing included. In the spring, five young women were detained ahead of International Women’s Day for planning what they called “performance art.” Months later, they are still being harassed and threatened by police.
“Even though feminists have worked very hard, 20 years after the conference, it is not a rosy picture — not at all,” said Wang Zheng, an associate professor at the University of Michigan who studies China’s women’s movement.
[…] “Chinese women did make progress on various fronts, but that progress is being rolled back,” echoed Leta Hong Fincher, author of “Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China.” [Source]
As a case in point, just as Xi was scheduled to speak at the U.N., women rights groups in China were under an enforced blanket of silence, Tom Philips reports for the Guardian:
With a severe political crackdown under way, independent activists say security officials have ordered them to refrain from any public form of commemoration.
“The authorities don’t want active commemorations,” one campaigner, who asked not to be identified, told the Guardian. “It’s very tender.”
On a recent morning, dozens of women gathered in a hotel conference room in the Chinese capital for a debate about the impact of the 1995 event dubbed “Re-launching Beijing”. In an attempt to avoid police scrutiny, a sign outside the room read: “Seminar on women’s culture”.
“We try to avoid the term Beijing+20,” explained one participant, who said many feminists felt angry and exasperated at the repression. “No one wants to do any harm to the state. We want to help our people to enjoy a better life. There are no revolutionaries here.” [Source]
Five women activists who were detained this spring after organizing activities to mark International Women’s Day on March 8 have remained under tight surveillance, but have continued to speak out to protest their treatment. Last week, the women’s defense lawyers wrote a letter to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon asking for his support in demanding the Chinese government drop the case against them. Li Tingting, one of the “Feminist Five,” recently wrote about the harassment she has faced in securing housing. From Radio Free Asia:
As Chinese President Xi Jinping began a state visit to the United States amid a volley of calls for the release of jailed critics of the ruling Chinese Communist Party, Li Tingting issued her own statement calling on the authorities to leave her alone.
“My landlord told me recently that they received a phone call from the residential committee and a police officer surnamed Guo telling them to evict me from the apartment I am living in,” Li wrote.
“They said my case involved matters of state security.”
[…] “I don’t know why the police are still concerning themselves with me even now. All I do is campaign for gender equality and the rights of women, and sometimes work for the interests of minority groups,” Li wrote.
“What does [this] work have to do with state security?” she added. “Are they trying to make sure I have nowhere to live?” [Source]
Update (Sept. 28 10:30 am PST):
Hillary Clinton tweeted in response to Xi’s speech:
Xi hosting a meeting on women's rights at the UN while persecuting feminists? Shameless. #Freethe20 http://t.co/hRkaaAnMMp -H
— Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) September 27, 2015
Global Times responded by comparing Clinton to Donald Trump:
It seems that Hillary, eager to keep a competitive edge in the game, has also resorted to these ignominious shenanigans. Despite her political acumen as former secretary of state and senator, she is using the language of Trump to cast herself in the role of a rabble-rouser. [Source]