Wu Chunxia was happily married for three years until her husband Li Zhendong (pseudonym used by Chinese media) beat her after an argument. Since that day in 2003, violence escalated at Wu’s home as Li went on smashing things, seizing their three-year-old child and kicking Wu out of the house. Wu’s ordeal was just the beginning.

An ordinary rural village woman, Wu turned to the authorities for help after surviving domestic abuse. Instead, the police detained her after she sought assistance from provincial and central officials in a custody dispute with her ex-husband who was having an affair – “a matter complicated by the man’s cozy relations with local police,” as published in an investigative report by China Youth Daily and an article by Dui Hua, a Chinese Human Rights Journal, that described Wu’s case in detail.

Wu became a “stability-preservation target” in her locality, in Henan Province, after she petitioned about “family and village affairs” in 2004. The husband sued Wu for divorce. “A mediation attempt by the township women’s federation failed. Wu then complained to the village committee all the way up to the provincial women’s federation, all to no avail,” as reported. When Wu decided to go to Beijing to petition the All-China Women's Federation for help with her abusive marriage in April 2008, police intercepted her and she never made it to the capital.

Two helpless women that no female federation was able to help. Wu and Tang have fought against all odds and a corrupt judicial system.

wu chunxia.jpg
tang hui.jpg

Left: Wu Chunxia leaves Henan Province High People’s Court. Above: Tang Hui was sentenced to 18 months of reeducation through labor for accusing police of misconduct following her daughter’s kidnapping and rape. 

Source: Photo credit: Han Junjie, China Youth Daily and Sanxiang Metropolis Daily, both via Dai Hua, Human Rights Journal.

Three months later, in July, police plucked Wu from her divorce hearing. “I’ll never forget that day, even after I am dead,” Wu told China Youth Daily. The woman was detained by the police that day and local authorities sentenced her to one year of "re-education through labour" (RTL), the infamous laojiao system that allowed police to punish minor criminals without a trial or any ruling from the judicial system, which has now been abolished following publicity of similar abuses of the system.

Wu was admitted to a psychiatric hospital in Xinxiang, Henan, where she was treated as a paranoid schizophrenic for 132 days. Doctors and nurses placed electrodes on her scalp, submitted her to shock-therapy three times a week and forcibly fed her drugs that caused weight gain, high blood pressure and high cholesterol, the China Youth Daily reported.

"Once you yelled, [that would] prove that you should be deemed a mental patient," Wu told the paper. The RTL system was recently abolished on November 15, 2013, after 56 years of existence.

Wu was released in December 2008 after repeatedly threatening suicide and has since vowed to reinvestigate her case. She has fought back with a series of lawsuits. Authorities eventually revoked both her labour camp sentence and her first detention, but she insisted to take her case to court. In June 2013, Zhoukou's Intermediate Court ordered the psychiatric hospital and neighbourhood officials to pay more than 145,000 yuan (nearly 17,600 euros, $24,000) in civil damages and compensation for forcibly admitting Wu.

On May 6, People's Intermediate Court in Zhoukou ruled that the Zhoukou Police Bureau violated the law by sending Wu to a psychiatric facility. The police bureau filed an appeal 10 days later and Wu is currently awaiting the verdict. “Many of the human rights abuses reported in contemporary China share a common theme: the lengths to which local authorities are willing to go to in order to control people they identify as threats to stability. Many of those who have been targeted are petitioners, often women, seeking redress for what they believe to be unjust administrative or judicial decisions,” China Youth Daily explained in its in-depth exposé.

Wu’s case highlighted the cruelty of forced confinement on the mainland and the ordeal that those wrongly institutionalised face in trying to secure justice.  But it also disclosed what many Chinese women go through when they turn to the authorities for physical and psychological protection, or when they resort to the courts to claim land or marital rights. These women are mostly helpless, fighting against an ineffective justice system, often corrupt, and ruled by men. “Many rural women are helpless against the system when claiming their land rights. The system is basically working against them,” said Li Lixia, Secretary General from Women’s Watch-China, a NGO that protects women’s rights and advocates for gender equality. The association often takes pro bono cases. “Men go to the city for work and women stay behind tending to the land and the family but they simply have no claim to the property. We even try to submit group claims to court. But local committees are ran by men and even if the claims get to court, it is likely the court will only take individual claims,” said Li, who is a lawyer, explaining how this practice plays down the strength of a collective claim.

Wu’s case poses the question: why were China’s provincial women’s federation unable to help Wu and why couldn’t China’s national feminist agency – the All China Women’s Federation – intervene on her behalf?

    Delegates to the 11th National Women's Congress of China (NWCC) sing together at the closing ceremony of the congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on October 31, 2013. Photo: Women of China/ Zhang Ping


Delegates to the 11th National Women's Congress of China (NWCC) sing together at the closing ceremony of the congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on October 31, 2013. Photo: Women of China/ Zhang Ping

Created in 1949 by the Communist Party to “protect women’s rights and interests,” the All-China Women’s Federation (ACWF) is the state feminist agency that officially represents and promotes the rights of women. Experts, activists and NGOs state that China’s official female player is also the most inscrutable one, often acting away from the buzz created by petitioners and promoting retrograde values that contribute to keeping women in the backseat of society. Instead of relying on the sisterhood that should have the ear of China’s circles of policy-makers, feminists have little faith in the official agency and some go as far as saying that the federation adversely affects women instead of protecting them.

“The federation is invisible [to us],” said Xiong Jing from Media Monitor for Women Network (MMWN), “we don’t count on them,” the NGO project manager said. “They don’t have much to do with feminism, they’re just a state-affiliated organisation that is marginalised by the government,” said Xiong, noting the ACWF is no longer taken seriously.

The co-founder and creator of the Beijing Lesbian Center (BLC) is one of those who tried to rally support from the federation in defending LGBT rights, to no avail. “The All China Women's Federation claims to be a NGO, but actually is a government institution, another official department,” said Anchor. “The Chinese government doesn’t recognise the rights or interests of homosexual groups, whose related activities, demands and issues are limited to the scope of non-governmental and grassroots associations. The ACWF will not intervene to care and serve the lesbian groups while overstepping the government. We’ve tried to contact them but failed,” added the BLC coordinator.

It was impossible to glean an official position from the federation. One of the delegates refused an interview, claiming that her opinions didn't express those of the federation. Zhu Hong, who works under the ACWF as president of the Jianggan District Women's Federation, accepted an email interview but noted that all opinions were her own.

“Feminism might not be the right word for a women’s movement in China. In my opinion, the women’s movement in China is different from the western concept of feminism, which emerged with the claims to women’s right to vote. In China, we see a movement to emancipate women to get out of the house, take on their own careers and develop themselves,” said Zhu, shying away from the word feminism. “There are some NGOs in the field that advocate for gender equality by organising different activities. However their power is limited. The ACWF is the largest women’s organisation in China that has been striving for gender equality,” confirmed the delegate.

Seemingly stripped of its power to intervene in the behalf of wronged women, without a united voice and wary of the word ‘feminism,’ it comes as no surprise that feminist activist have cut ACWF out of the playing field.

“I'd say there are no feminists in the government; those women have been helped by men and they will abide by the official rules and regulations. We've been told by people who come to our centre that the AWCF not only doesn't help women, it ends up harming them,” observed Lin Lixia, Secretary General of Women's Watch-China, who specialises in women’s legal aid.

Throughout the years, the federation also lost support from within its own ranks. Dissatisfied with the federation’s stance on women’s issues, a number of previous members split from the ACWF and moved on to found NGOs. “In China, most people traditionally think that the ACWF is around to protect female rights, and they do try to a certain extent, but they are under official control; more female NGOs are needed,” said Lin Lixia, Secretary General Women's Watch-China. “Our founder Guo Jianmei used to be with the ACWF,” noted Lin. A lawyer and currently one of the most renowned Chinese feminists, Guo left the ACWF after attending the United Nations’ Fourth World Conference in Beijing in 1990, where she learned about female NGOs. In 2005, Guo was put forward as nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize and in 2010 she received the Simone de Beauvoir Prize with fellow feminist Ai Xiaoming. ACWF would do better without losing inspirational women such as Guo.

 Female students participate in a demonstration as part of the May Fourth Movement, in 1919, defending women's emancipation against anti-imperialism and anti-feudalism. Source: traditions.culture-china.com

Female students participate in a demonstration as part of the May Fourth Movement, in 1919, defending women's emancipation against anti-imperialism and anti-feudalism. Source: traditions.culture-china.com

Born in 1952, historian Wang Zheng grew up in Shanghai under an official mandate of equality, even though the word feminism was not around. "I never experienced discrimination growing up in the big city. Women were equal to men," explained Wang, adding that one must look back in time to understand why the federation lost its seminal grip and support. “The term feminism was not in circulation in China back in the day. People discussed equal rights and equality between men and women. When a large number of urban educated women joined the Communist Party, the topic of women’s liberation became a good term to refer to female inclusion and equal rights,” explained Wang, who teaches History at the University of Michigan. The ACWF was later created by revolutionary women who joined the ranks of the Party in the 1930s, mostly during the Japanese invasion, and the 1940s.

When the Communist Party ascended to power, these women became power holders. “They became known as state feminists and the advocates of socialist state feminism. In fulfilling the Party’s task of gender equality these women were trying to push for their female interests. These women were instrumental in promoting the equal rights agenda and pushing for reform,” underlined the professor, praising them for the first marriage law promulgated by the state in the 50s, declaring that marriages should be based on equal rights for both sexes and on the free choice of partners. Progressive at the time, the new marriage law also determined the ban on polygamy and the tradition of taking concubines, the ban on child marriages and the freedom of divorce.

During Mao’s era, the celebration of women was thus centralised and despite the public discourse on gender equality, the federation faced many obstacles moving in a male-dominated world. “When anti-Mao movements began, younger feminists turned against the All China Women’s Federation too, which was part of the state; it was their way of resisting an authoritarian state,” Wang said. That’s how the word feminism entered China, as a way to resist the authoritarian control by the state. “But these women’s concern was to go against a patriarchal society on a daily basis; they had no historical knowledge about the ACWF. The ACWF spend its first two decades fighting, never wrote anything down. There is a lack of women’s studies; there is no institutionalised knowledge about the progress of a women’s movement and feminism in China, which makes it difficult to pass on the cause to younger generations.

Wang lamented that the generation of women who fought for the creation of a female state agency is no longer alive or has left the federation to work independently. “There isn’t a new generation of revolutionaries to take their place. China’s logic of development and value system has changed drastically from collective struggle to praising the individual. Profoundly affected by capitalism consumerism, life has improved in many ways, but all it had to do with a collective mentality was strongly criticized. Therefore, younger generations grew up without an idea of striving for the common good and are not politically minded. Most young women envision their dreams and evaluate their happiness based on the amount of goods they can buy; they’re more worried about climbing the social ladder and nailing a rich husband than fighting for female rights.” Wang agrees with Lin, describing the delegates of ACWF as bureaucrats, saying the small number of feminists in the ACWF can’t fight against the tide. “Most of those women were placed at the federation by men, they will abide by what China’s male-dominated government says, and china’s Communist Party is more worried about GDP rates than people’s rights” said Wang.