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World

Sieren's China: The divided sky

China's arrest and imprisonment of five women fighting for greater equality - and its threat to put them on trial - is disproportionate, writes DW columnist Frank Sieren.

China has had an uneasy relationship with feminism. "Women hold up half the sky," Mao Zedong once said. His statement has appeared in discussions about women's rights in China ever since. The only problem is that Mao wasn't talking about rights, but obligations. He wanted women to be obedient, not self-confident.

Views like his permeate much of Chinese society to this day. There's no other way to explain the arrest of five feminists on March 8, International Women's Day, as they distributed leaflets and stickers protesting against sexual harassment in public places.

These women are now free on bail, but are still threatened with prosecution for "organizing a meeting with intent to disturb public order." That's even though their goals coincide with those of the Communist Party. In the spring, the annual National People's Congress discussed the rights of women. For the first time it proposed legislation to combat domestic violence.

Toilet tactics and blood-stained wedding dresses

But when it comes to fighting for women's rights, parts of the state and the party evidently have different ideas from the young women. In 2012, the activists occupied men's rooms across China, to draw attention to the fact that there are too few public toilets for women. They then protested against domestic violence by wearing bloodstained wedding dresses on the streets of Beijing. Before they were arrested, they were planning simultaneous demonstrations in several cities against harassment in buses and trains.

Frank Sieren

DW's Frank Sieren

For many young people in China, these actions are colorful, harmless, even funny. Other Chinese find them tasteless, but tolerable. Still others, and not just those in the government or party, consider them a threat to public order.

It's not clear what the majority of the Chinese people thinks - and in any event, the state has already made its decision. It has once again shown how needlessly intolerant it can be. Cases like this have increased in number since the appointment of state and party leader Xi Jinping. But Xi did not order the arrest of the women and most likely has not busied himself with them.

But the arrests align with his current policy objectives: His argument is that China faces such difficult historical reforms that rebellious members of civil society need to shut up. Xi and his followers like to think they are being pragmatic, considering a vast country with 1.4 billion people. In contrast, China's forward-thinking minority, especially in the big cities, considers this Maoist, and certainly backward.

Learning from Obama

In terms of foreign policy, though, the arrest and possible prosecution are inept moves for Xi. Hopefully someone has already told him this. In September, Xi plans to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing together with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

This summer, Xi will visit the United States as state and party leader for the first time. He could learn from US President Barack Obama on how to deal with disproportionate state violence, which even happens in the US. Hardly anyone blames Obama when unarmed blacks are shot or beaten by police. Obama speaks out against these excesses.

A lot has improved in China in recent decades, but not so much that the five women can expect a fair trial. As far as China's internal security agencies are concerned, their actions not only violate the limited right to organize, but - following the absurd accusation - threaten the stability of the country.

If the prosecutor's office in Beijing comes to the same conclusion, each of the women could face between five and 10 years in prison. This is disproportionate and inhumane.

DW columnist Frank Sieren has lived in Beijing for 20 years.

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