Next month will mark the twentieth anniversary of the United Nations (UN) Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, where then-U.S. First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton famously proclaimed that “women’s rights are human rights,” and one hundred and eighty-nine nations came together to adopt the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. A landmark document, the Beijing Platform represents an ambitious commitment to the “full and equal participation of women in political, civil, economic, social, and cultural life,” a call that has galvanized progress on behalf of women around the world in subsequent years.
On September 27, the Chinese government will mark the anniversary of the Beijing Conference by co-hosting a UN summit on gender equality and women’s empowerment in New York. Chinese President Xi Jinping will stand alongside UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to reaffirm the principles of the Beijing Declaration, and UN member states will be invited to make commitments to accelerate its implementation.
To advance the Beijing Platform, however, some argue that the Chinese government ought to start at home, where women’s rights remain under attack. While women have seen some progress in China—including, for example, the government’s introduction of a new domestic violence bill, which is supposed to become law this year—China has considerably more work to do. On International Women’s Day in March, Beijing drew widespread attention when five members of the activist group Weizhiming were detained while attempting to launch a campaign against sexual harassment on public transportation. According to the government, they were arrested for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” a charge that could have resulted in up to five years’ imprisonment.
International condemnation was swift and unwavering. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry issued a press statement urging “China to immediately and unconditionally release the ‘Beijing+20 Five.’” The European Union condemned their arrest as “violat[ing] their right to demonstrate peacefully.” The Chinese government pushed back at this criticism, calling for other countries to respect China’s sovereignty and independence.
After a month of detention, all five women were eventually released on bail, and in the wake of international pressure, the government decided against filing official charges. In spite of their release, however, Weizhiming activists expressed concern about their ability to pursue their work to advance women’s rights. “Because of the mounting pressure from authorities, we had fewer and fewer projects going on, so we can’t afford the rental and operation of the center,” reported Wu Rongrong, the founder and executive director of the group, to the Guardian.
The Chinese government’s commemoration of the 1995 Beijing conference at the United Nations sends an important message of support. But true progress on gender equality—whether in China or elsewhere—cannot be made unless civil society groups are allowed to campaign on behalf of women’s rights. In September, the Chinese government should lead the way in implementing the Beijing Platform by ensuring that the critical work of women’s rights advocates is protected—not penalized.