Local authorities in China are taking extreme measures to silence a blogger and activist, after she started a campaign online to raise awareness about the rape of several schoolchildren, and the ineffectiveness of Chinese laws against such violence.
Ye Haiyan - a prominent feminist based in the southern province of Guangxi - recently traveled to Wanning, a city in the southern island of Hainan, where a school principal and a local government official were accused of raping six schoolgirls.
The case sparked national outrage because of the cruel nature of the crime, and reports of inefficiencies and cover-ups by authorities during the initial investigation.
To highlight the incident, Ye took to Weibo - China's Twitter-like service. She posted pictures of herself in front of the school holding a cardboard sign saying: “School principal, take a room with me instead, leave the children alone."
The post went viral, with many Internet users and well-known figures in China lending their faces to the cause, and posting similar pictures.
Then Ye’s troubles began. Police visited her home. After an altercation, Ye was arrested for assaulting the police. She was detained for 13 days. After her release, she returned home and found an angry mob waiting for her. Ye posted pictures online showing hateful banners hanging above the street in front of her home.
Ye also posted updates. “This afternoon I went to the police station to make a report,” she wrote in one post, “I requested to apply for protection, but it was not accepted. I will go again tomorrow and make the request again.”
Beijing lawyer Tang Jitian said that local authorities have done nothing to ensure Ye's safety.
“Not only they have not handled the issue well by detaining her in the first place,” he said, “but neither police nor the local government came up with an effective way to help her. I saw that at the end the mob dispersed, but that is not a guarantee that this won't happen again."
A person answering the phone at the Bobai county police station did not answer questions about Ye Haiyan, and said to check the government's Internet page for information.
Days before Ye was freed from police custody, fellow activist and filmmaker Ai Xiaoming posted topless pictures of herself. On her chest she reproduced Ye Haiyan's plea on behalf of schoolchildren in China.
“Carrying banners on the street is not permitted and it is treated as a crime and as a provocation,” she said, “If I cannot walk the streets and hold banners, at least I can write my protest on my body and put the picture online, which is a public space.”
Ai said that these kinds of campaigns are essential in the fight against sexual violence in schools.
“The head of the families [whose children have been molested] are receiving enormous pressure, and they need the support of the society so that they can unite and denounce these crimes,” said Ai Xiaoming.
One of their challenges is getting accurate, consistent facts.
Chinese media have reported on the different results in the girls' medical examinations. During a first tests the victims' hymens showed damage, but shortly after, the hospital changed its conclusion and said they were intact.
Ai Xiaoming said these discrepancies illustrate another obstacle to justice for the victims.
“To preserve their images, local government officials don't do their duty in persecuting these crime,” Ai said, “On the contrary, they cover up.”
Last month, at least six primary school teachers were detained for allegedly sexually assaulting girls, some as young as eight years old. Responding to this string of rape cases, authorities have pledged to strictly prosecute the offenders.
In Hainan, the school principal and the government employee accused of raping the six school girls are being prosecuted. Rape is punishable with sentences up to the death penalty in China.
Lawyer Tang Jitian said that activism by citizens like Ye Haiyan complements the work of the government and the courts.
“We need to have NGOs and social workers do these attempts to protect human rights,” he said. “But if the government does not tolerate this kind of people [activists], then I think that there is a big problem with the government.”
Ye Haiyan’s problems continue. She has been evicted from her home, and after receiving increasing pressure from local authorities as well as unidentified mobs, she is now looking for a house elsewhere.
Tang Jitian said that ultimately Bobai's authorities will reach their goal: to move an outspoken activist off their turf.