Five prominent women’s rights activists in China have been released after spending a month in jail, but the women’s future remains uncertain.
Police released the women, dubbed the Feminist Five, from prison Monday after prosecutors decided not to immediately press charges. Last week police asked prosecutors to charge Li Tingting, Wu Rongrong, Zheng Churan, Wei Tingting and Wang Man with organizing a crowd to disturb public order. Sophie Richardson, the China director for Human Rights Watch, said charges may still be brought later.
"You know, the future for them is very unclear. They are legally in a position where charges could still be issued. They could have various kinds of liberties further restricted, and it's kind of unclear at this point where prosecutors plan to head with this case," said Richardson.
The women were arrested in a series of raids beginning on March 6 in the cities of Beijing, Hangzhou and Guangzhou. They had planned to launch a national campaign against sexual harassment and hand out leaflets and stickers on public transit vehicles on International Women’s Day. Police initially investigated the women for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” Later, the police said the activists should be charged with organizing a crowd to disturb public order, which carries a jail sentence of five years.
"I think part of what the authorities are trying to do is create a sense of uncertainty and ambiguity about what behavior is and isn't acceptable, and by leaving it as vague as they have and leaving these activists out on bail with this very vague set of criteria, essentially about behaving well, it's very unclear what that means. And, of course, it leaves them vulnerable to being detained again," said Richardson.
The Communist Party has long supported equality for women. Mao Zedong stated that women hold up half the sky, and under his leadership China instituted policies that encouraged greater parity for women in Chinese society. The women’s activists released this week organized campaigns for several years with little interference by Chinese authorities.
In 2012, the five women occupied men’s public toilets to demand equal facilities for women. Some of them also previously launched a "Bloodstained Bride" campaign, during which they posed in red-stained wedding dresses to draw attention to domestic violence.
"Government officials have spoken publicly about the problems with sexual harassment over the last couple of years, and so to see this kind of treatment of these kinds of activists over this kind of work that hadn't even happened yet, I think shows just how jumpy the Chinese government is over any kind of independent voices," said Richardson.
Police will monitor the women for one year, and they have been instructed to notify authorities of any travel plans. Lawyers for the women say the activists, while free for now, face detention at any time.