Detention of Chinese women’ rights activists illustrates the interconnectedness of human rights: swords and shields needed

Posted by Kate Barth on April 8, 2015

Civil and political rights and economic, social and cultural rights are often viewed as two distinct set of rights, codified on the international level, respectively, by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.  The reason for the codification of these two sets of rights into different international instruments is an interesting historical story relating to early Cold War politics, but as any human rights defender might tell you, civil and political rights are so deeply entwined with economic, social and cultural rights that it can be difficult to disentangle the two. More importantly, it is impossible to guarantee one set of rights if the other set is not simultaneously safeguarded.

The recent imprisonment of five women’s rights activists in China illustrates this point with alarming clarity.  These activists (Li Tingting, Wei Tingting, Wang Man, Zheng Churan, and Wu Rongrong) had focused their advocacy efforts on women’s health rights: a 2012 Occupy the Men’s Toilets campaign sought to increase the ratio of public toilets for women, a 2013-2014 Bloodstained Bride campaign aimed to draw public attention to the problem of domestic violence, and the women were arrested while agitating against sexual harassment on public transportation. None of these campaigns directly challenged the Chinese government’s significant restrictions on civil and political freedoms; in fact, the activists had every reason to hope that the same communist government which claimed to embrace women’s equality would back their efforts.

And yet… nearly a month after their arrests these five activists still remained detained in Chinese prisons, accused of provoking social instability. What was it about these activists and their campaigns that alarmed the government? Could it have been their dexterous use of social media to rally supporters? Their links to foreign human rights organizations? Their theatrical guerilla tactics which are not commonly seen under such authoritarian regimes?

Whatever it was that spooked the Chinese authorities, these activists now face up to five years in jail if convicted of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” Clearly, despite their campaign’s focus on the health rights not inherently inimical to a communist regime, the fact that such activism was expressed through the protest tools associated with civil and political rights marked these activists as dangerous to the state. Moreover, once marked as hostile to the authorities’ interests, these activists seem unlikely to enjoy full due process guarantees as their case winds through the Chinese judicial system.

The case of these Chinese activists highlights the absurdity of any putative separation between humans rights. Civil and political rights and economic, social and cultural rights are wielded variously as both the sword and the shield of a human rights activist–and it’s difficult to win a battle without full weaponry.


Kate Barth is a legal officer at Lawyers Collective.