Lawyer recovers from setback in women's rights
Guo Jianmei received her worst birthday present when she turned 50 in late March - the news about Peking University's decision to close its Centre for Women's Law Studies and Legal Services. The NGO, which she co-founded 15 years ago, is one of the most prominent on the mainland. Guo, a lawyer and part-time associate law professor, talks about what NGO work means to her and how she has come to terms with the university's decision to cut ties with the rights advocacy group.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
I was an assistant to the editor-in-chief of China Law magazine in 1995 when I was sent to cover the World Women's Federation meeting in Beijing in September. I was overwhelmed by the volunteerism at the meeting and a parallel gathering of women's NGOs. I was struck by the compassion, vigour, challenges and social responsibility in NGO work. Three months later, when I was about to be promoted to deputy editor-in-chief at the magazine, I quit the job and launched the women's legal aid centre.
What has the centre done so far?
Over the past decade or so, we have handled nearly 3,000 pro bono cases benefiting tens of thousands of women from disadvantaged groups.
We were among the first to arrive in Badong, Hubei, to provide legal assistance to Deng Yujiao, a hotel masseuse who stabbed to death a county official trying to rape her in May last year. Lately we have been hosting workshops in collaboration with the International Labour Organisation to draw up law revision proposals for better legal protection for the growing number of maids on the mainland, who are increasingly susceptible to right abuses.
What did Peking University's decision mean to you and your colleagues?
We could no longer operate as an NGO affiliated to Peking University. But we can continue to operate as long as we are properly registered with the authorities.
But I felt betrayed and deserted and cried like a baby the day I learned about its decision. What had happened to its comments that we'd made the university proud and we were No 1 [among all Peking University-affiliated institutions]?
What options are available if you want to carry on?
I could register with the Ministry of Civil Affairs as a non-profit organisation or non-governmental organisation. But I must find a caretaker, either the Ministry of Justice or the Bureau of Justice in Beijing, to support a legal aid NGO like ours. It is required by mainland law. However, the chances of finding a caretaker are very slim right now.
Alternatively we might have to register with the industry and commerce authorities as an NGO of business nature, which means we will have to pay at least 200,000 yuan (HK$228,000) in taxes a year for donations we receive. We could do much work with 200,000 yuan.
Have you thought of why Peking University made that decision?
University authorities said the closure was 'a process of metabolism' to replace institutions that were no longer suitable in the current circumstances. I don't buy that explanation. When we marked the 10th anniversary of the founding of the centre four years ago, then university president Xu Zhihong came to praise us. I reckon the decision has much to do with the sensitive nature of many legal cases we took up, cases that could trigger riots or cast local governments in a bad light as official corruption was involved. Are corrupt officials what the authorities want and should they be allowed to represent our governments?
When did you begin to notice changes in official attitudes towards the NGO?
The university authorities and law faculty officials had been very supportive of the centre. They spoke at legal aid and advocacy forums we held. It wasn't until the summer of 2008 that they told us not to take up high-profile lawsuits because, they said, these were unsuitable for the university's reputation as a teaching and research institution. I got the feeling that they distrusted us as a result of the sensitive cases. In the spring of last year, they formally asked us to detach ourselves from the university. But they never used the term 'closure' until late March.
Could you and your colleagues have acted differently to avoid the fallout?
Actually, we have been treading the line carefully. For example, we have been representing Li Ruirui , who in July last year was raped by a government-employed security guard in a 'black jail', where she had been held to prevent her petitioning over ill treatment at school. We urged the prosecutors' office to appeal because we thought the eight-year sentence was too light. The defendant had abused public trust in him as a law enforcement officer and the court offered too little compensation to Li, who is still traumatised. We could have initiated an online campaign to solicit support for a retrial, but we didn't. Instead we have proposed an overhaul of the petition system.
What prospects do NGOs such as the women's legal aid centre have?
It doesn't look good at the moment, but I have nothing to fear as I have not broken the law. On top of that I love my country. They could only do so much and no one would dare to tell me in public to stop helping the underprivileged. If that ever happened, I would not keep silent. If I am not allowed to be a good lawyer, can I be forced to be a bad one? And if I can't be a good lawyer, something must be terribly wrong with the system.