Face civil activists with courage

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 April, 2015, 6:48am
UPDATED : Monday, 13 April, 2015, 9:09am

Feminists in the West have long made use of attention-grabbing stunts - shaving their heads, parading topless and storming men's restrooms - to make themselves seen and heard. But when a few young activists adopted similar theatrics on the mainland to get their message across, they were deemed such a threat to public order and stability that the authorities invoked an obscure law to lock them up.

Five activists have been detained for weeks in Beijing on suspicion of "picking quarrels and provoking trouble", a charge commonly used to suppress political activists, civil right lawyers and the like. But the "troubles" provoked by the feminists are nothing untoward and have been well publicised in the state media. In 2012, the activists occupied men's restrooms to turn the spotlight on inadequate female public toilets. Last year, they paraded in red-splattered wedding gowns to highlight domestic violence. But the arrests did not come until the eve of International Women's Day, when they were about to stage a campaign against sexual harassment on public transport.

That the central government is resorting to an arbitrarily defined offence to suppress what is commonly accepted elsewhere is regrettable. Unlike other activists pushing for changes that are seen as a direct challenge to the government's authority, the feminists are merely advocating for a fair and just society. If officials are as committed as they say in defending women's rights and gender equality, they should address the issues raised instead of penalising the activists.

The news is spreading fast on the mainland through social media, with many having signed a petition demanding their release. International pressure is also growing, after the United States, Britain and the European Union condemned the arrests. Former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton also weighed in via Twitter, saying the detentions were inexcusable and must end. But Beijing responded with its usual plea for respect for its judicial sovereignty.

Concern is growing that the new leadership has apparently stepped up the crackdown on dissent, with hundreds of human rights activists and lawyers said to have been arrested or jailed since 2012. The intolerance sits oddly with China's rising international stature and commitment to rule of law. Locking up people arbitrarily for doing what the state dislikes is no longer acceptable. The authorities should have the courage to embrace a more open and tolerant civil society.