BEIJING – Chinese leader Xi Jinping will preside this weekend over a U.N. conference on gender equality, which some activists say is galling given China's recent detentions of women's rights activists and its history of stopping people from attending U.N. meetings to discuss such issues.
Scheduled to draw more than 80 national leaders at the United Nations' headquarters in New York on Sunday, the meeting co-hosted by China comes 20 years after Beijing held a groundbreaking U.N. conference on women's rights in which Hillary Clinton equated women's rights with human rights.
China has made some progress in women's rights since then, including the introduction of local-level regulations against domestic violence, but much remains to be done in bringing women into positions of power. Only two women are in the Communist Party's powerful 25-member Politburo.
Over the past year, any improvement on that front was marred by the detentions of five young women known as China's Feminist Five. They were detained in March just before International Women's Day over their plans to hand out flyers denouncing sexual harassment, drawing international concern. They were released 37 days later but remain criminal suspects.
"It seems as if China only pays lip service to the notion that it encourages gender equality," said one of them, Li Tingting.
The U.N. conference is "a very important opportunity for China to save its international image," she said, even if women's rights appear to be low on the priority list.
"We can see it's so easy for China to issue a national security law," she said, "but it's taken a decade for China to roll out a law against domestic violence."
Still in detention is lawyer Wang Yu, who represented one of the Feminist Five and who has not been seen since early July when police took her away from her apartment. Her husband and 16-year-old son were later detained.
The Feminist Five were previously lauded in state media for some of their campaigns on behalf of women's rights. Their detentions appear to be part of the Xi administration's moves to snuff out any potential groundswell of opposition to the Communist Party. Xi's crackdown on rights lawyers and social activists, dozens of whom have been rounded up in recent months, is the broadest and most intense since nongovernment groups were grudgingly allowed more freedom to operate more than a decade ago.
China's Foreign Ministry has said the cases of Wang Yu and the Feminist Five have been handled according to law.
"The Chinese government has always placed emphasis on safeguarding women's rights, and taken measures to encourage and support women to defend their own rights and interests," spokesman Hong Lei said last week.
American Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power this month cited the detention of Wang and two other women in China as political prisoners who have been "unjustly locked up." The other two are Liu Xia, under house arrest after calling for authorities to release her husband, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, and Gao Yu, a 71-year-old journalist sentenced to seven years in prison in April on charges of leaking state secrets.
In past years, China has prevented activists from travelling abroad to attend U.N. events and activists have faced reprisals for trying to do so. One of the best-known is Cao Shunli, a longtime activist who was detained at Beijing's main airport in September 2013 as she was heading to Geneva to take part in a U.N. review of the human rights situation in China. She died in March 2014 after being held for months and suffering illnesses including pneumonia. Wang also was Cao's lawyer.
"It's just very galling to have the U.N. and U.N. Women partner with such a country that just does not respect women's rights and that does not respect or try and protect women human rights defenders," said Frances Eve, Hong Kong-based researcher at Chinese Human Rights Defenders, a network of Chinese and international NGOs.
"There are so many women who have tried to just access the U.N. and work with the U.N. human rights mechanisms and have faced retaliation for that — I mean Cao Shunli died trying to do that," said Eve.
When asked about such criticism, the U.N. Women group said in a statement that it "fully supports the rule of law and the right to a fair and prompt trial by all prisoners, including female prisoners." The conference will ask heads of state and governments to make gender equality commitments in their countries, which UN Women and other groups will then track.
On Sunday, Xi will give opening remarks at the U.N. Women conference, and he will be chairman of a session on gender equality and female empowerment.
Twenty years earlier, Beijing hosted a landmark conference in 1995 to advance women's rights globally, involving 189 governments and approximately 2,000 NGOs. In China, the meeting brought the issue of domestic violence to the attention of women's federations and civil organizations, which started campaigning at local and national levels for a law against it.
Since then, almost all the country's provinces have instituted regulations against domestic violence. However, it has taken longer for a national law to take shape. Last month a first draft was submitted to the national legislature for deliberation.
In the 30 years since China launched market-orientated reforms, Chinese women have benefited along with society as a whole as the state has reduced its bureaucratic hold on people's lives and the economy has boomed.
Chinese women nowadays can buy contraceptive pills in pharmacies without a prescription, rather than having to go to a hospital with a stamped permission letter from their company. It is still illegal for single women to give birth. And China's strict rules on how many children couples can have has led to a fewer girls.
Irene Giner-Reichl, who chaired a negotiating meeting at the 1995 Beijing conference and is now the Austrian ambassador to Beijing, said that China has a "glass ceiling" for women in politics and state-owned enterprises, as well as pressure on women to marry before the age of 25.
"The old and traditional stereotypes concerning the division of labor between women and men in family and public life are quite entrenched, and many observers feel that they are actually becoming stronger again," she said.