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Police in China have released five women's rights activists on bail. They're accused of disturbing public order, and they may still be indicted at a later date. As NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Beijing, the case has had a chilling effect on people who work on gender rights.
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UNIDENTIFIED WOMEN: (Chanting in foreign language).
ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: In this amateur video, a group of young women's rights activists are dressed in wedding gowns smeared with fake blood. The idea of this 2012 performance art stunt was to raise awareness about domestic violence. The activists were about to stage another protest against sexual harassment on public transportation on March 8 of this year, International Women's Day. But two days before that, police detained five of them in different cities across China. Wang Qiushi is a lawyer for one of the five activists. He predicts this case will go down in the annals of Chinese feminist history.
WANG QIUSHI: (Through interpreter) Whether from the point of view of the law or what these women did, this has absolutely nothing to do with committing a crime. These women should be given honors. They should be wearing halos, not handcuffs.
KUHN: Wang points out that all of the issues the activists have raised have been written into the Chinese government's agenda. Women's rights has traditionally not been very politically sensitive, and if the government now supports the activists cause, then why did it detain them? China's government hasn't mentioned gender issues in connection with the activists' case. Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hong Lei told reporters today that China has lodged a diplomatic protest against calls by Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry to free the activists.
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HONG LEI: (Through interpreter) China's judicial organs will handle this case according to the law. We urge the U.S. to respect China's judicial sovereignty and avoid interfering in our internal affairs under any pretext.
KUHN: Zhao Sile is one of several Chinese activists who have protested their colleagues' detention. She says the five young women were probably bound to be arrested because they were unwilling to accept restrictions on how they fought for their cause.
ZHAO SILE: (Through interpreter) This is not just a question of women's rights. It's a question of women exercising their rights to demand political discourse and freedom of expression. And this is completely incompatible with the Chinese Communist Party's requirements.
KUHN: Zhao adds that whatever Chinese leaders may think of women's rights, they don't seem to welcome the public's participation in the issue.
SILE: (Through interpreter) Women's rights are a card that the Party plays. They are allowed to play it, but we are not.
KUHN: Zhao says work on gender rights in China has nearly ground to a halt. And many of her fellow feminist activists have gone into hiding. She left Beijing for a while, too, but then she came back because she figured there was no place to hide. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.