Global Tuidang Center



Guo Jianmei, Zhongze, and the Empowerment of Women in China

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Yaxue Cao |  China Change

This  article was first published in China Change web site on  February 14, 2016

Guo Jianmei speaking with Ms. Lakshmi Puri, assistant secretary-general  Of the United Nation (Zhongze website)
Guo Jianmei speaking with Ms. Lakshmi Puri, assistant secretary-general Of the United Nation (Zhongze website)

She is a renowned public interest lawyer, a pioneer of China’s NGO movement, a defender of women’s rights, a writer, a legislative advocate, a recipient of some of the world’s top awards for women, and her work has been recognized and supported by the likes of the United Nations. What could go wrong?


On January 29 a message on WeChat read that Zhongze had been ordered to close before the Spring Festival by the “relevant authorities.” Not long after this, the head of the Center, Guo Jianmei  sent out a WeChat message: “Announcement: Beijing Zhongze Women’s Legal Counseling Service Center will close from February 1, 2016. Thank you to everyone for your attention and support for the center’s work over the past 20 years!” The same “closedown notice” appeared on Zhongze’s website, drifting slowly and silently like a cloud across the page. She declined interviews.

The Chinese government has conducted a widespread crackdown on NGOs over the past two years. NGOs working on issues that used to be considered relatively  “safe,” such as the rights of the disabled, the sick, women’s rights, employment equality, and labor rights, are now no longer tolerated by the Chinese government. For 20 years, Zhongze provided legal services for women who were victims of domestic violence, gender discrimination, sexual abuse, and various kinds of injustice, and its work was widely praised in China. Some even thought that it was a semi-official body. The fact that it was closed demonstrates the government’s determination to completely get rid of all NGOs working in the field of rights advocacy, and confirms the widespread consensus that the space civil society had to grow in China is now all but closed.

1995, The 4th World Conference on Women in Beijing

Beijing of 1995 was a forest of scaffolding with new buildings springing up everywhere; workmen were laying cables in the dug up streets, and deeper underground new subway lines were being built. The air was still clear, with little smog. Memories of the Tiananmen Square democracy movement and the June 4th Massacre were fading, and the Beijing government was eager to win back the acceptance of the international community. “Aligning with international norms” was one of the most trendy phrases in both state discourse and everyday parlance. To that end, that September, Beijing hosted the Fourth World Conference on Women, while “equality for women” has long been considered one of the Mao Zedong’s and the Communist Party’s achievements to flaunt.

As was the custom, prior to the World Conference on Women, a NGO Forum on Women was held for several days as a supplementary meeting to the Conference. It covered a wide range of issues and was the main venue for civil society to discuss women’s issues. Participants often outnumbered those attending the main conference itself.

Guo Jianmei took part in the World Conference on Women as a journalist for the magazine China Lawyers. She originally only planned to do interviews for one day, but became fascinated and ended up staying for the full ten days of meetings. She graduated in 1983 from Peking University’s Department of Law and then worked for the Ministry of Justice and the All-China Women’s Federation. Dedicated to protecting women’s rights, she had been involved in drafting the Law of the People’s Republic of China on the Protection of Rights and Interests of Women and helped lead a project that studied the problems and solutions to implementing this law. As part of the project, she conducted research nationwide and published articles advocating women’s rights.

During the Conference, at a lawyer’s forum, one report described the scene as: “When a foreign participant asked whether there were any civil society organizations offering specialized legal aid services to women, the room suddenly fell silent.” Guo Jianmei was one of those present. Of course, later, she also heard the then US First Lady Hillary Clinton’s famous keynote speech: “Women’s rights are human rights.”

“The participants’ concern for the protection of women’s rights and for the NGOs and the passionate vibes at the Conference worked like a warm current, wiping out the sense of aimlessness that I had felt for years. I instantly felt that I had found my home,” she recalled in 2009.

It was then and there that the idea to start a women’s legal aid organization began to take root. She quit her job not long after the conference finished, and that December, along with several teachers from Peking University, founded the Center for Women’s Law Studies and Services of Peking University, the predecessor to Beijing Zhongze Women’s Legal Counseling Service Center). She was China’s first public interest lawyer working full-time defending women’s rights. The Center’s start-up capital came from a US$30,000 grant from the Ford Foundation. “I was 34 years old, the assistant editor for the All-China Lawyers Association’s China Lawyers magazine, with a professional title the equivalent of an associate professor. I had an ‘iron rice bowl,’and good job prospects,” Guo said. Although the Center bore the famous name of the Peking University,  the offices were located in the basement of a guesthouse in Zhongguancun, outside the university campus.

Revocation in 2010

In March 2010, the Office of Social Sciences of Peking University announced that it had revoked the affiliation of the Center for Women’s Law Studies and Legal Services, along with three other organizations: the Public Law Research Center, the Constitution Research Center, and the Finance News Research Center. The statement said that “the above (four) agencies from today forward have no affiliation with Peking University, and Peking University takes no managerial responsibility for any of their actions.”

It’s important to note that in the early years of NGO development in China, many organizations depended on universities and colleges to survive, because they provided both a legal organizational form and a talent pool.

Due to the fact that these four organizations had become well known, the sudden revocation led to much speculation. In the case of Guo Jianmei’s Center, observers wondered whether it was because they had gotten involved in the Deng Yujiao case (in which a spa attendant stabbed to death an official attempting to rape her), or the case of Li Ruirui (the prisoner of a black jail who was raped), both of which had attracted widespread national attention and support. Xinhua reported: “Last year, the Peking University leadership spoke to the Center, and hoped that it would not longer accept such ‘outside cases.’ It’s believed that this is the primary reason for the cancellation of the Center’s affiliation.”

1995-2010, ‘the 15 Most Rewarding Years’

The first client she helped was a woman from Xuzhou, a city in Jiangsu province, whose son had been beaten to death by local police. She had come to Beijing to petition the authorities, to no result. Instead, she was hit by a tourist bus, sustained multiple fractures, and lost one eye. Even though the traffic bureau found her not responsible for the accident, the owner of the vehicle, a state-owned enterprise, only awarded her compensation of 30,000 yuan (about $3,600 at the time). The woman refused the compensation and took the company to court, but she quickly lost the case. According to a report from a few years ago:

When this woman found Guo Jianmei, her eye was inflamed, and her body stank. “I was shocked and agreed to help her with her lawsuit,” Guo said.

“When I took her to the courthouse and the judge saw her dishevelled state, he said to me: ‘Couldn’t you find other cases? How did you come to represent this kind of person?’ I said: ‘I’m a public interest lawyer.’ The judge just ignored me and, holding his nose, kicked us out of his office.”

Guo Jianmei wrote an 8,000-word statement on behalf of the woman, but in court, ‘the judge didn’t even give me the time to finish reading the statement.’ In the end, she lost the case and when the helpless mother asked her: ‘Didn’t you say we could win?’, Guo broke down in tears.

Over the next year, she and her team of four lawyers kept losing cases. Two of the lawyers left the Center, but Guo persevered, and she and her Center would go on, in the next 15 years, to provide free legal advice to more than 70,000 people, take on close to 3,000 cases, carry out more than 80 training sessions and seminars on women’s rights, submit over 70 recommendations on laws and regulations, and publish 13 books and over 200 articles, according to an April 2010 report

From the assortment of cases on Zhongze’s website, we can see that their work mostly focused on gender discrimination in the workplace, women’s labor rights, sexual harassment in the workplace, violence against women, the rights of female migrant workers, and the land rights of women in the countryside.

At the same time, the Center acted consciously as an incubator for public interest lawyers: in 2002, it initiated a legal aid coordination group so that more organizations could join legal assistance work; in 2007, the Center established a public interest lawyers network that would attract hundreds of lawyers to provide legal service to disadvantaged members of society. In 2009, the Center established the Beijing Qianqian Law Firm with an exclusive focus on public interest cases, not limited to women’s rights, but expanding its ambit to defending the disabled, migrant workers, and the elderly. Starting in 2005, the Center also launched the Women Watch website, a Chinese/English bilingual site that “investigates, researches, observes, analyzes, evaluates and tests the state of Chinese women’s rights protection from an NGO point of view.”

The Center recognized that behind each individual case lie larger issues concerning many women. So it chose “significant, typical, and difficult cases of gender discrimination that can also be used for theoretical studies and legislative advocacy.”For example, in China, workplace sexual harassment of female subordinates by male bosses is extremely common. Following the Song Shanmu rape case, Guo Jianmei and her team issued a Guide to the Prevention of Workplace Sexual Harassment, with the financial and professional help of the International Labor Organization. The Center worked with companies to hold trainings and build  internal prevention mechanisms. At the same time, the Center held seminars where experts exchanged opinions and shared research findings. These opinions and findings were then submitted to the government for legislative action.         

After 30 years of reform and opening up in China, China has not only failed to align itself with international norms, but has set itself up for a direct clash with them. Chinese leader Xi Jinping just addressed issues of gender equality last September at the UN Women’s Summit, but a few months later he shut down the most influential NGO in China that protected women’s rights.

Dissident intellectual Mo Zhixu points out that, in mid-1990s, Chinese authorities made many concessions on human rights in order to quickly integrate into the global economic system—for instance, signing the United Nations’ International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and becoming a signatory to, though not ratifying, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, allowing Chinese to access the Internet, and granting more space for NGO work. The mid- 1990s to 2010 has often been thought of as a period of vitality and opportunity. As a result, an optimistic narrative took hold not only among Chinese liberals, but international observers and policymakers too: the middle class is growing, Internet use is expanding, civil society is developing, and new media is emerging—inevitably, the power of civil society will begin contending with the government, eventually change the power balance, and a constitutional transformation will then take place.

But the reality is, as Mo Zhixu points out, that the Communist Party authorities have since 1989 “not once wavered from their determination to maintain their dictatorship, and political structural reform has never been an option. Instead, the allowances and concessions they have made will not continue; furthermore, they have been the cause of harsher repression, until everything is frozen.”

But there are Chinese who don’t want to give up. Two hours after she announced the shutdown of Zhongze, Guo Jianmei added: “The Beijing Qianqian Law Firm is still around.” Once again, she’s faced with the difficult question of how to take her work forward.

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