By Rebecca Bailey
A Chinese journalist who popularised the country’s stalled #MeToo movement and a labour activist were due to face trial Friday, with supporters voicing concerns for their health after two years in detention.
Sophia Huang Xueqin and Wang Jianbing were arrested on 19 September 2021, under the broad charge of “inciting subversion of state power” — but their trial in the southern city of Guangzhou was only announced this week, according to their supporters.
Calls to the court where they were expected to appear went unanswered.
The case shows how “the Chinese government has to a large extent eliminated the space for civil society activism”, Yaqiu Wang, China research director at Freedom House, told AFP.
“Authorities have arrested and silenced so many people, by this point, people can be thrown in jail for any perceived infraction of what is permitted, and the space for what is permitted is constantly shrinking.”
Authorities have not given details on Huang and Wang’s arrests.
The two were involved in running a weekly gathering in Guangzhou, a member of a group of supporters told AFP.
With “the whole of civil society fragmented, this was a way to reunite and reconnect, to foster a new network in Guangzhou”, they told AFP.
Police subsequently cracked down on the group, questioning over 70 people and detaining some over the course of several days, they said.
“There was so much PTSD after this attack (on the group)… Some activists had to leave Guangzhou, and (the community) is just not able to join together or connect anymore,” they added.
Huang and Wang’s trial is being held behind closed doors, and it is not known when their sentence will be announced.
Huang wrote on social media about her experience of workplace sexual harassment as a young journalist at a Chinese news agency, in the wake of the global #MeToo movement.
She had been arrested before, after returning from reporting on Hong Kong‘s enormous pro-democracy protests in 2019.
Supporters said that her health had deteriorated significantly in detention at that time.
In February, the group said she had stopped menstruating and had experienced dramatic weight loss, as well as bad back pain.
“Her self-appointed lawyer was forced to withdraw from the case and replaced by government-appointed lawyer(s), who has not communicated with Huang’s family and friends,” a statement said.
The group member told AFP they had no further updates on either Huang or Wang’s health.
Both activists have been cut off from outside information, they said, with the detention facility refusing to pass on requested books, and granting no access to families or friends.
The families of the pair had been visited by police again this week and told not to come to Guangzhou for the trial, they said.
On Thursday, 32 NGOs released a statement demanding the pair’s release.
“These baseless charges are motivated purely by the Chinese authorities’ relentless determination to crush critical voices,” said Sarah Brooks, Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for China, in a Thursday statement.
“But activists in China refuse to be silenced despite the serious risks of raising their voices to address so-called ‘sensitive’ issues.”
The member of the supporters’ group who spoke to AFP said the pair had understood the risks.
“You want to make social change, you commit to social justice, you commit to the outcome,” they said.
“As a very close friend of theirs, I know they don’t regret what they’re doing.”
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