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„Law in China is a sleeping Beauty“

Michelle Obama, Guo Jianmei and Hillary Clinton
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Guo Jianmei with Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton accepting the International Women of Courage Award in 2011

Guo Jianmei thinks just a moment longer than usual before she answers.  To the question what her motives were for taking up the fight for women’s rights in china, there is no easy answer for the 49 year old lawyer, one sentence wouldn’t be sufficient. It is not that she shies away from this question, on the contrary. One notices how important it is to Guo Jianmei to tell the whole story, how the fight for women rights became her life purpose. To explain what role the scientific examination/debate, but just as much her own experience and her family history have played. Guo Jianmei recounts “In my family men were always considerd (to be) superior. My Grandmother died before reaching the age of 40. She starved while selling bread. Although there was still some bread left. But because she was scared of being beaten, she didn’t eat it.” Even when it is about private issues, she speaks with a loud and firm voice. “Not only in my family, but in my whole native village men were considered to be better.”

Guo Jianmei escapes from her old native country in the Central-Chinese province of Henan. At the age of 18 she starts law studies at the Beijing University, which she finishes in 1983, a time when China is still recovering from the rule of Mao Zedong and his successor Deng Xiaoping is pushing forward his Opening and Reform Policy. After graduating from university Jianmei gets a job at the Ministry of Justice in Beijing, works for the magazine of the Chinese Lawyer's Association as an editor and also for the National Women’s Association, a powerful mass organ of the Communist Party of China (CPC). There she gathers an extensive knowledge in the field of women’s rights, later on she helps to advance the legislation. But her knowledge isn’t limited to the academic sector. “At that time I travelled the country, I at least visited 18 provinces, to get an overview of the situation of the women in the country.” Guo Jianmei says. She wants to point out that she has seen the grievance and the discrimination of the Chinese women with her own eyes.

The idea of equal rights was fixed in every Chinese constitution since 1949, the mere legal frame today is quite progressive. All legal rights of the women are merged into the women's legal protection law of 1992. It was complemented with the bans of the sexual harassment and the domestic violence in 2005. According to Guo Jianmei it would be too easy to judge the women’s rights situation in China solemnly by the legal framework. “It is true that our judicial system is getting better for women in regard to the family law, the marriage legislation and the labor legislation.” The lawyer says. However there are still serious defects in the implementation of the legal practice. “Law in China is a sleeping beauty. If only half of the available laws would be implemented, a lot of things would be much better in China.”

The year 1995 is a turning point in the life of the Chinese lawyer. At that time she is attending the United Nations international World Conference on Women in Beijing. Thanks to the conference a lot of Chinese come into contact with foreign nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) for the first time. After the exchange with women from all over the world Guo Jianmei is certain that she wants to establish her own NGO. That same year she quits her government jobs and launches a Study and Consulting Center for Beijing Women, which is one of the most active NGOs of the country by now. Guo Jianmei herself has become one of the best known civil rights lawyers in China. Internationally her work receives a lot of appreciation as well. 2007 Hillary Clinton presented her with the „Global Women’s Leadership Award“. For over 15 years her Centre has been fighting for the rights of Chinese women by now. That includes the dedication for a better Legal System as well as the practical help for women, so that they are able to push their rights through against the authorities. Up to now the centre has dealt with about 80,000 legal advice cases in writing, by telephone or in personal meetings. The association has negotiated approximately 3,000 cases before different courts in the whole country free of charge, has defended women who otherwise could not afford legal counseling. The consultation centre has established numerous hotlines which are promoted in magazines and the Internet. About 20 phone calls come in every day. Roughly half of the callers need legal assistance. “Sometimes women come directly to our offices. However, we lack the means to attend to every case. We can select only a few”, Guo Jianmei explains.  Some of these cases cause quite a stir and are also taken up by the Chinese press. Like the fate of the young Ms. Li from the southeast province of Anhui, who came to Beijing as a petitioner and was raped there. Chinese people travel to the capital consistently to complain at the central government about corruption and arbitrariness in their home provinces.  This petition system has tradition and goes back to the empire. However, the provincial authorities often try to prevent that the government in Beijing comes to know about the complaints, since these result in bad grades in the assessment system of the CPC. Therefore, officials from the provinces often intercept petitioners right in front of the central petition center in Beijing, before they are even able to file their complain. Against their will and often by force petitioners locked up in illegal so called “black prisons”. Later on they are brought back to their home where they are threatened by further punishment. In one of those “black prisons” located in a Beijing suburb the 21 year old Li Ruirui was raped by a security guard. Guo Jianmeis centre has brought the case to court and won at the first level of jurisdiction. Now they still negotiate about a higher compensation. This success is significant, because up to now authorities try to deny the existence of these deportation prisons.

In spite of or maybe because of such successes the job of the consultation centre has become more difficult recently. Last year the Beijing University, which had acted as a supporter since the founding of the centre, revoked the cooperation with Guo Jianmeis legal advice centre. As the reason the lawyer assumes „pressure from above“. The cases which the consultation centre negotiates are presumably too hazardous to the government. The pressure does not only increase on the studies and consultation centre for women, other NGOs also have to battle with the authorities. Cooperations with universities were terminated, regulations for receiving foreign funding were tightened. Through these measures the work of NGOs is massively constrained. In China NGOs theoretically have to be linked to a government agency. However, in reality such a registration is almost never permitted.  This is why most NGOs register themselves as an enterprise. This means though donations to them are subject to income tax. By this their scope of action is limited considerably.  In the worst case authorities use this unclear status of the NGOs to cover them with questionable tax evasion accusations, to make them incapable of action or to shut them down completely.

Guo Jianmei doesn’t let herself be dissuaded from doing her work by the chicaneries of the authorities. She believes that the dedication of civil right activists is more important than ever. To her the economical rise of China reveals the social inequities. “There are still a lot of people who benefit too little from the boom” says the lawyer. In particular the income gap between urban and rural population is most serious. Injustice and corruption become more and more evident. The population is no longer willing to accept this – because they are more and more aware of their rights. There is more than one side to the economic rise of China in regard to the fight against discrimination of women. On one side more and more women are in leadership positions in enterprise in major cities; they overall gain a bigger financial independence and have better educational opportunities. So last year for the first time ever there were more female then male first-year students at numerous universities throughout China. At the same time the economic rise brings about problems.”Especially in the metropolitan areas the number of sexual harassment cases on the job rises” says Guo Jianmei. Particularly in rural areas women still have to grapple with prejudices and discrimination, which quit often result in financial difficulties-, for example the compulsory acquisition land. In the course of the urbanization the Chinese Government requires more and more land for construction projects. For that whole villages are torn down. Although the land is collectively owned by the village community, women are often chiseled out of their compensation by the local authorities. Especially women who have married into a different village (community), divorcees and widows are simply not taken into account for compensation. Guo Jianmeis legal advice centre takes care of such land law cases.

“When men move to the cities as migrant workers, the women are left behind in the villages with their children and become victims of harassment and assaults. Judges and police officers are mostly men who were not prepared for handling such cases and make the situation even worse for the victims “,Guo Jianmei reports. Her organization offers training courses for police and judicial authorities in the rural regions on how to deal with cases of rape and domestic violence. “In the process we observe that policemen or Judges understand for the first time which part they themselves play. Before most men have never even thought about that.”

“Women in China are often still considered as being weak – even now in the 21 century”, says the lawyer. She made it her business to change this. “You get dragged into this work and completely emerge in it, till you simply can’t and don’t want to do anything else anymore.” Guo Jianmei says.  And maybe this is the short answer after all, the one sentence, which describes how the fight for women rights became her life.


The office of the HBS in China has been working together with the organization of Guo Jianmei since 2007. A common Program is dedicated to the compliance with Gender guidelines of Projects in China which are funded be the World Bank or the Asian Development Bank. Currently we are working on a Program to further educate lawyers in the western provinces of China, in particular in regard to the law enforcement for women.   


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