China From the Inside

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Gallery of Women Activists
Dai Qing: Journalist-turned-environmentalist Hou Wenzhuo: Human rights activist Wu Qing: Champion of people's rights Xie Lihua: Advocate for rural women Dr. Gao Yaojie: AIDS education activist Nominate another female Chinese activist

Hou Wenzhuo

Human rights activist

Hou Wenzhuo

Hou Wenzhuo runs the Empowerment and Rights Institute (EARI), a human rights organization based in Beijing. She has worked for the UN in China on programs designed to help women and disabled children, and has studied human rights and refugee studies at Harvard and Oxford. She has a history of activism: in 1989 she was detained for three months after leading student protests at Sichuan University.

With EARI, Hou works to give legal aid and advice to disadvantaged groups in Chinese society, particularly to people from rural areas who are most often the victims of injustice. For example, some victims of violence or traffic accidents may be unable to receive compensation because the culprits have bribed the court.

As China's economy continues to develop and become more industrial, land seizure is becoming an increasingly common problem that falls within EARI's purview. In land seizure cases, farmers are forced by local government to give up their land for construction but often receive insufficient payment. But farmers who depend on their land for survival will often not give it up without a fight, and not just with an EARI volunteer at their sides. Cases of unrest and violent confrontations between farmers and developers have become more and more widespread, such as the case in Shengyou, Hebei province, where a farmer managed to film hired thugs violently trying to drive farmers off their land.

Hou feels the political and judicial system, which offers no guarantee of a just outcome, is to blame: "The current problem in the Chinese villages is that there is neither rule of law nor democracy. So such clashes are absolutely inevitable."

Clashes between Hou and local authorities -- unhappy with any outside organization or "troublemakers" advocating legal rights -- has thus far been inevitable as well. Hou was once arrested while advising victims of land requisitioning in Guangdong, China's wealthiest province. She remembers the police who interrogated her and warned her that she would be held personally responsible for any riots or disturbances in the area. Other members of EARI have also suffered. In December 2005, one EARI member was viciously attacked by an unidentified group of men while traveling in western China. He believes the attack was retribution for his human rights activities. Hou says that the authorities' use of criminal gangs to intimidate activists is a new trend. Now that local governments have to appear to obey the law, they use untraceable gangs to do their dirty work, whereas in the past they may have used the police.

One might call Hou's all-inclusive approach to human rights populist -- at least in China.

"I want to know people from the grassroots," she said. "I want to know what kind of problems they have. Why do I care about those people? Because traditional human rights ignores that group of people. Traditional human rights normally concerns the rights of intellectuals or of political activists. I'm not saying those rights aren't important. They are. However, they've turned human rights into something from the ivory tower, while the ordinary people don't know what their relationship is with human rights."

Hou maintains that she has not done anything illegal, even though she's been persecuted as if she had. "Our approach is not to go against the state, nor to go against the government. We want to protect the rights of citizens and demand that the government fulfill its promises. To do what's written in its constitution. If it promises to do so, the Chinese government should protect the rights of the peasants. If it says that it represents the people, then it should represent the people. We want the government's actions to be consistent with its words."

NEXT: Wu Qing: Champion of people's rights
PREVIOUS: Dai Qing: Journalist-turned-environmentalist

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