China From the Inside

Power and the People
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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

Wu Qing

Champion of people's rights

Wu Qing

Since 1984, Wu Qing has been a People's Deputy in the Beijing People's Congress. This means she votes with other Deputies on laws and policies put forward by the Beijing city government. Since becoming a People's Deputy, she has been unusual among her peers for holding weekly meetings, open to her constituents, in which they air their opinions, highlight local issues or ask for Wu's help in solving problems or cases of injustice against them.

Wu is an advocate of what the Chinese call "supervision" -- the idea that the public should closely watch the government in order to prevent abuse of power -- with the law as its tool.

"I believe in the rule of law. I believe in transparency. I believe in democracy. I believe in supervision," she told China from the Inside. "But none of these exist in our Chinese culture. It's always been authoritarian. It's like in a family, [all it takes is to say] 'I'm your father!' and no one else dares say a word."

She attempts to hold the government to the many promises made in the statute books and in the constitution -- promises that are often broken in a country where many people feel power and money are all that count. The law actually specifies many rights that in practice many people do not exercise. Whereas many Deputies are seen as simply going along with whatever the Party and government says, Wu has a reputation for listening to her constituents and voicing their concerns to the people in charge, even if they go against the grain, because the law allows her to do this.

Wu has been a trailblazer in another way: In 1988, she was one of the first people to cast a "no" vote at a People's Congress. At the time, a dissenting vote was a rare expression of public disapproval of Party policy. Nowadays, dissenting votes are often cast, though in the National People's Congress, China's parliament, Party policy has yet to be overturned.

Wu's maverick approach has made her unpopular with some government officials, but a star among her constituents. In 1989, the Communist Party branch at the Beijing Foreign Language College where she taught declared that Wu Qing would not be allowed to stand for re-election to the People's Congress. However, voters insisted on nominating her, citing a rule that anyone who received ten nominations would be allowed to stand as a candidate, and Wu went on to receive 70 percent of the vote.

"People often ask me 'Wu Qing, aren't you afraid? How can you be so confident?,'" she said. "I tell them I have two secrets. One is the support of the people. The other is the constitution."

The constitution is so important to Wu that she carries a copy at all times and even knows large sections of it, which she quotes. She encourages ordinary people to be just as familiar with the law and their rights. "A new clause has been added to the constitution recently, saying that the government should respect and protect basic human rights," she said. "However, if someone doesn't know what his basic rights are, how can he ask for them from the government?"

Apart from her work as a People's Deputy, Wu is also well known for promoting women's rights in China, particularly in rural areas. "China is still a Third World country," she said. "To change China, you've got to change the countryside. To do that, you've got to change the status of the women there. If you educate a woman, it's like educating a whole family, even several generations of the family. If you educate a man, you are only educating one person."

Wu heads the school for young rural women run by Xie Lihua's Rural Woman magazine and runs projects encouraging women to stand as candidates in village elections.

Wu's dedication has won her international recognition. In 2001 she won "Asia's Nobel Prize," the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service. She was the first Chinese woman to do so.

NEXT: Xie Lihua: Advocate for rural women
PREVIOUS: Hou Wenzhuo: Human rights activist

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