Story highlights

Five young women have been detained by China since early March

They campaigned against sexual harassment

Their detention has attracted international criticism

(CNN) —  

The United States is urging China to release five young feminists who face years in prison over their campaign for gender equality.

Authorities detained the women in three cities – Beijing, Guangzhou and Hangzhou – a few days ahead of events planned for International Women’s Day on March 8.

Wang Qiushi, the lawyer for Wei, said police recommended Monday that prosecutors press charges of “assembling a crowd to disturb public order.”

Prosecutors have seven days – until Monday – to decide whether to pursue the charges, according to the lawyer.

Clockwise from top left: Li Tingting, Wu Rongrong, Zheng Churan, Wei Tingting, Wang Man. They have have been detained by Chinese authorities.
Clockwise from top left: Li Tingting, Wu Rongrong, Zheng Churan, Wei Tingting, Wang Man. They have have been detained by Chinese authorities.
PHOTO: Amnesty International

“We can do nothing but wait,” Wang said.

“But nobody knows what to expect till Monday; we can do nothing but wait.”

New charges

The five were initially held on suspicion of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” Wang said he didn’t know why the charge against the women changed.

“Neither should constitute a crime,” he said.

Campaign group Amnesty International said the new charge was less serious but still carried a maximum prison term of five years.

“The women were doing nothing wrong, nothing illegal. They were simply calling for an end to sexual harassment,” said William Nee, China researcher at Amnesty International.

“Everything they were doing was in line with China’s own laws and policies.”

Wang said that Wei was subjected to lengthy cross examinations during her detention. Two of the women are said to be in poor health.

He added that the charges relate both to the activities the women planned for International Women’s Day and earlier campaigns against domestic violence.

The five are members of China’s Women’s Rights Action Group. They had planned to hand out stickers with slogans saying “stop sexual harassment, let us stay safe” and “go police, go arrest those who committed sexual harassment!” on International Women’s Day.

Free the five

The detention of Wei, along with Wu Rongrong, Li Tingting, Wang Man and Zheng Churan has drawn harsh criticism from the international community.

Protests have taken place in several cities, including Hong Kong, that urge Chinese officials to “free the five.” A social media campaign also uses the phrase as a hashtag.

This week, Kerry’s predecessor, Hillary Clinton, tweeted that the activists’ detention was “inexcusable.”

Chinese authorities rebuked her comment, saying public figures should respect the nation’s sovereignty and independence.

Maya Wang, China researcher at Human Rights Watch, said the activists were best known for their “performance art” style protests – occupying public toilets to highlight long lines at women’s restrooms, donning blood-spattered wedding gowns to protest domestic violence and shaving their heads to protest against barriers to higher education for women.

“These activists epitomize the spirit of the times. They are young, confident, ready to challenge established norms,” Wang said.