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Women’s Rights NGO Responds to Cancellation by Peking University

April 7, 2010

On March 25, Peking University released a notice on its website (reposted on the university’s online forum) that it had decided to cancel (撤销) four organizations, including the Center for Women’s Law Studies and Legal Services of Peking University (北京大学法学院妇女法律研究与服务中心), China’s first public interest organization dedicated to providing legal aid to women. Over the years, the Center has become internationally recognized for its work in protecting women’s rights and promoting gender equality. One of its founders, Guo Jianmei (郭建梅), is a recipient of the 2010 Simone de Beauvoir Prize for women's freedom and of the 2010 Woman of Courage Award presented by U.S. Embassy in China.

The following is a statement issued by the Center on April 2, 2010, translated into English by Human Rights in China.

Statement of Guo Jianmei and her team:
Goodbye, Peking University
April 2, 2010
[Translation by Human Rights in China]

On March 25, the Social Sciences Department of Peking University issued a Notice of Cancellation of Organizations on the university’s official website; the Center for Women's Law Studies and Legal Services of Peking University was one of the four organizations to be cancelled. In the days since the news was announced, we have received expressions of concern and support from the media, various NGOs, partners, related organizations, friends, and people whom we have helped. We are greatly moved, and we offer our deepest thanks!

This is a major and unexpected change for an organization that has been striving and fighting continuously for 15 years, and it does not affect only the organization itself, because “Center for Women's Law Studies and Legal Services of Peking University” is not just the name of an organization; it is a deeply meaningful symbol. For the nation, it has made positive contributions toward a socialist harmonious society; for our clients, it represents warmth and hope; for NGOs and our partners, it is a comrade-in-arms fighting for rule of law and civil society in China; for the public, it represents the conscience of our society and the spirit of the law; and for every member of the organization, it is our common home.

Thus we would like to say a few words for this name that has already become history, and for everyone who cared about it and us. Our statement is as follows:

1. For 15 years, we have worked in an enterprise “even brighter than the sun.”

Since it was established in 1995, the Center’s goal has been to devote great efforts to provide legal aid, protect women’s rights and promote gender equality; fairness and justice have become the tenet and ideal pursued by the Center and every one of its members. As China’s first public interest organization dedicated solely to legal aid for women, the Center was among the earliest practitioners of legal aid in Chinese civil society; with enormous need on the part of the poor and vulnerable and a lack of government resources for legal aid, the Center explored civil society legal aid models that became a beneficial supplement to government legal aid and allowed nearly 100,000 women whose rights had been infringed upon to fight successfully for them.

In 2004, to adapt to the diverse developments in women’s rights protection, the Center took the lead in launching public litigation in the field of women’s rights, and became an active promoter of Chinese public interest legal activities. With China’s public litigation system not yet established, the Center served as a vanguard, combining protection for the individual rights of women with the protection of citizens’ rights as a whole. With the goal of promoting legal policy reform, the Center handled a large number of representative, influential cases touching on such key and difficult areas concerning women’s rights as workplace gender discrimination, women’s labor rights, sexual harassment in the workplace, violence against women, and the rights of women migrant workers and rural women’s land rights, and in different ways, promoted legislation that greatly expanded the number of beneficiaries.

The Center’s help allowed poor and vulnerable females to feel the power of the law and of legal aid. One client told us that the Center was like a lamp that had allowed them to see the brightness of fairness and justice, to sense warmth in the midst of freezing cold, and to light up the road ahead. Her words expressed the heartfelt thoughts of many clients, and it gave voice to the meaning of the work we do.

In this process, the Center used its own influence to spur on many later comers. It was also in this process that the Center undertook the mission to foster platforms for advocates of legal aid, public litigation and public interest legal activities, and for public interest lawyers. In 2002, the Center initiated the establishment of the China Legal Aid Coordination Group, with the purpose of making more organizations and institutions join the ranks of legal aid providers, In 2007, the Center initiated the establishment of the “Public Interest Lawyers’ Network for Women’s Rights,” which was renamed the “China Public Interest Lawyers' Network”; to date, more than 300 outstanding lawyers from over twenty cities and provinces across the nation have already joined the network and provided legal aid for thousands of poor and vulnerable clients. On 15 March 2009, leaders from the Ministry of Justice’s Legal Aid Department, the National Legal Aid Center, the All-China Lawyers’ Association, the Beijing Lawyers’ Association and related organizations gathered in support at the Network’s launch ceremony in Peking University’s Centennial Lecture Hall. Peking University Law School Dean Zhu Suli’s congratulatory speech remains fresh in our memory.

In September 2009, with the backing of the Center, the Center’s head and famed public interest lawyer Guo Jianmei organized and established Qian Qian Law Firm; with public defenders working full-time on public interest legal activities as the defining characteristic of the organization and its development model, the firm actively promoted public interest lawyers’ specialization, and professionalization, and expanded the focus of legal aid and public litigation to include other vulnerable populations such as the handicapped, migrant workers and the elderly.

Over these 15 years, due to extremely creative and highly effective work, the Center - while benefiting the broad masses of poor and vulnerable females - has also grown into an influential and credible NGO, winning widespread praise and many honors, and gaining a high level of commendation and approval from Peking University. In February 2006, Mr. Min Weifang, the then-Party Secretary of Peking University, along with Peking University president Mr. Xu Zhihong, wrote in a letter congratulating the Center on its 10th anniversary: “The Center for Women's Law Studies and Legal Services, carrying on Peking University’s glorious traditions of patriotism, progress, democracy, and science, has actively explored, had the courage to break new ground, and continuously progressed, making admirable achievements, positively contributing toward the promotion of progress and development in Chinese women’s rights protection and legal aid work, playing a proper role in building a harmonious society, garnering the attention, support and praise of all parts of society and of professional colleagues both in China and abroad, winning the endorsement and respect of the masses of women, and winning honor for Peking University!”

Premier Wen Jiabao has said, “Fairness and justice are even more brilliant than the sun”; these words embody the limitless value and significance that fairness and justice have for every person, for a nation and a people. The Center was an active, determined practitioner of this glorious work.

2. Difficulties have brought us not discouragement, but even firmer conviction.

Being cancelled is certainly not the greatest difficulty we have faced, merely one more following after countless difficulties. Just as it was starting out, the Center nearly met with an early end, and has since faced an unbroken series of difficulties and challenges. First is the problem of finances. China has yet to begin establishing relatively smooth and standardized systems and regulations for NGO fundraising; financial constraints have become a bottleneck in the development of NGOs, and a significant difficulty faced by the Center in the development process. The problem of skilled personnel has also always been a significant obstacle disrupting the development of NGOs. Especially for a professional institution like the Center, which requires a relatively high level of professional legal knowledge and credentials, how to attract and retain skilled personnel in an environment of weak public welfare consciousness and overzealous pursuit of profit, and how to resolve the clashes and contradictions between ideals and reality, between dedication and compensation, and between the spiritual and the material, have always been a major difficulty for the Center. Also, the incomplete state of the relevant legal system and law enforcement environment, the effects of administrative meddling in the judiciary, local protectionism and industrial protectionism, and even the phenomenon of corruption in the judiciary, have all posed many difficulties for the Center’s work, and the long-term exceedingly heavy workload has also put extreme pressure on the minds and bodies of the Center’s members; this exhausted state, under onerous work pressure, has become a problem difficult to solve.

Nor is being canceled at all the greatest difficulty we have met; we have even been in danger for our lives. In one remote village, seeing the law-ignorant villagers drop their clubs as if compelled under our determined gaze, we understood that we are undefeatable, because our work is just work, and justice is undefeatable.

Difficulties are merely the excuse of cowards. For the vanguard with firm convictions, difficulties are another sort of motivation, a snowstorm before spring; snow will always melt, and mountains full of flowers and trees will burst irrepressibly into bloom with the spring breeze!

3. Farewell, Peking University!  What we do not say farewell to is our eternal pursuit of fairness and justice and unshakeable belief in Chinese rule of law.

Quite a few of the Center’s professional members are Peking University graduates. No-name Lake nourished their knowledge and spirits, and Peking University’s sensibility of democracy and humanism gave them their earliest spiritual motivation to choose the path of public welfare. This is also why Guo Jianmei said she felt desolate in the face of cancelation. This is not the Peking University she knows. It was in following the guidance of her Peking University predecessors and the Peking University spirit that she determined to take the road of public welfare. Thus her sense of desolation makes people feel even more saddened and shocked.

Yet the zeal still flows and passion burns the in the hearts of a desolate Guo Jianmei and her team, because they firmly believe that legal aid and public interest legal work are a need of the people and of a harmonious society, and this has been proven by 15 years of the Center’s work; embodied in the gifts of millet, sweet potatoes, and hundreds of cotton banners from the poor and vulnerable to the Center; and expounded upon by the numerous awards that the Center has won.

Besides, while the Center has been disbanded, Qian Qian Law Firm remains.

The Center has made its own contributions in the three areas of women’s rights, legal aid, and NGOs. At the very least, it has given people this message: The survival of public interest legal aid organizations is not only needed in China, it will in future play an indispensable positive role; to establish a forward-looking organization under China’s current circumstances requires a group of brave warriors to fight and devote services for it, as well as recognition and encouragement.

Facing the brilliant dawn of the future, we will continue along the road. Though the road before us is still uneven, and the scenery is not all turquoise water and green hills, what of that? Life’s meaning lies in walking firmly ahead, in the courage to not turn back after a hundred setbacks, in every step of our advance toward our own ideals.

We have no complaints and no regrets.

We deeply thank all the organizations and friends who care about and support us. We are fellow travelers on this road.

 

Former Center for Women's Law Studies and Legal Services of Peking University

April 2, 2010