“Su Changlan’s story is the story of many Chinese women.”
Chinese activist Su Changlan could face a lengthy jail sentence after being arrested for her activism on women’s rights and posting online messages in support of the 2014 Hong Kong pro-democracy protests. The story of the 44-year-old former school teacher is just one of many in China, says her good friend Maggie Hou Wenzhuo, herself an activist who had previously been detained for her campaigning work.
I first met Su Changlan 10 years ago when she came with a friend to my office in Beijing. I ran a human rights organization at that time, the Empowerment and Rights Institute (仁之泉工作室). Its focus was to help farmers campaign against the arbitrary confiscation and use of their land. Land seizures were taking place in numerous villages across Guangdong province and the rest of China, and farmland in Sanshan village where Su Changlan lived was being forcibly seized from farmers for redevelopment.
A woman with a heart for her village
As armed police and trucks turned up at their village, the residents of Sanshan village decided to send representatives to Beijing to seek help, and that was how Su Changlan came to see me that Spring day in 2005. She instantly struck me as a gentle and warm-hearted person who was keen to help others. She told me tearfully about what was taking place in her home and worried aloud about the future of Sanshan village. Even though she knew little about the legal rights of farmers, she displayed a willingness to learn and an eagerness to work with lawyers and activists in order to help the farmers.
The farmers’ fight for their land rights lasted years and made little progress in the end, but Su and I became firm friends. We had mutual admiration for each other, and I was very impressed by her perseverance and courage to carry on with her activism despite numerous threats and hurdles in her path.
In 2009, when pregnant with my son, I decided to leave China for Canada. I had been detained for 18 days the previous year for organizing a human rights campaign in the run up to the Beijing Olympics and didn’t want to raise my child in that unsafe environment. I taught briefly at the University of Ottawa and continued to do what I could to help activists in China. Su Changlan and I kept in touch despite the distance and would sometimes pray together over the phone, sharing sad news and occasionally, good news.
Sacrificing for change
Over the years, Su Changlan began focusing on women’s and children’s rights after hearing many sad stories, including women being trafficked and the rape and molestation of young girls. Being kind, she extended her help to anyone who experienced injustice. She got to know many activists from around Guangzhou and often hosted their meetings at her home. With other Chinese women activists, she worked to raise awareness of women’s rights violations in China to overseas rights defenders.
Su Changlan was always aware that she risked losing her liberty due to her activism. She had even considered leaving China, but her husband and son are both there, as are all the people she cares about. It’s not that she doesn’t worry about her security or her family’s safety, but she knows and expects that for things to change in China, some people will need to make the sacrifice.
She (Su Changlan) knows and expects that for things to change in China, some people will need to make the sacrifice.
I’ve spoken with her husband, Chen Dequan, and her brother, Su Shangwei, many times since she was arrested. Both of them openly support her work and actively campaigned for her release; as a result both were detained for about a month before being released on bail. Even though her husband has long worried about her safety, he fully understands and supports what she does. However, they have both decided not to involve their son, who is in high school, so as not to endanger him.
The story of many Chinese women
What is it that drives an ordinary Chinese woman like Su Changlan to persist as she has? I think it runs in her blood that she is unable to accept injustice. Also, the knowledge that there are many like her in China makes it a shared fight. Su Changlan is aware that there have been women activists like her in her village and beyond who have been imprisoned or are in prison, including Cao Shunli (who died in detention). This gives her a determination and willingness to accept what might happen.
Her story represents the stories of numerous Chinese women. I hope many people will speak up for her freedom.
Su Changlan could face up to 15 years in prison for the charge of “inciting subversion of state power”, though the formal indictment is still pending. On 27 September, China co-hosts with the UN a high-level meeting in New York where world leaders will pledge towards gender equality and women’s empowerment. Call on China to empower women like Su Changlan, not imprison them.