China silences women housing rights activists ahead of Expo 2010

“Better city – better life” is the theme of Expo 2010, which begins in the Chinese city of Shanghai on Saturday. Yet it is a hollow slogan for more than 18,000 families who were evicted from their homes to pave the way for China’s global technology and innovation showpiece.Shanghai resident Jin Yuehua is one of many women activists many who have tried to campaign for the housing rights of others. But her human rights work has seen her targeted by the Chinese authorities. Since the end of February, many activists have been under surveillance or detained to stop them from protesting or speaking to journalists in the lead up to Expo 2010. After 1 May, the security measures will increase.“My house has had one uniformed police officer and four city level security guards monitoring it for the past month, I cannot go out to buy food or meet any friends,” Jin Yuehua told Amnesty International.She is one of a group of women housing activists in Shanghai, most in their 50s or 60s, who have been mistreated, harassed – and in some cased jailed – for taking part in a wave of anti-eviction activism.Jin Yuehua’s dream of sending her only son to university was shattered the night her electric appliance shop in Minhang district was demolished by property developers. Her appeal against the demolition was never heard.In 2004, she began to document the cases of people who had lost their homes and livelihoods in similar fashion and wrote petition letters to the government. “Minhang district was the last district in Shanghai under construction. Even two weeks ago there were still people being beaten and bones being broken because people living in Minhang district refused to move out,” said Jin Yuehua.   Local government authorities harassed Jin Yuehua as a result of her activism, detaining her repeatedly or placing her under house arrest. This worsened her economic situation further, and her son eventually had to drop out of secondary school. Expo 2010 is the largest and most expensive world fair of all time, with more than 190 countries taking part and up to 100 million people expected to visit the event. Forced evictions began on a large scale in Shanghai in 2000. Starting from 2005, the Shanghai Expo coordinating bureau began relocating nearly 20,000 people from the central Shanghai site that it plans to use only for the six month duration of Expo 2010. The Shanghai Expo site has displaced 18,000 households, according to its own figures.Shen Pelan, who lives in Minhang district, has been detained nearly 100 times since 2000.“At least 3,000 families are victims of Minhang district demolition. They are so poor that many have no place for shelter. Some rent a very small room without a toilet. I really can not stand to see people live like this and not speak out,” she told Amnesty International.Mao Hengfeng has been repeatedly detained by the authorities for her work defending women’s reproductive rights, as well as victims of forced evictions. She was given 18 months Re-education Through Labour on 4 March 2010 for taking part in a peaceful demonstration in support of imprisoned human rights activist Liu Xiaobo. “What’s the point if a few of us live well and shut our mouths but the government continues to abuse other citizens creating more broken families and poverty and pushing people outside the city to give their land to the richest businessmen. Many who seek justice through law face detention and torture in custody. What we ask for is not a personal settlement, but public justice,” said Mao Hengfeng. Duan Chunfang and her brother began petitioning the authorities after her home was demolished in 2000. They were severely beaten by police in 2006 and her brother, Duan Huimin, was sentenced to 13 months of Re-education Through Labour. He died two days after being released, allegedly because of injuries sustained through torture while in detention. Duan Chunfang is currently serving an 18-month sentence for “obstructing official business”. She is being denied medical treatment for her deteriorating health and heart condition. Her family suspects she is being beaten in detention.In March 2010, Shen Peilan was detained in the same  police detention centre where Duan Chunfang is illegally being held. “She is so ill. It is so cold there, freezing winds blow through her cell and she suffers from headaches and cannot open her eyes. Police have cut off all the zippers and buttons of her clothes, claiming this is to prevent her from hiding anything dangerous. How can a middle age woman who is in poor health threaten the authorities so much?” said Shen Peilan.Amnesty International calls on the Chinese government to release the housing activists Duan Chunfang and Mao Hengfeng, and to cease the harassment of other activists including Shen Peilan and Jin Yuehua.“The human cost and trauma of force evictions on individuals, families and communities are difficult to recover. Forced evictions most often affect marginalized groups, including women,” said Roseann Rife, Asia-Pacific Deputy Director at Amnesty International.“New construction cannot hide the injustice of forced evictions and the harsh mistreatment of women housing rights defenders.“Chinese authorities must ensure home-owners the protections provided for in domestic law and stop punishing activists for seeking adequate compensation and protecting rights.”

Image caption: Shen Peilan (left), Mao Hengfeng (middle) and Jin Yuehua (right).