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Chinese Activists Who Gave #MeToo Victims a Voice Are Found Guilty

A court in southern China on Friday found a prominent feminist journalist guilty of endangering national security and sentenced her to five years in prison, Beijing’s latest blow to civil society. A labor activist convicted of the same charge got a sentence of three years and six months.

The activities that prompted the arrest and conviction of the two, Huang Xueqin and Wang Jianbing, involved organizing discussions, providing support to other activists and receiving overseas training. The subversion charges and the sentences, handed down by the Guangzhou Intermediate People’s Court, were confirmed by Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists.

The legal action against Ms. Huang and Mr. Wang, which experts said was harsh even by China’s standards, signals the shrinking space for independent discussion of social issues.

“We are seeing an almost zero-tolerance approach to even the mildest forms of civil society activism in China,” said Thomas Kellogg, the executive director of the Georgetown Center for Asian Law. “This case is an example of that.”

A former independent journalist, Ms. Huang, 35, became a prominent voice in China’s #MeToo movement who helped women report cases of sexual harassment. Later, she traveled to Hong Kong and wrote essays about antigovernment protests there. Mr. Wang, 40, was a longtime activist on behalf of workers and people with disabilities. He also helped #MeToo victims to speak out.

Ms. Huang and Mr. Wang were arrested in 2021 and endured an unusually long pretrial detention of two years. The trial last September lasted a day.

The verdict did not come for nine months, even though China’s criminal procedure law stipulates a maximum wait of three months, with an additional three-month extension for exceptional cases.

Experts say the charge — “inciting subversion of the state” — a national security crime carrying a harsher penalty than other charges typically used against activists, showed a newly aggressive effort to suppress discussion around issues like the rights of women and workers. Forums on such topics were tolerated and even encouraged more than a decade ago, said Yaqiu Wang, the research director for Hong Kong, China and Taiwan at Freedom House, a nonprofit based in Washington.

“Anything the government doesn’t like is being characterized as a challenge to the Communist Party and a national security charge,” Ms. Wang said.

Details about the case were not made public. But many legal documents pertaining to it have been posted on a GitHub webpage run by supporters and confirmed by Chinese Human Rights Defenders, a coalition of rights organizations. Reached by telephone on Friday, a spokeswoman for the Guangzhou Intermediate Court declined to provide any information.

The case against the two was built on several actions, including hosting social gatherings and participating in overseas online courses about “nonviolent movements,” according to an indictment shared by supporters. These gatherings often focused on issues like the#MeToo movement, gay rights and job conditions for workers, friends of the defendants said.

Ms. Huang became a central figure in China’s #MeToo movement in early 2018 when she established an online platform for people to post their accounts of sexual harassment. She also organized surveys that found that sexual harassment was widespread and unpunished, both at universities and in the workplace.

The movement has since been pushed underground as state censors moved to silence online discussion and stifle public support. The party has accused feminists of aiding what it called “hostile foreign forces,” and officials have warned some activists that if they spoke out they would be seen as traitors.

Mr. Wang focused on providing education and legal support to laborers with occupational diseases and physical disabilities. More recently, he hosted discussions where activists could share their struggles and support one another.

Since Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, the party has punished activists, lawyers, intellectuals and even tycoons who called for free speech and political rights. Dozens of activists have faced lengthy pretrial detentions and harsh prison sentences.

But the ruling Friday indicates an expanding notion of what is dangerous to public order.

“In the past, people who were charged with inciting subversion of the state usually said something about democracy or rule of law,” said Ms. Wang of Freedom House. “With Huang Xueqin and Wang Jianbing, they were very much focused on helping victims and fostering a community of marginalized people. They weren’t talking about politics.”

The authorities detained the two at Mr. Wang’s home in Guangzhou one day before Ms. Huang had planned to leave China to begin a master’s program on gender studies in Britain. Both were held without access to lawyers for 47 days before any formal arrest notices were shared with family and friends, according to Chinese Human Rights Defenders.

Dozens of Mr. Wang and Ms. Huang’s friends were questioned after their arrest, and many were forced to sign testimonies against them, according to Chinese Human Rights Defenders.

Not long after Mr. Wang was taken away, his father made a video appealing to the authorities.

“My son is not a bad guy,” Wang Zhixue, his father, said in the video, which supporters of Mr. Wang and Ms. Huang posted online. “He has made so many contributions to society through public welfare work. What harm can he be to society?”

In late 2019, Ms. Huang was detained by the police in Guangzhou on charges of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” a less serious charge the government has used in the past to silence activists like herself.

She was detained for three months. “This is Xueqin, and I’m back,” she wrote in a message to a friend after her release in 2020. “One second of darkness doesn’t make people blind.”

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