After two years in detention, a Chinese journalist who spoke up against sexual harassment stood trial on subversion charges on Friday along with a labor rights activist, the latest example of Beijing’s intensified crackdown on civil society.
Huang Xueqin, an independent journalist who was once a prominent voice in China’s #MeToo movement, and her friend Wang Jianbing, the activist, were taken away by the police in September 2021 and later charged with inciting subversion of state power. Their trial was held at the Guangzhou Intermediate People’s Court in southern China.
Little is known about the government’s case, but the vaguely worded offense with which the two were charged has long been seen as a tool for muzzling dissent. Since China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, came to power in 2012, the ruling Communist Party has sought to essentially silence people who have fought for free speech and political rights. A steady stream of activists, lawyers, tycoons and intellectuals have been put on trial and sentenced.
In Ms. Huang and Mr. Wang’s cases, the authorities questioned dozens of their friends in the months after their detentions and pressured them to sign testimonies against the two, according to Chinese Human Rights Defenders, an advocacy group that is in close contact with many activists.
“This case showcases the squashing of the entire civil society,” said Lu Pin, a feminist activist. “From the detention to the trial, the authorities acted arbitrarily without any rules.”
Ms. Huang emerged as an important activist in China’s burgeoning #MeToo movement in early 2018, when she created a social media platform for reporting sexual harassment. She organized and published surveys that found it to be rampant in universities and workplaces. A champion of women’s right to speak out about harassment, Ms. Huang also described having been subjected to it herself by a colleague at a national news organization.
When the police in Guangzhou took her away in 2021, it was not for the first time. She had been detained in 2019 after writing about and participating in anti-government protests in Hong Kong. At that time, Ms. Huang wrote a handwritten account of her detention, titled “Being a journalist is not a crime”; it was later posted on a GitHub webpage, run by supporters of Ms. Huang and Mr. Wang, that collects details about their cases.
Mr. Wang worked to promote the rights of people with disabilities as well as workers. He was also a #MeToo advocate who tried to help victims of harassment speak out.
The police detained Ms. Huang and Mr. Wang at his home the day before her planned departure from China to begin a master’s program on gender studies in Britain, according to Chinese Human Rights Defenders. The two were held for 47 days without access to lawyers before formal arrest notices were shared with their friends, the rights group said.
“Over the last 10 years the government has thoroughly decimated civil society and fragmented it,” said William Nee, the group’s research and advocacy coordinator. “I think it’s telling that they detained her on her way to the airport.”
A United Nations working group on arbitrary detentions has raised concerns about the lengthy detention of Mr. Wang.
China’s #MeToo movement gained momentum in 2018 as activists across the country posted petitions online demanding investigations into sexual harassment. Ms. Huang’s own investigation of the harassment of female students by a professor at Beihang University prompted China’s education ministry to strip the professor of his title.
But not long after China’s internet lit up with #MeToo activity, state censors stepped in, making it difficult to organize marches and galvanize public support. Some officials warned activists that if they spoke out, they would be punished and seen as traitors.
“Feminism itself has been identified as a subversive subject,” Leta Hong Fincher, author of “Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China,” said in an interview.
“Partly that’s because you have activists like Huang Xueqin who are very well organized and extremely determined,” she added.
No legal documents about the case have been made public. Reached by telephone this week, an employee at Guangzhou’s Intermediate People’s Court said she had no information to provide.
But supporters said they believed the defendants were being punished for regularly attending gatherings at Mr. Wang’s home, where people interested in civil society often met to discuss social issues and for moral support.
Amnesty International said Ms. Huang was believed to have been subjected to mistreatment in detention and that her health had deteriorated drastically.
“Sophia Huang Xueqin and Wang Jianbing represent the courageous wave of younger Chinese activists who have connected with the public concerned about social issues,” said Sarah Brooks, a deputy regional director for Amnesty International, using a Western name adopted by Ms. Huang.
“They have been targeted for their peaceful activism on women’s and labor rights by a government that fears organized dissent,” Ms. Brooks said.
In April, China sentenced Xu Zhiyong and Ding Jiaxi, two of the country’s most prominent human rights lawyers, to 14 years and 12 years in prison, respectively, after they organized a gathering of about 20 lawyers and activists to discuss the rights of Chinese citizens. They had also been charged with inciting subversion.
Alexandra Stevenson and Zixu Wang