By: Didi Kirsten Tatlow
International Herald Tribune, March 6, 2012
BEIJING — Until Liu Ping emerged from the subway and onto a street under bright blue skies one recent Saturday, I wasn’t sure she’d even make it. I feared she’d be stopped on her journey by security officials from Xinyu, her hometown, a common occurrence in China for people who have incurred the displeasure of local officials.
But, suddenly, there she was: 1,350 kilometers from home, a middle-aged woman of average height with bright eyes, hair in a pony tail and frizzy bangs, bending forward under the weight of an old-fashioned, camouflage-patterned backpack that looked like a giant sausage. She stuck out her hand and we shook. Her hands were rough. My relief was enormous.
For my article on the state of Chinese women, I interviewed over a dozen women but two stuck in my mind: Liu Ping and Wu Qing. They were very different: Ms. Liu is a former steel worker; Ms. Wu, a former English professor from an illustrious family. Both were fighting for the right to be freely elected to Parliament, and for women’s rights.
The days before Beijing annual “two meetings,” of the legislature and a political advisory body, are among the worst time to try to see anyone deemed politically sensitive by the government. This time last year, Ms. Liu was in detention in a state-run “guesthouse” and she was concerned she’d be stuck away again any day.
Over days, Ms. Liu and I had talked on Skype, via connections that dropped frequently. Long crackling interviews where I had to shout and she did too, from the one-million-strong city of Xinyu in Jiangxi province in the south. She preferred Skype to her mobile, which she said was heavily monitored. ‘‘They may listen to Skype, too, but perhaps it’s safer,’’ she said.
Divorced from a policeman, the mother of one daughter who attends university, Ms. Liu had been forced into retirement at just 45. Men were also being retired early by her employer, Xinyu Iron & Steel, but most were working about five years longer, which is legal in China. They had more income and a bigger pension.
Facing poverty, Ms. Liu began fighting for redress in local courts. She petitioned the central government. Nothing worked. As she put it: ‘‘In China, if you have no money, you have no status. And women who retire early have very little money.’’
I asked if I could travel to Xinyu to meet her.
Her reply was immediate: ‘‘You can come, but I can’t guarantee your safety.’’
Several supporters and lawyers had been attacked by ‘‘them,’’ she said, thugs hired by the government. The latest incident had occurred on Feb. 12, days earlier, she said.
How about a photographer? Her answer was the same: ‘‘She can come, but I can’t guarantee her safety.’’
To me, of almost more concern was that she said many people who tried to visit were turned back by officials. Time was tight, and I ran a real risk of traveling there and not even meeting her.
But, she said, she traveled quite a bit.
Did she have a trip planned to a big city where the local Xinyu officials had less power? I asked.
At the end of February, she was going to Wukan to observe local elections. Wukan is a village in Guangdong province that rose up last year over land issues, where villagers recently held perhaps some of the freest elections in China in recent times.
Then she suddenly said: ‘‘I’ll come to Beijing.’’
It wasn’t that simple. I do not want to divulge how she got out of Xinyu.
After many sleepless hours on a train she refused my help carrying that large backpack. After we had talked, over a hot meal, she shouldered it again, saying: ‘‘Don’t worry about me. I’ll take care of myself.’’ Then, she disappeared back into the subway station, a 47-year-old, retired, poor, former steel worker who wants to change China, ‘‘One vote at a time,’’ she said.
Ms. Wu, for 27 years a deputy to her local parliament, or People’s Congress, shares that dream.
She comes from a very different social class from Ms. Liu, an intellectual blueblood whose parents studied in the United States before the 1949 Communist revolution.
Ms. Wu’s mother, the famous writer Bing Xin, or ‘‘Ice Heart,’’ was the daughter of a Qing Dynasty naval officer and active in student and feminist politics in the ferment of 1920s China, deeply respected for her wide range of writing. That included a first translation of the Lebanese-American poet Khalil Gibran into Chinese. Ms. Wu’s father, Wu Wenzao, was a founder of the study of anthropology in China.
After the 1989 massacre in Beijing, high officials visited her mother at home and sought her blessing, said Ms. Wu, who today lives in the apartment her parents shared in the Beijing Minzu University.
‘‘My mother was so angry,’’ she said. ‘‘She banged the chair and said, ‘The students love the people, and I love the students!’ ’’ She sent the officials packing.
Now 74, Ms. Wu, a retired English professor, is outspoken: ‘‘I don’t care,’’ she says in perfect English. ‘‘You can quote everything I say.’’
She pointed to a calligraphy in the apartment: one word, ‘‘Listen,’’ a reminder of the importance of the Tuesday meetings with constituents that she began many years ago before her decades as a deputy ended last year when she wasn’t allowed to run again.
The other major duty of a deputy is to monitor the government, she said, something that most don’t do.
Recent years have seen a rights rollback across China, she said.
‘‘Human rights, women’s rights, everything is blocked,’’ she said. ‘‘All these movements are closely connected.’’
Despite that, she said, ‘‘I feel China is going in the right direction. People want more democracy, because the more corruption they see, the more legal awareness grows.’’
She said China today is undergoing a crucial period, an Enlightenment.
‘‘You have to stand up for it,” she said. “You have to fight for it.’’