China doesn’t have the greatest record on women’s rights—a fact that Chinese President Xi Jinping was probably hoping to obscure when he offered himself as co-host of a United Nations summit focused on the issue. But Hillary Clinton called him out on the hypocrisy. “Xi hosting a meeting on women’s rights at the UN while persecuting feminists? Shameless,” she tweeted on Sunday night.
The hashtag #Freethe20 refers to 20 female activists imprisoned around the world. The ongoing U.N. conference marks the 20th anniversary of the landmark conference on women’s rights that took place in Beijing in 1995; the U.S., ever mindful of the awkwardness of having close allies with poor human rights records, wants to emphasize that China hasn’t lived up to its promises on women’s issues. Over the last month, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power has released the name of one imprisoned female activist each day. Three of the women she selected are Chinese:
• Wang Yu was a commercial lawyer until she was assaulted a train station in 2008—and she, not the men who beat her, went to jail for two years. After witnessing the abuse of prisoners firsthand, she became one of her country's most prominent human rights lawyers. Last spring, she defended five feminists, whose public awareness campaign against sexual harassment was prosecuted as a “disturbance.” In July, she was arrested.
• Gao Yu, a longtime journalist, has been in and out of prison for her work since 1989. Most recently, she was arrested in 2014 for sharing a Communist Party directive with foreign media. Human rights groups have petitioned for Gao's parole, arguing that, at 71, she's in fragile health.
• Liu Xia is a poet and artist, and a founding member of the Independent Chinese PEN Center, which promotes freedom of expression. Her husband, Liu Xiaobo, is the famous human rights activist and political prisoner; she was placed under house arrest in 2010, after the announcement that he had been awarded a Nobel Prize.
Sunday night, China’s state media was quick to publish two indignant op-eds in response to Clinton's barb: one in English, one in Chinese. Both accused Clinton of modeling her remarks on those of Donald Trump, who has leveraged his criticism of the country into votes. “Perhaps, Hillary's e-mail scandal has dealt a heavy blow to her, and she is trying to get back in the game by directing people's attention to China,” the English op-ed insinuated.
The Chinese version got a little more creative. "It looks like Hillary is in a panicked frenzy, her eyes have turned red. ... She has started to copy Trump's speaking style and allowed herself to become a fierce big mouth,” it wrote, according to the BBC’s translation.
Like the Chinese government, Clinton has reason to mark the Beijing conference’s anniversary: When she was there 20 years ago, she delivered her now-famous “women’s rights are human rights” speech. Along with a “Women for Hillary” ad that features Lena Dunham, chastising Xi seems to be Clinton's way of marking the occasion.