Independent journalist and #MeToo activist Huang Xueqin and labor rights activist Wang Jianbing were detained by authorities in the southern city of Guangzhou in September 2021.
The pair have been accused of inciting subversion of state power and will be tried at the Guangzhou Intermediate People’s Court, according to supporters. Multiple calls to the court from CNN went unanswered on Friday.
Rights advocates say Huang and Wang are unlikely to receive a fair trial in a judicial system controlled by the party with a conviction rate above 99.9%.
“We don’t know for sure what the substance of the Chinese government’s case against Huang Xueqin and Wang Jianbing is, but we can be certain that the process will be a complete sham,” said William Nee, a research and advocacy coordinator at Chinese Human Rights Defenders.
“Huang has not seen a lawyer of her choice in two years of detention. They were both reportedly subjected to prolonged interrogations and police frequently would wake Huang up in the middle of the night and start interrogations,” Nee said.
CNN reached out to the Guangzhou Public Security Bureau which declined to give details on the case.
A close friend of Huang told CNN the journalist had suffered significant weight loss in detention and stopped menstruating for months. She also had other serious deficiencies and prolonged back pain, said the friend, who requested anonymity fearing retribution by authorities.
The pair were detained the day before Huang, 35, was scheduled to fly to the United Kingdom to start her master’s degree on gender violence and conflict at the University of Sussex.
Authorities have offered no details about their charges, but supporters believe it could be related to weekly friends’ gatherings held at Wang’s apartment.
In the months following their detention, more than 70 friends and supporters of Huang and Wang were summoned by the police for questioning, according to supporters. Some were forced to sign fabricated testimonies against the pair, claiming they had organized political gatherings to criticize the government, the supporters claimed.
Huang’s close friend said participants of the gatherings were a loose group of friends who care about public affairs – from the issues of feminism, LGBTQ and labor rights to environmental protection. In addition to sharing their experiences and views, they also played board games and sometimes went hiking together.
“It’s a community where everyone supports each other. But it’s been disbanded ever since the detention. I have no sense of belonging anymore,” the friend told CNN.
“The crackdown by authorities turned us into isolated atoms – it is difficult for everyone to band together again. The entire community is suppressed and silenced.”
‘Courageous wave of younger Chinese’
Nee, at the Chinese Human Rights Defenders, said the real purpose of the case against them may be about dismantling of informal friendships and networks among civil society activists in Guangzhou.
“The Chinese government has already effectively shut down independent NGOs roughly a decade ago, but it now appears that they want to go after even the informal solidarity that exists among free thinking people who could pose a potential political threat to the regime,” he said.
Huang, who worked as an investigative reporter for liberal-leaning media outlets in Guangzhou before becoming an independent journalist, had been an instrumental figure in sparking China’s #MeToo movement.
In 2018, she helped bring about the country’s first #MeToo case, using her influential social media presence to amplify the voice of a graduate student who accused her PhD supervisor of unwanted sexual advances.
She also spoke up about her own experiences of sexual harassment as a young intern at a national news agency, where she claimed she was groped and kissed by a senior male reporter and mentor.
To show the prevalence of the issue, she surveyed 416 female journalists in 2018 and found 84% of them had experienced sexual harassment in the workplace.
“There are so few people prosecuted because there are only so few victims who report,” she told CNN in a 2018 interview. “To most victims, it’s shame.”
Amnesty International described Huang and Wang as part of a “courageous wave of younger Chinese activists who have connected with the public concerned about social issues.”
“These baseless charges are motivated purely by the Chinese authorities’ relentless determination to crush critical voices,” said Sarah Brooks, Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for China.