For weeks, Wu Rongrong awoke each day on the cold concrete floor of her cell within Beijing's Haidian District Detention Center, where she had been caged since early March on suspicion of "picking quarrels and provoking troubles." Her skin had grown yellow, and she was coughing up bloody phlegm.
The ailing 30-year-old activist, who was initially denied medication to treat her hepatitis B but is now recovering in the prison's medical wing, is among five young women targeted by Chinese authorities over a series of social activism stunts that garnered international attention. From parading in blood-stained wedding dresses in protest of domestic abuse to bursting into men's public restrooms to demand more women's toilet facilities, the activists are at the core of a burgeoning grassroots feminist movement that the Chinese Communist Party has decided to stamp out.
The women were among 25 activists seized by authorities in three cities on March 6 and 7 — the eve of International Women's Day. The women were reportedly planning to affix stickers that called for police to arrest gropers and other harassers to buses and subway cars. Wu, who founded and directs the Weizhiming Women's Center in Hangzhou, and her fellow members of the so-called "Beijing Five" — Li Tingting, 25, Wei Tingting, 26, Wang Man, 32, and Zheng Churan, 25 — are the only remaining detainees.
Wang Qiushi, a lawyer who represents Wei Tingting, confirmed on Thursday that police have requested that prosecutors file formal charges against the activists, but on very different terms than the original stated grounds of their detention. The women are now accused of "gathering crowds to disrupt order in public places."
In an online post on the Chinese social media site Weibo, Wang said that no action had yet been taken when he checked on the legal status of his client at Haidian District Procuratorate on Wednesday — meaning the women were now being detained unlawfully two days after a 30-day legal deadline for police to either seek formal charges or release the detainees had expired.
Yet when he visited the same office the next day, Wang was shown documents stamped with an April 6 filing date — the date of the deadline. When Wang asked about the discrepancy, an official reportedly suggested that perhaps the "system did not record the submission" when he originally requested the police documents.
The vague legal characterization of "provoking troubles" that police initially used to justify the women's arrests has highlighted the provision's abuse by Chinese to crack down on various forms of protest and dissent, Sharon Hom, executive director of the non-governmental organization Human Rights in China, told VICE News. The same justification was used last month to jail a member of China's ethnic Uighur Muslim minority in Xinjiang for growing a beard, according to a state media report that was later retracted.
Ironically, sexual harassment — the issue the women originally sought to highlight with their campaigns — is also illegal under Chinese law. Their activism has also increased support for a law against domestic violence being considered by the national legislature. Hom said that this makes the government's actions somewhat "counterintuitive, when the women are advocating on an issue that authorities clearly know is a problem — which is violence against women."
"It is part of this pattern of [the central government] trying to consolidate, expand, and deepen control over citizens," she added. "This has been especially true since President Xi Jinping came into power."
Under Xi, who assumed power in late 2012, the Communist Party has increasingly employed swift punishments and detentions to silence voices of opposition and civic discourse in China.
"The most concerning message of this, is that the efforts to control and crackdown on civil society has now clearly expanded to not only moderate voices, reasonable voices — like from lawyers or activists — it has now expanded to issues that have upset more than half the population of China, directly for women and indirectly for other people," Hom said.
But the government's approach also runs the distinct risk of alienating more members of society, especially students and other activists, who have become emboldened in speaking out against injustices on the mainland or in satellite regions like Hong Kong, where protesters have in recent months railed against Beijing's restriction of democracy.
"There's a backlash against the backlash," Tarah Demant, a senior director of Amnesty International's identity and discrimination unit, told VICE News. "We're concerned about the potential chill on women's rights activists who have broken no laws, but there's also been a lot of activism and attention surrounding the detentions, which has helped raise the visibility of issues like domestic violence, which is taboo in China."
Across the world, protests in support of the women have been ignited in cities from New York and New Delhi to Seoul and Hong Kong. Some demonstrators have donned masks bearing the five jailed activists' faces, while online, the women's plight has been branded with the hashtag #FreeTheFive.
Earlier this month, more than 1,100 of the women's supporters in China sent prison and government authorities a petition calling for their release. Students, men, and women were among the signatories, who also demanded that officials continue the campaign against sexual harassment started by the women.
The petition also pointed to the hypocrisy of Chinese officials for detaining the feminists over their activism at the same time that Beijing gears up to host the 20th anniversary of the United Nations' Fourth World Conference on Women, which was held in the capital city in 1995.
At that summit two decades ago, countries agreed on the Beijing Platform for Action, which outlined tangible steps to correct the global gender rights imbalance. Gender disparity remains a problem worldwide, and China's patriarchal society still values sons over daughters. Chinese women in urban areas still earn less than 70 percent on average than their male counterparts.
The World Economic Forum's 2014 Global Gender Gap report ranked China 87 out of 142 countries for promoting gender equality, with wide discrepancies especially noted in the areas of political empowerment and economic participation and opportunity.
Despite international appeals made for the women's release, including from US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power, the European Union and the UK Foreign office, China has defended its decision to hold the women and to handle what it deems as internal affairs.
"China is a country ruled by law. Relevant departments will handle the relevant case according to law," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a news briefing in March. "We hope that public figures in other countries can respect China's judicial sovereignty and independence."
Lawyers for the women have said the activists have been subject to intense interrogation sessions in prison at least three times a day, each lasting for hours at a time.
One of the women, Wang Man, was also reportedly transferred to the detention center's medical ward after suffering a heart attack last month — a result of her congenital heart condition and severe stress during interrogations, according to her attorney Liang Xiaojun, who also represents Wu.
Hom, whose organization has been in frequent and direct contact with the activists' legal counsel, said both Wang and Wu's conditions have now stabilized and the women are in "good spirits despite the very serious health problems." On the other hand, the continued detention of the activists is a patent affront to both domestic and international law, she said.
"They have been detained for more than 30 days without a formal arrest document issued, which is a violation of criminal law," Hom said. "Their treatment in prison, including their denial of medical attention and compromised access to lawyers, is clearly not legal under Chinese law, not to mention under international human rights standards, which China has agreed to comply with."
The latest assertions that the women rallied "crowds to disrupt order in public places," will also be difficult to prove, she added, given that they were taken into custody before they were actually able to execute the purported "disruptive" actions.
Follow Liz Fields on Twitter: @lianzifields