Meeting with Chinese Women Civil Society Leaders

Hillary Rodham Clinton
Secretary of State
Beijing, China
May 26, 2010

SECRETARY CLINTON: I want to tell you what Vice-Premier Wang said yesterday at our closing session of the strategic and economic dialogue. He asked me if there was anyone else on the American side I wanted to call on. So, of course, I called on Melanne. And then Melanne talked about the courage and the resilience of the Chinese women, and how important it was that we keep women in mind all over the world when we talk about development.

And then, Vice-Premier Wang said, "I agree with that. And we need to do more on women's development, especially rural women."

PARTICIPANT: (Inaudible.)

SECRETARY CLINTON: Yes, yes. Please tell us what you've been doing.

PARTICIPANT: (Via interpreter) (Inaudible) teaching women in the countryside to read. They have very little chances to actually read and learn things.

PARTICIPANT: (Via interpreter) Also, (inaudible) employment opportunities for women in the country and the city, but also the retirement and pension (inaudible) --

SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, I hope that at our next session of the strategic and economic dialogue we will have a full presentation about women in China and women in the United States, and we will work to bring women together to talk about these important issues.

PARTICIPANT: (Via interpreter) Because I think, in the Chinese Government, (inaudible) differences between the two (inaudible), especially among the --

SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, can I say that it's in most governments? I think we have made an enormous amount of progress, and we have women able to chart their own lives much more than ever existed in human history. But there are external barriers and internal barriers. Externally, there are still many places where education is not available, health care is not available, jobs are not available, training, credit, you know, just the basics of being able to construct your own approach to your life.

And then, internally, each woman has to make the right balance in her life, and we have to respect the decisions that women make, because we're all so different. But there are still some attitudes in the minds of men and women that keep it very hard for women to feel like they are achieving and being able to get supported in their choice.

One of the things we talked about on the TV program yesterday was the support you need when you are a mother. I mean it's hard. You know very well, Mary. It's hard. And every woman who tried to, you know, be the best she can be for her family can't do it alone.

And I know that when you stand up for women, women who have been disadvantaged in the workplace, women who are victims of domestic violence, that is also very challenging.

So, tell me what you are doing now.

PARTICIPANT: (Via interpreter) I still continue our original work. I know that I said it was (inaudible). Our registration was withdrawn. We are trying to register again, but we have extreme difficulties (inaudible). So we're trying to register the law firm now. (Inaudible) really striving to continue, according to the principles we had in the past (inaudible).

But a lot of the work we do is still sensitive, some of the cases we handle, there are political issues and efficacy issues, trying to deal with (inaudible). Also trying to establish a network of 400 public interest lawyers. There is a sort of risk in doing this kind of work (inaudible). A lot of the cases we handle are very representative of things happening in China. We advocate the reform of the legislative process and the political process we use in these cases (inaudible) examples --


SECRETARY CLINTON: Give me an example.

PARTICIPANT: (Via interpreter) (Inaudible) case about a young woman who was a rape victim and we're trying to defend her, and that's also connected with the reforms that we're trying to (inaudible).

PARTICIPANT: She was a -- excuse me -- she was a petitioner.


PARTICIPANT: She came to Beijing to petition, and was detained and was raped in her detention. So this is -- we're trying to also use this to reform the petition system.

PARTICIPANT: (Via interpreter) Also the state compensation and the (inaudible). (Inaudible) of this case is something we can use to promote (inaudible). So we actually think this is quite a strong force (inaudible), the women's NGO organizations. But still, there are a lot of factors restricting our (inaudible). Definitely I think this will continue to (inaudible). And the women in China are much more aware of their rights and the law (inaudible).

I remember one of your speeches in 1995 (inaudible). I was still young, about 30 years old. And (inaudible). I was so proud (inaudible).

PARTICIPANT: Women's rights are human rights.

PARTICIPANT: (Via interpreter) I was on the fifth row and the chairs were broken because there were too many people It became a worldwide slogan, your --

SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, but you are a leader. You all are leaders, because you are on the front lines doing this hard work. And I am so proud to know all of you because there are women like you all over the world who are trying to help individual women, and then working through organizations to try and help change.

So, tell me what the federation is focused on now.

PARTICIPANT: (Via interpreter) The Chinese always say that women hold half the sky. So a lot of women in China are already in social participation in women's (inaudible).

PARTICIPANT: (Via interpreter) Just like you said, Madam Secretary, a lot of people have really not changed their traditional views or attitudes. So a lot of the activities (inaudible) organization, but the goal is to change this attitude. For example, there’s a UN program that engages men to change their behavior.

PARTICIPANT: (Via interpreter) So they should share responsibilities at home (inaudible).

PARTICIPANT: (Via interpreter) We have only just begun. (Inaudible), but on specific issues we (inaudible).

SECRETARY CLINTON: I think that's right. I think that we have fought a lot of the battles to get women into school, to get girls health care. We fought a lot of those battles over the last many years. But now I think it is the attitude.

And, like, your lawsuit on behalf of the petitioner should not have to be necessary. But so many people still think that women are victims, and don't really see the impact of actions like that on women's lives.

PARTICIPANT: I was telling Ms. Lee about the announcement of people-to-people. And when she heard we may do women's exchanges, she got very excited.

PARTICIPANT: (Via interpreter) I would also like to thank you, Madam Secretary, for your invitation that you had issued previously for our organization to come to the United States (inaudible) group of NGOs (inaudible) and have exchanges. I think mutual visits of this type are really beneficial.

SECRETARY CLINTON: That's exactly what we are trying to do, because there is so much to learn from each other. And one of our goals, when Melanne worked with me to start Vital Voices, was to have a mechanism for women from all over the world to meet and listen. Because sometimes a woman from Africa or Latin America might have more in common with each other than if they come to the United States. So we try to have all kinds of exchanges. But we think this emphasis on women in China and women in the United States is a very good idea for now.

So, Phyllis, what are you working on now? I know you have been here for 25 years?

PARTICIPANT: Not quite that long.


PARTICIPANT: Sixteen, going on seventeen.

SECRETARY CLINTON: Is it true she speaks Chinese with a New York accent?


PARTICIPANT: But not a Brooklyn accent. I -- my friends here keep thanking me for helping them in their work and in their causes. What I always joke -- but really seriously -- I say that only because of them, otherwise I would be very unemployed. I been infected by them, and infected in the best way. That is the republic spirit they have, the commitment, these guys -- I will use that American term -- these women and Chinese men who are committed to reform in China work daily. There is almost no weekend here in China. And so I have been infected with their spirit. And it's very moving.

So, things have moved forward a lot in the last 15 years. But I think now a number of NGOs, not just in the women's field, are under considerable pressure. And this has changed and is of some concern to our Chinese friends (inaudible) concern.

So, I think we are very interested -- as I used to be a lawyer; I don't practice law any more -- but of course you are a very prominent lawyer. We are very interested in your experience as a lawyer working on rights. Many governments feel uncomfortable with that: local governments, national governments. But we believe that lawyers are here, in their various roles, to kind of advance the public good, and try to help governments and societies work through the development process, particularly China, as it's moving forward so fast. There are so many conflicts, a great deal of injustice, as in any country that is rapidly developing.

So, if you have a few words to say about your work as a lawyer doing rights, and how this kind of work can help society, in general, and governments, as well.

SECRETARY CLINTON: Phyllis, that's a really good -- you want to translate?

PARTICIPANT: Serious question.

SECRETARY CLINTON: I really believe strongly that lawyers can be a government's best friend, even though governments may sometimes not feel that.

When I was a young lawyer, I was involved in what we call legal aid. And then I was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to chair the board of the Legal Services Corporation, which funded legal aid lawyers across America. And we would bring cases on behalf of people who were poor, and were denied their rights or access to basic services. And we would sometimes bring lawsuits that would be irritating or embarrassing for government officials. But I always made the case to mayors and governors and legislators that what we were doing was consistent with American values and ideals.

And I think that, over time, despite the challenges that we face, people understood that when you had Americans deprived of safe housing for their children because landlords were so greedy that they wouldn't get rid of the rats that were eating through the cribs of babies, that was an indictment of all of us. Or, when farm workers were in the fields, and were not permitted to leave when the airplanes flew over to spray the fields with the pesticides, and then the farmers became sick, that was both wrong, but it was also costly, because of course they had to go to the hospital to get health care. So the farmers should have allowed their workers to leave the fields.

So, I used to say, "We can keep bringing lawsuits, which costs you a lot of money to defend. Or you can help us change the housing codes and change the regulations that govern farm labor, and end these problems so that people are treated more fairly and they have safer living and working conditions."

And here in China, it is extraordinarily impressive and unprecedented in human history how many people have been lifted from absolute poverty, how many are given education and health care whose parents and grandparents would never have had that opportunity.

But as you were saying, Phyllis, in rapid development, just like in our own country, in the 19th and early 20th century, we had to pass laws abolishing child labor. I mean, we had six-year-old kids working in factories and mines. We had to pass laws that limited the number of hours an employer could make somebody work, because we had people working 80 hours, and literally passing out on the factory floor. We had to pass laws for better hygiene and sanitation. And so, China is now having to come to grips with a lot of these same challenges.

Because even though there are many development problems that have not been solved in China -- still too many people without the needs that they should have -- there is a requirement, at certain levels of development, that the government turn its attention to ensure that all the work that's gone in to creating the jobs, and providing the better standard of living, isn't undermined by private actors or corrupt government officials who take advantage of the people. So, it's just now at a point where I think a lot of that is coming to the forefront.

The final thing I would say is that -- and I would always say to my own government officials -- lawyers are trying to make our system work better for everybody. We are not trying to tear it down, we are not trying to replace it. We want to make it work for everybody. And I think that's a very strong argument on behalf of the kind of legal advocacy and defense of rights -- these are rights that already belong to the Chinese people. You are just trying to make sure that they are present, in action.

PARTICIPANT: There is a sense that exercising rights is anti-governmental or sometimes there is a concern about that. Did you encounter that?

SECRETARY CLINTON: Oh, of course. That then kind of goes with the territory, yes,
really --

PARTICIPANT: (Via interpreter) Well, I am really thinking about how the biggest challenge, I think, is that we have to change our (inaudible) --


PARTICIPANT: (Via interpreter) -- so (inaudible) better. On the one hand, we want to have our people working more effectively (inaudible), but we also have to avoid taking on greater risks --


PARTICIPANT: (Via interpreter) So (inaudible).



PARTICIPANT: (Via interpreter) Being in (inaudible) field of legal affairs is much more difficult than when it is environmental protection or education or poverty (inaudible), because we deal with cases that might involve official corruption and human rights. It's a lot of political issues.

PARTICIPANT: Including mass incidents -- or incidents involving a large number of people.

PARTICIPANT: (Via interpreter) We all need our passion and our courage. We also need to have our intelligence and a good strategy. But what's really most important is that we can open government channels at the highest levels of leadership to understand what we're doing is good for China and not destructive. As I tell them, "Don't consider me an enemy, we're doing it for the same interests." (Inaudible.)

SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, and you said something very important. Corruption is cancer in any society. It is a cancer. And if it is permitted to flourish with impunity, all the values and the ideas of the society are undermined. And the Chinese Government has been much more focused on eliminating corruption than governments of most developing countries. So this is an important value that the Chinese Government needs to continue to act on.

PARTICIPANT: I'm going to have to be the bad person. But why don't you finish, and then we will close and go to the airport?

PARTICIPANT: (Via interpreter) Another thing. There is a connection between law and the customs people have, especially in practice. People, when they really take action, often don't do it in accordance with the law. (Inaudible.) For example, when a girl is married, it's been a custom for 2,000 years in China (inaudible) property and the assets. Although (inaudible) a changing event in the past 10 years (inaudible). Well, most people are still thinking that way. It's really hard (inaudible) division of property.

PARTICIPANT: (Via interpreter) We're still working hard on this.

PARTICIPANT: (Via interpreter) We are working hard in our organization to change people's way of thinking about these things, because traditional preferences -- like in the countryside the house (inaudible) responsibility (inaudible). You can't change people's way of thinking (inaudible).

SECRETARY CLINTON: That's why I started by saying that, you know, the law can try to enforce rights, change the definition of rights, and make arguments as to why one case represents many, and therefore, laws should be changed. And then, at the same time, the whole question of attitudes and thinking has to be worked on simultaneously.

I have gotten to know a number of the high-level Chinese officials over the last 16 months, and I know many of them have daughters and granddaughters who they are very proud of, and are committed to being sure they are well educated and have their rights -- many of them going to the United States or Europe to study.

And when Melanne started talking about we needed to focus on women, I was sitting -- the way we were set up was all the Americans were here, and all of the Chinese officials were there. And the front row of Chinese officials were all men. But then there were a lot of women in the back rows. And when Melanne was talking, I saw all these women going like this, nodding in agreement.


PARTICIPANT: So we want to do a photo next.

PARTICIPANT: (Via interpreter) I have been very encouraged by (inaudible) more young people, including more men, come and join us on this issue.

SECRETARY CLINTON: I think that's a great idea. I think that's a very good idea. Because even though women hold up half the sky, you can't change unless you get everybody working together.

PRN: 2010/T29-19