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Photography by Ike Louie Natividad | Written by the Right Livelihood Foundation




In the heart of Anyang China lies one of the most important human rights activists, a woman named Guo Jianmei, director of a women's legal aid NGO. She is responsible for helping some of most torn women of the region helping them regain hope for a better future.





Guo Jianmei was born in Henan Province in Central China on 13 October 1961. After graduating from the prestigious Peking University School of Law in 1983, she held positions at the Chinese Ministry of Justice, the All-China Women’s Federation and the All-China Lawyers Association. She participated in the drafting of China’s first comprehensive law devoted to the protection of women, the 1992 “Law on the Protection of the Rights and Interests of Women of the People’s Republic of China”. Guo was subsequently involved in a project that analyzed the obstacles for implementing this “Women’s law” and looked at possible solutions. The discrepancy between existing laws that are meant to protect women and their lack of implementation has been a central theme of her work ever since. “Law in China is a 'sleeping beauty'", she says. “If China’s laws were implemented more efficiently, there could be great improvements regarding the state of women’s rights and interests.” 


A turning point in her career came in 1995 when the United Nations convened the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. This meeting exposed Guo Jianmei to ideas of how to advance women’s rights such as the involvement of non-governmental organizations and the concept of public interest law that was previously unknown in China. Reflecting back on that conference, Guo says: “The participants’ concern for the protection of women’s rights and for the NGOs worked like a warm current. I instantly felt that I had found my home.”

Voice for the voiceless


Guo Jianmei quit her secure
government job to become China’s
first public interest lawyer dedicated
to providing legal aid
on a full-time basis.


Guo Jianmei quit her secure government job to become China’s first public interest lawyer dedicated to providing legal aid on a full-time basis. She successfully introduced the concept of free legal services for vulnerable women into the Chinese legal and cultural context. In late 1995, she and several teachers from Peking University, co-founded the first public interest NGO specifically aimed at offering free legal aid to women, the Center for Women’s Law Studies and Legal Services of Peking University.


Guo’s first client was a woman from the city of Xuzhou whose son had been beaten to death by the local police. When the bereaved mother traveled to Beijing to petition the authorities, she was hit by a tourist bus, sustaining severe injuries including the loss of one eye. The woman took the bus company to court because they had only offered a minor compensation that did not even cover her medical bills. She was in a miserable state when Guo Jianmei met her and offered to provide legal aid. Guo remembers: “When I took her to the courthouse, and the judge saw her disheveled state, he said to me: ‘Couldn’t you find other cases? How did you come to represent this kind of person?’ I said: ‘I’m a public interest lawyer.’ The judge just ignored me and, holding his nose, kicked us out of his office.”


In the end, Guo lost the case but had found her cause. From now on, she would fight for the rights of people at the bottom of society and make sure that disadvantaged women get access to the justice system. She would become a voice for the voiceless.

Under Guo Jianmei’s leadership, the Center for Women’s Law Studies developed into the most influential and impactful Chinese NGO in the field of protecting women’s rights. In 2010, the conditions for civil society engagement in China became increasingly hostile, and the center had to shut down after Peking University revoked the affiliation. The farewell note on the center’s website said: “For over fifteen years, we’ve engaged in an enterprise that is brighter than the sun.” Guo moved swiftly to reopen the NGO under the name Zhongze Women’s Legal Counseling Service Center. It was closed again during a major government clampdown on non-governmental organizations in early 2016. Currently, the legal counseling service center operates under Beijing Qianqian Law Firm of which Guo Jianmei is the founder and director.


To date, Guo’s legal aid entity has provided free legal counseling to over 120,000 women in questions related to marriage law, property rights, labor rights, gender discrimination in the workplace, land rights, and many other important legal fields. Moreover, Guo and her colleagues have represented more than 100,000 women in over 4000 court cases all over China. They work on the assumption that behind numerous individual cases lie broader issues concerning many women. That is why they chose about 400 significant and representative cases that could be used to advance legislation and legal practice. Some of these cases made national headlines such as the case of a woman named Li from Sichuan Province who had killed her abusive husband when domestic violence became unbearable for her. When Li was sentenced to death in August 2011, a huge public outcry ensued in China, and ordinary citizens began to discuss domestic violence. Guo and her team represented Li in her appeal process, and in the end, the death sentence was suspended. The Zhongze Center also handled several cases in which 12 and 13-year-old girls had been kidnapped and were sold to men who raped them. Chinese courts have a history of issuing lenient penalties for rapists, offenders often were only charged with the crime of ”engaging in sex with underage prostitutes”. The Zhongze team assisted these girls in their appeals and created a public awareness that treating the rape of children as “sex with underage prostitutes” was outrageous and this legal loophole had to be closed.

Since 1995, Guo Jianmei and her team of lawyers have submitted over 110 legal opinions, research reports, and legislative proposals, some of which suggested improving the relevant laws and regulations.



Their persistent advocacy for the
victims of domestic abuse helped
pave the way for the enactment of
China’s first Domestic Violence
Law in 2016.



Their persistent advocacy for the victims of domestic abuse helped pave the way for the enactment of China’s first Domestic Violence Law in 2016. The team has provided legal aid to cases which used to be considered “private family matters”. Guo’s Beijing Qianqian Law Firm compiled a selection of domestic violence cases its lawyers had handled and published it under the title “Punishing Domestic Abuse with the Sword of the Law”.


Much of Guo’s energy also goes into litigating to secure women’s land rights in rural China where patriarchal traditions run deep. Women are often excluded from rightful compensation when village land is expropriated by the government or sold to private developers. Guo Jianmei and her team have helped women claim their land rights and get their share of the profits from land sales. In 2007, Guo was able to recover land compensation money totaling more than 9 million Chinese Yuan (about 1,2 Million US Dollar) for 28 women from the city of Hohhot in Inner Mongolia. This successfully concluded case became a classic law case in China.


Challenging the patriarchal tradition in rural China can be dangerous at times. When Guo and a colleague were helping a group of women in Dengfeng City in Henan Province claim their rightful compensation for land sold to developers, over one hundred furious male villagers wielding sticks trapped the two lawyers inside their hotel, and yelled “family has family discipline; village has village rules.”

Encouraging other lawyers to help
vulnerable women so that these women
have a way to seek fairness in the
justice system is an essential part of the
work of Guo Jianmei.



Encouraging other lawyers to help vulnerable women so that these women have a way to seek fairness in the justice system is an essential part of the work of Guo Jianmei. Looking back at her own motivation to become a public interest lawyer, Guo says: “China is such a big country. There are so many disadvantaged people in need of support, especially legal support. So this is something that should be done. But then why would people say this is not something that should be taken on? Because so many conditions are not ripe, not to mention back then China did not even have many lawyers. To commit yourself to this kind of work – you must be crazy!”

In 2005, Guo Jianmei founded the China Public Interest Lawyers Network. Today, it comprises over 600 lawyers and 200 law firms from all over China. They collaborate on cases and have been able to offer legal assistance in remote regions that are lacking lawyers. In all of this, Guo has proven to be a role model in the legal profession. Without her pioneering work, subsequent generations of lawyers would have a more limited concept of a lawyer’s role in society. In spite of increasing restrictions and decreasing funds, she continues to advocate for the rights of women and disadvantaged groups in every possible way.


“The way ahead is long; I see no ending, yet high and low I will search with my will unbending”, she says quoting ancient Chinese poet Qu Yuan (340-278 BC).

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