China releases 5 feminists held for planning protests

China’s leaders have apparently bowed to international pressure by agreeing Monday to release five feminist activists who’d been held for a month for planning protests against sexual harassment.

The release of the women, who were detained shortly before International Women’s Day last month, followed denunciations from numerous U.S. and other international critics, including Secretary of State John Kerry and his predecessor, Hillary Clinton, who on Sunday announced her candidacy for president.

The five women could still face prosecution, but for now some supporters of the feminist activists think international pressure made a difference.

“The international attention did not hurt, it helped,” Liang Xiaojun, a lawyer for one of the women, Wu Rongrong, told McClatchy. “Cases in China have their own sequence of development. The attention from the international society has helped in this case.”

Leta Hong Fincher, the Hong Kong-based author of “Leftover Women,” a book about the pressures Chinese women face to marry early and let men handle business affairs, also credited international pressure for the release.

“For once and for all, let’s retire the notion that we need to let China ‘save face’ when it comes to human rights abuses,” she said on Twitter.

According to Liang, Wei Tingting, 26, Wang Man, 32, and Zheng Churan, 25, were reportedly released on bail Monday. Early Tuesday morning Beijing time, the other two – Li Tingting, 25, and Wu, 30, – were released, according to William Nee, a China researcher for Amnesty International.

“The decision to release all five women is an encouraging breakthrough. The authorities must now follow through and drop all charges and restrictions against the women,” said Nee.

The five women are members of China’s Women’s Rights Action Group. They reportedly had planned protests on International Women’s Day, March 8, including distributing stickers with slogans saying “stop sexual harassment, let us stay safe.”

Supporters in Hong Kong had protested the detentions, as did some more quietly on the Chinese mainland. Overall, the detentions sent a chill through the Chinese feminist community, with many women unsure how far they could go in protesting gropings and other everyday harassment in public, or even planning to plan protests.

Kerry had issued a statement in support of the women on Friday.

“Each and every one of us has the right to speak out against sexual harassment and the many other injustices that millions of women and girls suffer around the world,” he said.

“We strongly support the efforts of these activists to make progress on these challenging issues, and we believe that Chinese authorities should also support them, not silence them.”

Earlier on Monday, Hillary Clinton tweeted on behalf of the women, who have a hashtag, #FreeTheFive.

“The detention of women’s activists in #China must end. This is inexcusable,” Clinton tweeted.

McClatchy special correspondent Tiantian Zhang contributed to this report.