BEIJING – Covering the news in China, one quickly becomes acquainted with the names and deeds of a slew of human rights activists here who walk a very fine line between legally advocating for social justice and operating outside the ambiguous, but all-encompassing boundaries set by the government.
Admittedly, before today I’d never heard of Cheng Jianping, the 46-year old activist who was sentenced to a year in a forced labor camp for “disrupting the social order” by retweeting a satirical message.
Where people like Liu Xiaobo, Ai Weiwei, Gao Zhisheng and most recently, Zhao Lianhai have made headlines with their stance on issues ranging from democracy in China to greater transparency on food regulation, Cheng has toiled in relative anonymity – often without the support system that often grows around activists who gain notoriety.
Originally a businesswoman based out of China’s industrial hub of Zhejiang province, Cheng began her career in activism in 2006 after the alleged brutal rape and murder in Hubei of Gao Yingying. Government officials quickly ruled it a suicide and claimed Gao had leapt to her death from the roof of the hotel she worked at, but various bruises and cuts on her wrists and face suggested foul play.
The speed at which the government mobilized to shut down media coverage and gloss over critical bits of evidence – namely Gao’s underwear, which had sperm found on it by forensics experts – implied a well-connected assailant.
Jolted into action by the brutality alleged and the local government’s implicit cooperation in the cover-up, Cheng left her job and turned to popular Chinese messaging service, QQ, to call attention to Gao’s case and to organize netizens who were willing to provide legal or financial assistance to the family.
Through her QQ groups, Cheng made and distributed videos explaining Gao’s case, collected donations and organized signature drives. However, the case never gained enough traction and Gao’s father was even thrown in jail for a year after he spoke out against the government’s handling of the case.
In an interview she conducted earlier this year, Cheng noted that the Gao Yingying case was a seminal moment in her life, “This campaign completely changed my values of life. I realize the root of all this country’s tragedy was the system – a system without supervision.”
In the years since the Gao Yingying case, Cheng Jianping has been involved in a number of other campaigns:
* In 2006, Cheng organized support online for another young female employee who was raped and murdered in Sichuan.
* In 2007, she campaigned for villagers who protested and rioted over tightened enforcement of birth control policies as well as provided assistance to the now infamous “Nailhouse” family of Chongqing.
* She helped form the “Blue Ribbon Campaign,” an online movement to bring awareness to over 1,500 children who were rescued after being enslaved at brick kilns in Shanxi.
* She organized the “Zhejiang Yellow Ribbon New Year Card Campaign,” a drive to send Chinese New Year greeting cards to imprisoned dissidents across China.
Though few have acknowledged it, Cheng helped pioneer the internet activism and awareness that we are now seeing manifest itself in everything from unfair murder cases to coverage of embarrassing city fires.
It’s probably little consolation to Cheng now as she now serves her year in a labor camp, but in a bitter twist of irony, her detention finally allows her to receive the credit she deserves.
NBC News' Gu Bo contributed to this report.