Ye Haiyan, whose nickname as a women’s rights activist is “Hooligan Sparrow,” holds a protest sign in the film of the same name. The first two lines say, “The Woman’s Association Exists in China in Name Only. Women’s Rights in China Are Dead.” (Courtesy of “Hooligan Sparrow”)

When filmmaker Nanfu Wang was questioned by Chinese police about the subject of her documentary, “Hooligan Sparrow” (a nickname for gender rights activist Ye Haiyan), she told them Sparrow is a vain and shallow person who craves the spotlight.

Wang was lying. It’s something she learned to do well through a year of harassment by police while making the film.

Originally from a rural town in China, Wang studied film at NYU and now lives in Brooklyn. On a return trip to her native country, she found that some of her old friends viewed her as a traitor when she talked of human rights abuses there. Some of her new friends are Andy Cohen and Alison Klayman, producers of the 2012 Sundance Special Jury Prize winner, “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry,” about the Chinese artist and activist Ai. “Hooligan Sparrow” is nominated for an Indie Spirit Award and is on this year’s Oscar short list.

Sparrow became famous in China for her stint in a brothel providing free sex for migrant workers, to promote safe sex and HIV awareness, as well as draw attention to abusive conditions for migrant and sex workers. Overweight and bawdy, she has a working-class demeanor that helps her connect with everyday Chinese. In the documentary, when a reporter asks who sent her, she replies, “The CCP” (Chinese Communist Party). “Communism is the best!” the reporter laughs. “Even the sex is free!”

When Wang and her film crew caught up with Sparrow, she was on the island of Hainan, getting ready to lead a protest by a group of women. Their outrage was aimed at a school principal, Chen Zaipeng, who had taken six elementary-school girls to a hotel room, where they were raped. When it was learned that the man accompanying Chen was a local official, Feng Xiaosong, it became an inconvenient story for the government under President Xi Jinping, whose signature issue is anti-corruption. Chen got 13 years in prison, Feng got 11 — light sentences in the eyes of many.

“There is regular prostitution law and child prostitution law, which is prostitutes under 14,” Wang explained to Truthdig. “Specific sentences are anywhere from a fine to a few years in prison. And there is the rape law, which is anywhere between 10 years to life in prison, or even death penalty.”

This common loophole enables rapists to claim that their victims are prostitutes. “As soon as they can prove there is money exchanged, they can get away without a sentence,” added Wang.

From the government’s point of view, the film explains, it was not helpful for an internationally known figure like Sparrow to draw attention to the case. The decision was made to neutralize her. When she returns home from Hainan with her 13-year-old daughter, a gang of thugs tries to break into her apartment and beat her. Complaints to the police only exacerbate the situation, and soon she is detained.

In her absence, her apartment becomes a shrine, with activists and artists coming from all over China to protest her treatment. Sparrow is released after a few weeks but then is further tormented by thugs camping outside her home, leading to her eviction. At the same time during filming, Wang is harassed and eventually detained for questioning by a Chinese national security agent.

In this scene from “Hooligan Sparrow,” Chinese human rights lawyer Wang Yu hands out literature. (Courtesy of Nanfu Wang)

“Most of the activists, if they protested on TV, usually it was reported that those activists have mental health problems,” Wang explained. Sparrow’s lawyer, Wang Yu, who was taken with her husband and 16-year-old son from her home by police in the predawn hours of July 9, 2015, was later seen on TV, “confessing” that she was paid by foreign powers to subvert the government. She remains in detention, one of over 300 human rights lawyers targeted by the Chinese government.

“The CCP views the human rights movement as a real threat to one-party rule,” Teng Biao, a human rights lawyer and visiting fellow at Princeton University explained to Truthdig. “There are a lot of conflicts between the party and the people. Every day, there are hundreds of protests all over China.”

Corruption, an issue Xi Jinping has made a top priority, is as prevalent as ever. Even worse, the bullying tactics of his anti-corruption campaign, popular despite its failure, have provided cover for aggressive handling of human rights advocates. Reasons for the crackdown are varied. China has the world’s largest income gap, and its fourth-quarter GDP grew by 6.8 percent in 2016. While the increase represents a rebound after two years of slow growth, the overall state of China’s economy pales next to concerns over a looming trade war and mounting debt risks.

At the same time, a constant flow of Western pop culture and ideology is influencing what young people expect from their government. And it’s not just wired hipsters and affluent urbanites: Popular apps like WeChat connect anyone with a smartphone, from the glass towers of Shanghai to the rice paddies of Shandong.

“Ideologically, more and more Chinese people — including, actually, most party officials — don’t believe in the official propaganda. So the CCP is very, very nervous about a possible color revolution,” Teng said, referring to the democracy movements in former Soviet and Balkan republics early this century.

At the same time, there’s no denying the crackdown in China is working. “Human rights activists have been intimidated and have to keep kind of a low profile. And the cost of doing human rights work is increasingly worrying,” said Teng, who is counting on Donald Trump to highlight the abuses. “I don’t think the crackdown can achieve its goal to silence all the human rights activities. Many lawyers and activists are still standing up.”

After being evicted from her home, Sparrow moved through five Chinese provinces, harassed at every stop, before landing with her mother in her birthplace, a rural village. Wang has a photo of Sparrow sitting at the side of a country road, surrounded by her belongings, homeless. The items in the photo—taped-up boxes, crates and a refrigerator, were part of the Brooklyn Museum’s 2014 Ai Weiwei retrospective. Sparrow, of course, wasn’t there. But her absence hovers over the scene like a ghost.

“Right now in this political environment, things change quickly, and no one can predict what will happen next,” said Wang. “But the film and what is happening in China actually serve as a cautionary tale, if people take their rights for granted and don’t fight for it. Nothing is guaranteed.”

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