28/03/2015 16:26 GMT | Updated 26/05/2015 06:59 BST

The Continued Detention of the Chinese Feminist Activists Is a Turning Point - For Better or Worse

International Women's Day 2015 should have been a positive occasion in China. The day is a big deal in the country; women are awarded time off work and given gifts by their employees. This year also marks 20 years since 189 countries adopted the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, a roadmap for women's rights and empowerment. And just before it a Chinese official hinted at the country's first domestic law becoming a reality in August. But events quickly took an ugly turn: on Friday 6th March the Chinese government detained a series of high-profile feminist activists. Demonstrations for the Day were cancelled. Debate was effectively silenced. Several weeks later and five of the women are still in custody. Two have been denied treatment for serious medical conditions.

Superficially at least, these incidences represent a major blow to China's feminist movement, which desperately relies on a small, but increasingly vocal community.

Chinese women suffer from a catalogue of discrimination, inside the workforce, the home and most other aspects of their lives. No clearer indication of the need for change came in 2013, when China only managed to reach position 91 out of the 187 countries listed in the 2013 UNDP Gender Inequality Index (Iran came ahead at 75).

The injustices Chinese women face largely go unchallenged. The higher echelon of the Communist Party, where policy is made, is a man's affair. Only two women comprise the current 25-member strong Politburo and none made it through to the seven member Politburo Standing Committee.

The government also plays an active role in skewing gender relations, as can be seen in their 'leftover' campaign. This term describes a woman who is single over the age of 27. The word first entered common parlance around the year 2007, when newspapers became filled with cautionary tales of 'leftover women.' Its roots can be traced back to the Chinese government, as Leta Hong Fincher explained in Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China. The leftover campaign has had a very negative impact on women's property and employment rights.

It's the Communist Party's ability to control conversations that makes the feminist struggle particularly pronounced in China. Civil society is tightly controlled. Certain groups do exist to campaign for female rights, but they are limited in size and reach.

That said, in recent years Chinese women have shown amazing strength to stand up to injustice. Activists have paraded around in 'blood' coated wedding dresses, 'occupied' men's toilets, shaved their heads to raise awareness - to name just a few incidences.

Some of these measures have proven highly effective. Cao Ju, a 21-year old university graduate, raised the profile of workforce quotas when she successfully sued a company who did not employ her on the grounds of her sex. Meanwhile, Kim Lee, who was abused for years by her famous husband Li Yang, shed a spotlight on how prolific domestic abuse is in China when she uploaded photos of her bloody face to microblogging platform Weibo.

It's for these reasons that these detentions are incredibly significant. Chinese women can't rely on the government to come to their aid. But when the government does the exact opposite, and actually arrests them, the situation gets a whole lot worse. China's current leader Xi Jinping has intensified a crackdown on dissent. Until this month, feminist activists had largely been spared the crackdown, which is not to say they've had an easy ride. These arrests send out a warning to anyone who might follow suit and are a blatant attempt to squash the country's nascent feminist movement. To say it is a dark moment for Chinese feminism is not far off the mark.

But then there's the counterpoint; some prominent commentators have argued that the detentions will do the exact opposite and instead cement the feminist movement in China. In a conversation in ChinaFile, Leta Hong Fincher argues it could be "the spark" needed, while Eric Fish says the government "risks planting seeds that could sprout into event greater opposition later". Already 16 activists have gone to a Beijing detention centre where Wu Rongrong, one of the activists, is being detained to demand her medical treatment. A petition is currently circulating to call for all their release.

China watchers wait with baited breathe to see how it will unfold, pinning hopes to a positive outcome. After all, China desperately needs figures such as these. Without them no one is fighting the Chinese feminist corner.