In the days leading up to International Women’s Day on Sunday, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s increasingly repressive regime zeroed in on a new target: women’s rights campaigners.

At least seven activists — including Li Tingting (also known as Li Maizi), who campaigns for unisex toilets to improve access for women — were detained on March 7. Others around the country were brought in for questioning.

This from a country that hosted the 1995 United Nations’ Fourth World Women’s Conference and is a signatory to the Beijing Declaration, which came out of that conference and promises to protect and promote the rights of women and girls.

Last week, in the also increasingly repressive Thailand, high-profile politician Ticha Na Nakorn quit the committee charged with drafting (yet another) constitution for the country, where military coups d’etat seem to have become a way of life (12 since 1932). Ticha also resigned from the National Reform Council, established by the junta to overhaul the country’s institutions in the wake of last year’s May 22 coup.

Ticha expressed frustration that her goal of cementing targets for women’s representation in parliament — one-third of members–– into the new constitution were going precisely nowhere. She has been replaced in both bodies by a man.

What Ticha’s comments and events in China underscore is that while women in a modern Australia still struggle for basic equality such as equal pay, things in developing Asia are far, far worse.

On the face of it it seems Asia has many female leaders compared with the rest of the world. Many have made their mark and changed their countries for the better, notably Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi (as much as you may want to quibble about her record) and President of the Philippines Corazon Aquino.

On the other side of the ledger, showing that female politician can be just as dreadful as their male counterparts, Gloria Arroyo, also president of the Philippines, ruled for nine years in an administration plagued by corruption. While South Korea, Indonesia and Thailand have all had women elected to run their countries, every one of them owes her career to a father or other family member.

But women in Asia have it pretty rough, often very rough — which was Ticha’s point.

The good news for Australia is that in the still potentially incendiary issue of the rights and opportunities for women (and girls) in Asia is also an unsung area where we have been more than pulling our weight — even under the Abbott government. It is to Tony Abbott’s credit that Julie Bishop was able to stick her neck out somewhat to make the personal appointment of former Democrats leader Natasha Stott Despoja as the government’s Ambassador for Women and Girls, despite bumping the job down from the full-time role that Julia Gillard created — only the second such position for any country in the world, after the United States.

Stott Despoja has been tirelessly jetting around the region making sure Australia’s significant aid dollars in the area are being well spent. Recently she was in Myanmar (or Burma, as Abbott prefers) and Cambodia, two of the three particularly impoverished south-east Asian nations (Laos is the other) where much of Australia aid is devoted to projects aimed at the health and education of women. It would be a blight on the country if any of these were significantly cut when Treasury and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade finally decide where the aid cuts will be made.

But Stott Despoja is not a politician anymore, and it’s high time that the Australian government used its not-insignificant clout in the region to woman up and speak out against China in this case especially, and say that actions such as those carried out by its government against rights activists in this area — and others — is unacceptable. China wants to be seen as a modern country and be accepted as a legitimate member of the global community, but actions such as detaining women’s rights campaigners continue to block its way.

Mao Zedong famously said that “women hold up half the sky”, although his wife might have taken that to unfortunate lengths when she led the evil Gang of Four on its deadly campaigns in the Cultural Revolution and after Mao’s death.

It would have been terrific if Bishop had used the annual platform of International Women’s Day — which marked a remarkable 50-year anniversary on Sunday — to speak out against China’s reprehensible acts. If Australia wants to win the hearts and minds of our Asian neighbours, half the population is not a bad place to start.