Born in Beijing, during the Cultural Revolution (1966–71) she was forcibly deported along with her family to their ancestral home in Zhaoyuan, Shandong Province as a result of her grandfather being a member of the "enemy classes" according to Communist Party of China doctrine of the time. After attending Beijing College of Political Science and a period of post-graduate study she was assigned to work at the research centre of the Ministry of Labor and Human Resources.
During the 2002 housing reforms, Cao reported corruption amongst her supervisors and lost her job. Thereafter she became a human rights activist and subsequently served at least two terms in prison camps as a result of her activities. 
Arrest and death
Cao was detained in September 2013 following a two month sit in at the Foreign Affairs Ministry as part of a group demanding a national human rights review. Cao died in a Chinese military hospital on 14 March 2014 with her body showing "signs of her mistreatment during approximately five and half months in detention".
- "Cao Shunli". Human rights in China. 18 March 2014. Retrieved 19 March 2014.
- Cao, Yaxue (18 March 2014). "The Life and Death of Cao Shunli (1961 — 2014)". Retrieved 19 March 2014.
- "US 'disturbed' by death of Chinese activist Cao Shunli". BBC News. 15 March 2014. Retrieved 19 March 2014.
- Kaiman, Jonathan (14 March 2014). "Chinese activist Cao Shunli dies after being denied medical help, says website". The Guardian. Retrieved 18 March 2014.
- "Cao Shunli’s death a huge blow to human rights movement in China". Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy. 17 March 2014. Retrieved 18 March 2014.
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