Asia

Horrific assault on women in Tangshan exposes China’s sexist underbelly

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A brutal attack on a group of women in a restaurant in China this month has yet again
highlighted the pathetic state of affairs for women in the communist country. The incident took
place in the city of Tangshan, nearly 100 miles from Beijing, and was video recorded.
The video shows a man walking into the crowded restaurant around 3 am. He approaches a few
women sitting at a table and places his hand on one’s back. She objects and pushes him aside,
twice, before he slaps her and clubs her in the head. Her friends try to intervene, but several
other men come in from outside and start assaulting them. They then drag a woman by her hair
outside the restaurant and continue kicking her in the head as she lies on the ground.
Even though an onlooker called the police immediately, it took the force more than 15 hours to
announce that they were “going all out” to arrest the suspects that too after the video went viral
and attracted widespread condemnation. Many accused the force of reacting only because of
public outrage. Meanwhile, two of the four women remained hospitalized for over two weeks
and rumors spread that one of the women had, in fact, died, though the Hebei public security
statement contradicted that.
The shameful incident led to an eruption on social media, where users accused the police of not
deploying its resources to protect the women in the country. They also decried the general, deep
rooted sexist attitudes in Chinese society, where things are getting dismal for the women day by
day. It is worth noting that women involved in this incident were out in a group in a well-lit public
place and yet became victims of this horrific assault.
After the incident, state media outlet, ‘The Paper’ reported that in several such instances, male
assailants spent less time in detention than the victims spent in hospitals. Then there were other
publications, such as the Beijing Youth Daily, that resorted to victim, shaming and questioned
why the women were out so late. An early article by the publication stated that the man had
“chatted” with the women and then “both sides began to push and shove”. Many other media
outlets demanded improvements but failed to mention the dangers Chinese women face on daily
basis.
Many attempted to remove the gender angle from the issue, claiming that this could have
happened to any “weak” person, including men. “The perpetrators in similar cases have not
specifically targeted women, but rather target all weak people (including men),” Lu Dewen, a
sociology professor at Wuhan University, wrote. The initial police and media response also
focused on the attackers’ apparent links to local gangs and their criminal history instead of
treating it as gender-based violence. Huang Simin, a lawyer who has worked on gender violence
cases, said it was important to consider other factors, such as gang violence or inadequate law
enforcement but the role of gender could not be ignored. “We can analyse this incident from
many angles including cultural, regional and legal. But at the heart of all these angles is gender.
If we can’t even admit that, then this problem will be very difficult to resolve,” she said.
Few laws in China address gender-based violence and attackers are generally charged with crimes
such as “picking quarrels, provoking trouble, and intentional assault”. As such the country is a
hostile place for feminist movements as well and the populace considers feminist women to be
too aggressive and even “extremists”. Even in this case, the Chinese censors deleted articles that
argued that country had systemic sexism problems. According to Guo Jing, a domestic violence
case worker in China, it is common for Chinese authorities to treat gender-based crimes as oneoff incidents, put to rest by catching the accused.
In January this year, a video had surfaced of a chained-up mother of eight in Jiangsu. According
to her husband, she was mentally ill and a threat to others. The video was soon deleted by
censors but not before it shocked the world. Some netizens who tried to investigate the case
were arrested. A police investigation later revealed that the woman had been trafficked in the
1990s. Her husband was among the two arrested for the crime.
Many Chinese women, especially of the younger generation, were shocked at these incidents, as
China prides itself for its low crime rates and high levels of surveillance. Many Chinese women
are now questioning the societal values and the gender dynamics in the country for the first time.
“There are so many incidents that were not filmed. Violence against women, no matter what
kind, in our society is really nothing new,” Feng, a feminist activist, said. In fact, women being
assaulted in public by their partners are quite common in China, where toughness, sexual
prowess, and use of force are seen as ideals of masculinity. A 2013 UN study conducted in a
central Chinese county found that more than half the surveyed men admitted to physical or
sexual violence against their partner. Also, nearly half said they didn’t mind using violence to
defend their “honour”. This is no surprise in a country that listed domestic violence a criminal
offence only in 2016.
Mao Zedong once famously said that “women hold up half the sky”. Decades later, his
proclamation of women’s equality is yet to bear fruit in any shape or form. Today, women in
China face discrimination in the workplace, politics, and at home, and feminist movements have
been trampled upon. Strengthening laws to protect women and increasing punishments for
human trafficking remain a pipe dream while censorship goes on increasing. The authorities’
continuous crackdown on civil rights groups ensures that grassroots activism remains difficult to
sustain.
Over the years, feminist activists have been dismissed in court, sued, or arrested. State-owned
media outlets describe the #MeToo movement as a weapon for foreign forces to weaken China
and high-profile cases have been completely dismissed. The most recent case being tennis player
Peng Shuai’s, who disappeared from public view for weeks after she accused a top Chinese leader
of sexual assault. Her post was also deleted within minutes of her sharing.
Earlier this year, under President Xi Jinping, Beijing began ramping up its efforts to stamp out
feminist voices on the social media. Dozens of feminist accounts were abruptly shut down. Li
Maizi, a prominent feminist said, “Not only were our comments deleted, but our accounts were
disappeared on the internet. Our followers can’t see us anymore. It made me extinct on Weibo,
which is terrifying.” Li was among a group of young Chinese women who were arrested on the
eve of International Women’s Day in 2015 for planning a demonstration against sexual
harassment on public transport. They remained behind the bars for 37 days and were released
only because of global diplomatic and media pressure. Li was labeled “Hong Kong separatist” by
the authorities.
Many Chinese women say the recent Tangshan attack attracted so much condemnation because
the violence was so extreme. But the women in the country face such risks to different degrees
almost daily. It may be a long time before violence against women in China is considered a serious
enough offence to be stamped out completely.

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