Discussion about violence against women in China has been rekindled by surveillance video of a group of thugs savagely beating a woman in Tangshan, Hebei, and a belated manhunt to catch the perpetrators. Nine men were eventually arrested for the assault. Yet as footage of the attack went viral on Weibo, a counter-narrative emerged. The problem, according to this state-backed narrative, is less gender-based violence than lax public security and the lingering influence of “black society,” a catch-all term for criminal elements and a target of the now-concluded Sweep Away Black and Eliminate Evil campaign. At the Associated Press, Zen Soo reported on the Tangshan incident:
Footage from a barbecue restaurant in Tangshan in northern Hebei province, time stamped 2:40 a.m. Friday, showed one of the men approaching a table where a party of four women were seated and placing his hand on a woman’s back.
She rebuffed him several times before he flew into a rage and slapped her, prompting her to fight back. A brawl ensued, with a group of men entering the restaurant and brutally attacking the woman and her dining partners, including shoving them to the ground, kicking them and even throwing a chair at them.
Footage taken from outside the restaurant also showed the attackers dragging the woman who had rebuffed the man’s advances out of the establishment and beating her viciously while most passersby and patrons looked on. [Source]
🔻 video – part #2
— Byron Wan (@Byron_Wan) June 11, 2022
Another moment during this messy fight capturing the attention of netizens: this lady tries to help out as she sees another woman being kicked and beaten, but her partner holds her back and walks away. pic.twitter.com/koVgJRNiqg
— Manya Koetse (@manyapan) June 11, 2022
The Tangshan attack is not the first case of extreme violence against women to spark debate in China within the past year. In February, a video of woman chained in a shed shocked the nation and drew attention to domestic violence and Chinese officialdom’s often lax approach to human trafficking and abuse. In November of 2021, tennis star Peng Shuai accused former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli of sexual assault, after which she was temporarily “disappeared.” The issue of violence against women was the subject of the song “Xiao Juan (Pseudonym),” released in late 2020 by Mandopop star Tan Weiwei. The song referenced a number of viral cases of abuse, particularly that of the Tibetan livestreamer Lhamo, who was set on fire by her husband while streaming. At The New York Times, Vivian Wang reported on the Tangshan incident and the need to center gender in analysis of the causes of the violence:
“The primary reason he beat her was that his harassment did not yield his desired result. But many mainstream commentaries didn’t see that,” [Feng Yuan, the head of Equality, a Beijing-based feminist advocacy group] said. “The role of gender being erased — this is what we need to fight against.”
[…] Social media exploded with comments from users decrying both the assailants and broader sexist attitudes that they said enabled them. They fumed that the authorities could track down suspected coronavirus patients immediately but seemed unwilling to deploy similar resources to protect women. Many noted that the women had fulfilled all the usual tips about how to avoid harassment — they had gone out in a group and were in a well-lit public space — and were still unsafe.
[…] “We can analyze this incident from many angles: cultural, regional differences, legal. But at the heart of all these angles is gender,” [Huang Simin, a mainland-based rights lawyer who has worked on cases related to gender violence] said. “If we can’t even admit that, then this problem will be very difficult to resolve.” [Source]
Chinese state media has studiously avoided portraying the incident primarily in terms of gender violence. An opinion piece in China Daily declared that “The case is nine males using violence against three females, but it should never be interpreted as any form of sexual antagonism.” It argued instead that “anybody, male or female” could fall prey to the violence of thugs. Another state-run outlet, Beijing Youth Daily, described the attack as originating from “a conversation,” rather than harassment, and portrayed the gang beating as a fair fight. China’s social media giants reacted in a similar manner. Weibo announced that it had censored over 14,546 posts about the incident, suspended 8,182 accounts, and further shuttered 1,007 accounts that it claimed “stir-fried history” and “incited gender opposition”—a charge often used to silence feminist voices. Examples of offending posts included in Weibo’s announcement included “Ah, got it, got it, got it. Chinese women simply aren’t humans,” and the hashtag “After Unsuccessfully Flirting with Empress Dowager Cixi, The Eight-Nation Alliance Burns Down the Summer Palace,” satirizing misogynistic headlines about the cause of the Tangshan beating.
Gang violence is undoubtedly a problem in China, and in Tangshan in particular. After the incident, a number of men and women from Tangshan shared their experiences of being beaten with impunity by local thugs. Indeed, control over the prosecution of the beating case was reassigned from Tangshan city prosecutors to those in neighboring Langfang, perhaps due to fears that the perpetrators were too cozy with Tangshan law enforcement. Those fears were underscored by the delayed manhunt for the perpetrators. Police arrived at the scene of the early-morning crime after the attackers had left, and did not announce their intention to find them until late that same evening, after the incident had gone viral on Weibo. Yet the focus on general criminality may leave the root causes of the incident unaddressed. Tangshan police announced a “lightning blitz” campaign against organized crime, rather than a campaign against gender-based violence. They have also encouraged residents to provide tips about those engaged in “fighting, provoking troubles, insulting women, extortion, forced trade, gambling, drug use and cybercrimes.” On social media, Tangshan residents have shared videos of police in riot gear patrolling barbeque spots similar to the one where the attack occurred; some of the officers used megaphones to instruct patrons “Don’t drink too much” and “Don’t strike up conversations with strangers.”
This can’t possibly be the response to the Tangshan bbq attack. Please tell me this isn’t real https://t.co/7wI2mUzNmK
— Don Weinland (@donweinland) June 14, 2022
In his Foreign Policy China Brief, James Palmer examined the underlying causes of the failure of policing in Tangshan:
Many commenters remarked on the failure of the police to respond to the attack until after the video went viral. As Suzanne Scoggins shows in her book Policing China, so much of the Chinese security budget goes to so-called stability maintenance and protest control that actual police work is underfunded, leaving Chinese officers demoralized. In many cases, the police seek to avoid the paperwork involved with a crime, Scoggins reports—for example, authorities may refuse to charge attackers if they pay the hospital bills for their victims.
However, the focus on gangs in the wake of the Tangshan attack is also a deliberate distraction from the question of male violence, which is an endemic problem in China. Surveys have reported that anywhere between 25 percent and 39 percent of women experience intimate partner violence. The issue is often trivialized in court. China’s patriarchal government system regards the country’s burgeoning feminist movement as a danger, despite the emphasis on women’s rights among the original revolutionaries. [Source]
Amid the outrage over the Tangshan case, China’s Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission, a top Party body, announced that the trial of Chinese-Canadian popstar Kris Wu for rape had recently taken place in Beijing. It was unclear if the timing of the trial was connected to the Tangshan incident, but many observers suspect it might be an effort to assuage anger over violence against women. Wu was accused of rape in July 2021, and the news reignited China’s oft-suppressed #MeToo movement. The Associated Press reported that the top Weibo comment on a post announcing the Kris Wu news was, “More concerned about the Tangshan matter.”