Despite Sentencing Tangshan Attackers, Authorities Ignore Violence Against Women

Three months after a group of men assaulted four women at a restaurant in Tangshan, a district court in Hebei sentenced the men to prison for a number of crimes. Their sentencing comes after authorities and state media attempted to quell public anger by sidestepping the underlying issue of gender-based violence and instead focusing on gang violence. Judging by reactions to the sentencing and other major #MeToo incidents that have recently surfaced, Chinese authorities continue to neglect, ignore, and censor the problem of violence against women.

Surprisingly, as George Washington University law professor Donald Clarke noted, “the sentences were apparently not mostly about the attack” on the women at the restaurant. Salina Li from the South China Morning Post reported that the sentencing was based largely on a variety of crimes unrelated to the attack itself:

A man who assaulted four women in a barbecue restaurant in China’s northern city of Tangshan has been sentenced to 24 years in prison for the attack, and for other crimes including robbery and organising a gambling ring.

The Guangyang District People’s Court in Langfang, Hebei province, said on Friday morning that the man, Chen Jizhi, 41, was a ringleader of a criminal gang and had conducted criminal activities since 2012. He was also fined 320,000 yuan (US$45,000).

Twenty-seven other people, some of whom also took part in the assault, were also sentenced to between six months and 11 years behind bars for a series of crimes, including operating casinos, robbery, assisting in cybercrimes, picking quarrels and provoking trouble. Nineteen of them were fined 3,000 to 135,000 yuan. [Source]

It was not clear from the court’s verdict, released on Friday, whether those sentenced included any of the 15 local officials investigated in August on suspicion of colluding with the attackers. (Eight officials in Tangshan were detained on suspicion of abuse of power and bribery.) Moreover, the court concluded that the women suffered only “second-degree minor injuries” and “slight injuries,” which China Daily described as “mild injuries,” despite photos showing one woman on a stretcher with her face and shirt covered in blood. Two of the women remained in the hospital for at least 11 days after the attack. Local authorities obstructed journalists reporting on their condition, and despite an outpouring of public concern that continues even months after the incident, there has been scant news about the health of the women, and no public comment from the women or their families. Cao Li and Liyan Qi from The Wall Street Journal described how the government has tried to steer public opinion about the nature of the assault by focusing on gang violence rather than violence against women:

Despite the brutality of the attack, the four women suffered minor injuries, the court’s post said. By convicting the perpetrators as part of a criminal gang and charging them with other crimes committed over years, the court was able to hand down sentences that would satisfy the public, lawyers unconnected to the case said. Still, they said, the opaque nature of the investigation and trial left it unclear how much of each sentence was connected to the restaurant assault and how much to the other offenses—or if the jail terms were appropriate punishment for what each defendant had done.

[…] “Diverting the public’s attention from gender-based violence to violence related to gang members showcases the Chinese officials’ ability to manipulate public opinion,” [Human Rights Watch’s Yaqiu Wang] said before the sentencing was published. “Many in the future may only remember it as some gang violence.” [Source]

Many feminist groups and netizens believe that the government’s response to the Tangshan attack shows that it is unwilling to confront violence against women or to protect those who intervene. Referencing the attack, one comment on Li Wenliang’s “Wailing Wall” read: “How can they expect women to give birth to three kids while at the same time, not doing anything to protect women?” Rhoda Kwan at NBC News described how women have demanded that the government address the root cause of the Tanghan attack, not merely punish the aggressors

“When women advocated for that case, they never merely called for the punishment of a few criminals; rather, they demanded a change in the culture of violence that deprives women of a sense of safety,” Lü Pin, a Chinese feminist activist, told NBC News.

The censorship of online discussion about the attack, she added, reveals the authorities’ true attitude toward women’s rights.

“If the government had taken gender violence seriously, it would have at least permitted people to discuss it,” Lü said. “However, numerous social media accounts discussing this case have been deleted on the grounds of ‘promoting gender strife.’” [Source

At The New Yorker, Han Zhang described how the Tangshan incident is but the latest example of the government’s censorship machine quelling the storm of public opinion and quashing feminist organizing:

A crackdown on civic discourse and activism has trapped the storm in a box. Though individual cases like the one in Tangshan create fleeting moments for people to express their anger, feminists’ voices are increasingly marginalized. “The Tangshan incident indirectly reflects the conundrum of MeToo,” Lu Pin, a longtime advocate for Chinese women’s rights, told me. “MeToo was empowering. Women wanted to speak up and to change the way things were. They achieved a bit. But, four years later, Tangshan made people realize that there is not much you can do, even when you make some very loud noise.”

[…] Two days after the incident, Weibo announced a zero-tolerance policy toward users who spread “harmful speech,” including comments that “attacked state policy and the political system” or that “incited gender conflict.” In forty-eight hours, the platform removed more than fourteen thousand posts, suspended eight thousand users, and permanently banned another thousand. On Weibo and other platforms, like WeChat, where hundreds of millions of people in China get their news, feminists are often called “women’s fists,” which sounds like the Chinese phrase for “women’s rights.” Popular words that refer to gender discrimination, such as “hunlu,” which means “marriage mules”—a sarcastic term about the thankless labor of married women—have been banned. Even the phrase “MeToo” is heavily censored, making it impossible to make new public complaints with the signature hashtag. [Source]

Last week, another major incident of violence against women surfaced, with netizens fighting censors for control of the narrative. In what is becoming one of the biggest #MeToo cases in China, at least 21 women have accused Du Yingzhe, principal of Yinglook acting and film tutoring school in Beijing, of sexual abuse over a period of 15 years. Rachel Cheung from Vice reported on the wave of accusations that has emerged against Du:

“Du exploited our fears and anxiety as teenage girls, who left our homes for the first time to prepare for the art exam,” Shi Ziyi, an influencer and a freshman at the prestigious Beijing Film Academy, wrote in a social media post on Monday accusing Du of exploiting his students. “He insinuated that by sleeping with him, we could enter good universities, be approved by the entertainment industry and achieve our dreams.” 

“He boasted that he has slept with more than a hundred students and even called himself the godfather of China’s film industry,” Shi added.

Following her public accusation, 19 former students or staff have come forward with allegations of sexual harassment and exploitation. In a social media post on Tuesday, they described a pattern of abuse enabled by Du’s stature in the school. Six of the accusers used their real names in the statement while the others were anonymous.

And in a separate post this week, Dong Shuang, a novelist, accused Du of raping her when they were both students at the Beijing Film Academy in 2005. [Source]

Shi Ziyi, whose WeChat post inspired other victims to come forward, wrote that one 17-year-old student was forced to drop out of school after Du impregnated her after non-consenual sex. Several accounts also stated that Du’s wife, Chen Xin, also a teacher at the school, allegedly helped lure students to Du’s apartment or hotel and then intentionally left them alone with him. Shi was inspired to share her story after another another case went public: Zhao Weixian, a student director at Beijing Film Academy and one of Du’s former students, was recently accused of sexually harassing over 30 female teenage students by pressuring them to change into swimsuits and taking private videos of them. Beijing police detained Zhao for questioning on Wednesday, and detained Du on the following day.

On Weibo, the hashtag #TeacherAtWell-KnownActingAcademyAccusedOfRapingMinors (#知名艺考机构老师被曝诱奸未成年) has received over 770 million views, although some netizens pointed out that it suspiciously did not appear in the list of trending topics. Li Hang from Caixin highlighted some netizen comments criticizing authorities for taking action only after the public outcry surfaced:

Du’s detention was cheered by social media users on Weibo, with one saying, “I hope he can be punished strictly and heavily, and the victims can get a satisfactory result.”

“(Du) takes advantage of the young girls’ dreams to intimidate and seduce them. He left the darkest shadow over the best years of their life. Let him rot in jail! ” a Weibo user wrote.

Another commenter said: “Hell is empty, and all the devils are here,” quoting a line from Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

“I am glad that the villain has finally fallen into the hands of the law, but sadly, it was only achieved after an uproar was caused online,” read a comment. [Source]

Du denied the accusations, calling them “exaggerated and inaccurate.” Shi said that she and her friends had been harassed in retaliation for her social media post, and that her mother had received phone calls demanding that Shi delete the post or be held “criminally responsible.” Shi said that she has since dropped out of school. Her treatment is similar to that of Liu Jingyao, a Chinese student at the University of Minnesota who suffered PTSD, constant fear of retaliation, and an onslaught of misogynist attacks on social media after accusing Liu Qiangdong (Richard Liu), the billionaire founder of Chinese e-commerce site JD.com, of sexual assault in 2018. Her civil trial against Mr. Liu begins next week in the U.S.

Summarizing their recent study, “#MeToo in China: The Dynamic of Digital Activism against Sexual Assault and Harassment in Higher Education,” Sara Liao and Luwei Rose Luqiu wrote for The Diplomat about how Chinese authorities leverage digital platforms to silence #MeToo accusations:

Chinese authorities and powerful (male) players are resilient in exploiting the same digital affordances that powered #MeToo to counter the negative impact of online allegations, essentially drowning out victims of sexual violence. Returning again to the example of higher education, our study has demonstrated that, while digital media lowered the barriers to collective action for a variety of causes, grassroots activism must negotiate with various state institutions and system insiders to move forward with anti-sexual harassment campaigns. For example, a Chinese university can leverage its resources and power to influence social media content. While news media, especially state media, can bypass the universities and cover sexual scandals associated with them, their respective administrative rankings impact the outcome. In addition, offline collective activities would be suppressed even more quickly to prevent forming a movement. [Source]

Chinese authorities have even censored online discussions about violence against women that occurs abroad. During the mass protests in Iran over the police killing of Mahsa Amini, hashtags, images, and comments about her death have been removed from Duoyin and Weibo, and searches for her name on CCTV and Xinhua websites yielded no results. What was initially a topic about women’s rights ultimately devolved into a discussion about American meddling in Iran’s internal affairs. But some activists, cartoonists, and netizens who managed to elude the censors have drawn parallels between state violence against women abroad and the same sort of violence in China:

Connecting feminist struggles across national borders and social strata can help forge solidarity in the face of violence against women and censorship thereof. CDT Chinese has republished an August 2018 article from 土逗公社 (literally “potato commune”) about efforts to reduce sexual harassment of female workers and to provide support and services for workers who have experienced such harassment. The article profiles feminist organizations such as 绿色蔷薇 (The Green Rose) and 尖椒部落 (Pepper Tribe), the latter of which shut down in August of 2021, and argues that an intersectional approach to China’s #MeToo movement can create greater solidarity and collective action:

Speaking out is not just about talking, it’s about forming alliances. We believe that this sort of attentive listening will imbue #MeToo with even greater significance. The significance of the #MeToo movement lies not only in individual victims talking publicly about their personal experiences in order to raise individual awareness among other women; it is also a call for all women, as victims of structural injustice, to form a self-aware collective, thus opening a new door to mutual solidarity and concerted, collective action. [Chinese]

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