For years, activists have struggled to highlight the country’s casual attitudes about violence against women only to be told that gender has little to do with it. Popular advocacy for women’s rights, including the #MeToo movement, has struggled in China, where it has clashed with Beijing’s intolerance of activism and has been accused of being a Western import. But as incidents and outrage mount, it becomes increasingly difficult to suppress debate.
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More women refuse to be criticized for the prevalence of sexism in Chinese society. “From the woman in Fengxian to the violent beating in Tangshan, ‘she’ in those situations is vulnerable. Maybe next time it will be you, or me, or all of us,” wrote a blogger under the pseudonym Zhao Qiaoqiao in a popular comment on the incident.
“When a case becomes an incident and when an incident becomes a phenomenon, only then will society pay attention and try to solve this problem,” Zhao wrote.
In an article that was later censored, another blogger asked, “Why did the Tangshan incident not only make them gender-blind but they are doing everything they can to erase the gender dimension of this incident?”
Video footage of the attack. In the early hours of June 10 in Tangshan, a man is shown approaching a table of women and placing his hand on one of their backs. The woman pushes him. After a second exchange, he slaps her. When his friends try to intervene, other men run to the table and beat them up, dragging one outside and repeatedly kicking him on the floor as other diners watch.
Tangshan authorities launched a public safety campaign and vowed to crack down on crime, with police stationed throughout the city and in restaurants. A prominent sociologist wrote in an essay that this was an “ordinary incident” of threats to public order, arguing that it “came from sexual harassment but does not reflect gender discrimination in society.”
Articles about the incident and gender-based violence were removed, including one calling on the government and state media to stop avoiding talking about feminism. Weibo, the microblogging website, banned 265 accounts for “instigating gender conflict” by discussing the Tangshan violence.
The answer is in line with other campaigns to limit the consequences of such episodes. Online support for a landmark #MeToo lawsuit in which a former intern accused a prominent TV host of sexual assault last year has been heavily censored. An activist who tried to visit the woman chained outside in Jiangsu, eastern China, was detained by police in March.
Last year, Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai, who alleged on social media that a senior official had pressured her into having sex, disappeared from public view for weeks before retracting her comments in carefully staged interviews.
In April, the official Weibo account of the Chinese Communist Youth League published a post saying that “extreme feminism has become a malignant tumor on the Internet.”
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Wang Yu, a Beijing-based human rights lawyer, said such a framework is consistent with official messages on women’s rights in China.
“The government is concerned that people talk about gender because any discussion of human rights is considered sensitive by officials, and that includes women’s rights,” she said.
Still, observers say the movement has made some progress. Outrage over the chained mother case ignited internet users, sparking forms of online and offline activism rarely seen as the space for Chinese debate has shrunk.
A recent case of online #MeToo activism, inspired by a Taiwanese writer, also undermined criticism that Chinese feminists have been brainwashed by Western ideology.
In May, a woman alleged in a post on Weibo that an associate professor at Nankai University in Tianjin had used his position to trick her into having a sexual relationship with him when she was a student. She cited Taiwanese author Lin Yi-han’s 2017 novel about a girl who is seduced by her guardian, based on Lin’s life story. Lin committed suicide shortly after the book’s release.
“This matter has been torturing me for six years with several suicide attempts,” the woman wrote. “If I die, I hope the world knows my story,” read the post, which The Washington Post could not independently verify. It attracted 1.4 million likes as Internet users called to prevent another tragedy like Lin’s.
In the wake of the post, two other teachers in Tianjin were accused of having affairs with students, and within a week, the school fired the accused teacher for “having inappropriate relationships with women” and issued disciplinary measures against the other two, according to a statement from the university.
Lu Pin, founding editor of Feminist Voices, a Chinese platform banned in 2018, said Lin’s book had become a symbol of women’s rights in China. The novel is ranked eighth in a list of the top 250 books ranked by Douban, a popular review site. On a Lin fan page with more than 22 million views, rape victims leave messages about her experiences.
“[Lin] It speaks for many Chinese women in a culture that places great importance on shame,” Lu said.
The attack at the late-night barbecue restaurant has also struck a chord about the vulnerability of women. Despite the efforts of the Tangshan authorities to downplay the attack, the public continues to demand answers. On Monday, a trending topic on Weibo asking for an update on the victims received more than a billion views.
“The more you hide the facts from people, the more dissatisfied the public will be. More speculation will follow, bringing more negative effects,” said a widely circulated editorial in the National Business Daily.
Following public outrage, the Hebei Public Security Department released a statement on Tuesday saying the conditions of the two hospitalized victims had improved and nine suspects had been arrested. Authorities also said the Tangshan deputy police chief had been fired and five other police officers were under investigation for their handling of the attack.
However, censorship has been quick against any perceived activism over the incident. A Shanghai woman had her Weibo account banned after posting a photo of herself holding a banner asking for information on the status of women. A hashtag, “I’m speaking for the Tangshan girls,” also appears to have been censored.
Still, women’s rights advocates say the feminist movement in China will persevere.
“The existence of the feminist movement is based on the needs of people’s hearts,” Lu said. “People are always waiting for the next opportunity to speak for themselves. There is no way to remove this move.”
Lyric Li in Seoul contributed to this report.