As China plays down Tangshan aggression, women say their rights are under attack

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When a mother was found chained in a shed in winter in Fengxian, Jiangsu Province, authorities blamed mental illness. A few months later, when three women in Tianjin accused teachers of pushing them to have sex, they were criticized for not taking ownership of their decisions as adults.

This month, a group of men beat four women who were eating at a late-night barbecue restaurant in Tangshan, Hebei province, after one of them failed to respond to advances from one of the men. Authorities blamed the attack, which hospitalized two of the women, on the prevalence of gangs in the area.

For years activists have struggled to shine a light on the country’s flippant attitudes towards violence against women only to be told that sex has little to do with it. Grassroots advocacy for women’s rights, including the #MeToo movement, has struggled in China, where it has come up against Beijing’s intolerance for activism and been accused of being a Western import. But as incidents and outrage mount, it becomes increasingly difficult to stifle debate.

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More and more women are refusing to be enlightened about the prevalence of sexism in Chinese society. “From Fengxian’s wife to the violent beatings of Tangshan, the ‘she’s in these situations are all vulnerable. Maybe next time it will be you, or me, or all of us,” wrote a blogger under the pen name Zhao Qiaoqiao in a popular comment on the incident.

“When a case turns into an incident and when an incident turns into a phenomenon, only then will society pay attention and try to solve this problem,” Zhao wrote.

In a post that was later censored, another blogger asked, “Why is it that with the Tangshan incident, they not only become gender blind, but do everything possible to erase the gender dimension from this incident ?”

Video footage of the attack in the early hours of June 10 in Tangshan shows a man approaching a table of women and placing his hand on one of their backs. The woman pushes him away. After a second exchange, he slaps her. When his friends try to intervene, other men rush to the table and punch them, dragging one of them outside and repeatedly kicking him to the ground as the others watch. guests.

Tangshan authorities have launched a public safety campaign and pledged to crack down on crime, with police stationed throughout the city and at restaurants. A prominent sociologist wrote in an essay that it was an “ordinary incident” of threatening public order, saying it “stemmed from sexual harassment but did not reflect gender discrimination in society”.

Articles about the incident and the gender-based violence were deleted, including one that called on the government and state media to stop avoiding talking about feminism. Weibo, the microblogging website, banned 265 accounts for “inciting gender conflict” while discussing the violence in Tangshan.

The response is in line with other campaigns to limit fallout on 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 found chained outside Jiangsu in 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 recanting in carefully managed interviews.

In April, the official Weibo account of the Communist Youth League of China published an article saying that “extreme feminism has become a malignant tumor on the Internet”.

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Wang Yu, a Beijing-based rights lawyer, said such a framing is in line with official messages on women’s rights in China.

“The government is concerned about people talking 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 gains. Outrage over the chained mother case has inflamed netizens, spurring forms of online and offline activism rarely seen as the space for Chinese debate has shrunk.

A recent case of #MeToo online activism, drawing on 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 her position to trick her into having sex with him when she was a student. She cited Taiwanese author Lin Yi-han’s 2017 novel about a young girl seduced by her tutor, which is based on Lin’s life story. Lin committed suicide shortly after the book’s release.

“This case has tortured me for six years with several suicide attempts,” the woman wrote. “If I die, I hope the world will know my story,” reads the message, which could not be independently verified by The Washington Post. It drew 1.4 million likes as netizens called to prevent another tragedy like Lin’s.

In the wake of the message, two other teachers in Tianjin were accused of having relationships with students, and within a week the school fired the accused teacher for “having inappropriate relationships with women” and issued disciplinary action against the other two, according to a university statement.

Lu Pin, founding editor of Feminist Voices, a Chinese platform banned in 2018, said Lin’s book has become a symbol of women’s rights in China. The novel is eighth on a list of the top 250 books ranked by Douban, a popular review site. On a Lin fan page with over 22 million views, rape victims leave messages about their experiences.

“[Lin] speaks for many Chinese women in a culture that values ​​shame,” Lu said.

The attack in the late-night barbecue restaurant also struck a chord about women’s vulnerability. Despite efforts by Tangshan authorities to downplay the assault, the public continues to call for responses. On Monday, a trending topic on Weibo calling for an update on victims received more than a billion views.

“The more you hide the facts from people, the angrier the public will be. Then other speculations will follow, bringing more negative effects,” reads a widely circulated National Business Daily editorial.

Following public outrage, the Hebei Public Security Department issued a statement on Tuesday saying the conditions of the two hospitalized victims had improved and nine suspects had been arrested. Authorities also said Tangshan’s deputy police chief had been removed from his post and five other police officers were being investigated over their handling of the attack.

Censorship was swift, however, against any perceived activism over the incident. A Shanghai woman has had her Weibo account banned after posting a photo of herself holding a sign asking for information on the status of women. A hashtag, “I speak for the girls of Tangshan,” also appears to have been censored.

Yet women’s rights advocates say the feminist movement in China will persevere.

“The existence of the women’s movement is based on the needs in people’s hearts,” Lu said. “People are always waiting for the next opportunity to speak out. There is no way to eliminate this movement.

Lyric Li in Seoul contributed to this report.

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