WARNING: This article contains graphic images.
After a series of violent attacks against women over the weekend, a fierce discussion on women’s safety and rights has once again been ignited in China. The attacks have also uncovered deep-seated organized crime in Tangshan, Hebei province, the location of one of the attacks.
A young woman sits in a BBQ restaurant with her friends in Tangshan, a city roughly 200 kilometers away from Beijing, when a man puts his hand on her without permission. The woman refuses the man’s approach and pushes his hand away.
Suddenly, the man reacts with violence, slapping her in the face and beating her in the restaurant as his friends join in, assaulting her three friends who try to protect her. The men then drag the women onto the street and the beating continues.
Two women were admitted to hospital after the attack and are said to be recovering and suffering from non-life threatening injuries. However, images circulating in the media show one woman suffered horrific bruising and cuts to her face.
An image of the victim after hospital admission. Image via Weibo.
The events sparked nationwide controversy, not just because of the brutality of the attack, but also the lack of response by bystanders, the media and law enforcers; police did not show up until the culprits had already left. Tangshan’s local police department only issued a statement on the incident after the scenes took over social media, occupying the top six trending spots on Weibo.
Some national media sources also came under fire for their response. In a now-deleted Weibo post, Beijing Youth Daily reported that the main attacker was “having a conversation with the women before his friends joined the battle to fight against them,” reports Sup China.
Sup China also claims that some news outlets branded the attack as “a physical conflict” triggered by a man “being turned down after hitting on a woman under the influence of alcohol.”
This particular comment led to great anger on social media. In a Weibo post that now has over 180,000 likes, one user said, “Is a man entitled to touch a woman without her consent when he hits on her? Does the woman have no right to reject him? Is it okay to call it a fight when the lady defends herself in the face of violence? Is being drunk a valid excuse for the man’s horrendous behavior?”
On Saturday, June 11 at 3pm Global Times reported that all nine suspects in the case had been arrested.
Following the arrests, residents in Tangshan – a city previously known for being hit by a 7.8 magnitude earthquake in 1976 that killed over 240,000 people – began posting videos of themselves on Chinese social media.
In one video, a woman surnamed Zhang sits in front of the camera with her ID card in hand and explains how she had been harassed, beaten, abused, threatened, intimidated and unlawfully detained from May 23-24 by a gang in Tangshan.
Zhang, a resident singer of a bar in the city’s Lubei district, was beaten and forced to write an IOU saying she owed money to the gang over a 16-hour period.
Zhang said she escaped from the gang’s detention at 2am on May 24 and reported the case to the local police. Officers were only dispatched to the scene of the crime at around 7am and returned only with her personal items. No one was detained, and the criminal gang related to the bar was not dealt with by the police, she said.
A screenshot of Zhang's video. Image via Global Times.
Another Tangshan resident, the owner of a cake store in Lubei district, said a gang had been using violence against him and extorted hundreds of thousands of RMB from his business to the point where he had to close the store.
A search for the hashtag #唐山蛋糕店事件嫌疑人落网# (Suspect arrested in Tangshan cake shop incident) on Weibo now shows numerous Tangshan residents holding their ID cards and recounting incidents where they have been beaten by gangs, extorted for hundreds of thousands of RMB and had their businesses destroyed. Victims range from young women to old-age pensioners.
It has not been confirmed whether the group of men that beat the women in the street outside of the BBQ restaurant is the same gang that residents claim is extorting them. However, the incidents that have occurred over the past few days would suggest that Tangshan has deep-seated organized crime that is rotting the core of the city.
Global Times reports that authorities in the city have launched “Project Thunderstorm.” The half-month campaign will target “illegal acts such as fighting, provoking trouble, intentional injury and insulting women. The scope of the campaign also extends to extortion, bullying, gambling, drug use and cybercrimes, as well as dereliction of duty, cover-ups and conniving at crimes.”
The events that unfolded over the weekend also sparked a wider conversation that China is dealing with an epidemic in terms of crimes against women.
On Friday night, a woman in Jinshan district, Shanghai was hacked to death in the street by her meat cleaver-wielding husband. The man was eventually apprehended by citizens who pinned him to the street using a bicycle, but their efforts came too late.
A standard conversation between expats and Chinese people is how safe the Middle Kingdom is compared to other countries, and while that might be true in general, a 2020 report by Beijing Equality highlighted that over 900 women had died at the hands of their partners or husbands since 2016.
Of these 900 incidents, some were very high profile. In 2020 Tibetan influencer Lhamo was killed after her ex-husband set her on fire during a livestream. Lhamo had previously reported her then-husband for abusing her, but her complaints weren’t taken seriously.
A tribute to Lhamo. Image via Weibo.
However, China is trying to turn the tanker in its muddy relationship in regard to the law around sexual harassment. In 2016, China’s anti-domestic-violence law came into effect and, although companies are not required to have anti-sexual harassment policies, a couple of high-profile cases have made it to court in recent years (although the victim rarely wins).
So, although cases are getting more exposure through social media – and some changes have been made to the law surrounding sexual harassment – the only real marker for clear progress will be a swift and rapid response that corresponds to strict and stringent laws that protect women.
This also needs to run in conjunction with women being able to feel like they can come forward and tell their stories without the pressure of having to defend themselves from backward comments about what they were wearing or how much they had to drink.
[Cover image via Global Times]