While China minimizes Tangshan attacks, women say their rights are under attack

Written by Javed Iqbal

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

This month, a group of men beat four women who were eating at a barbecue restaurant in Tangshan, Hebei Province, after one did not respond to approaches from one of the men. Authorities blamed the attack, which included two of the women, for the spread of gangs in the area.

Activists have been fighting for years to highlight the country’s haphazard attitudes towards violence against women, only to be told that gender has little to do with it. Grassroots advocacy for women’s rights, including The #MeToo movement has been fighting 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 increase, it becomes increasingly difficult to suppress the debate.

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Several women refuse to be informed about the prevalence of sexism in Chinese society. “From the woman in Fengxian to the violent beatings in Tangshan, ‘she’ in these situations is all vulnerable. Maybe next time it will be you, me or all of us,” wrote a blogger under the pen name 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 is it that with the Tangshan incident, they not only became gender blind, but do everything to erase the gender dimension of this incident?”

Video recordings of the attack in the early hours of June 10 in Tangshan, a man shows himself approaching a table with women and placing his hand on one of their backs. The woman pushes him away. After another exchange, he beats her. As her friends try to intervene, other men rush to the table and beat them, pulling one outside and repeatedly kicking her in the ground while other dining guests watch.

Authorities in Tangshan launched a public security campaign, promising to crack down on crime, with police stationed throughout the city and at restaurants. A prominent sociologist wrote in a style that this was a “common occurrence” of threats to public order, arguing that it “originated from sexual harassment but does not reflect gender discrimination in society.”

Articles about the incident and gender-based violence were deleted, among others one who urged the government and state media to stop talking about feminism. Weibo, the microblogging site, banned 265 accounts for “inciting gender conflict” in the discussion of the Tangshan violence.

The answer is in line with other campaigns to limit the fallout from such episodes. Support online for a landmark #MeToo trial in which a former trainee accused a prominent TV host of sexual assault last year has been heavily censored. An activist trying to visit the woman found chained outside in Jiangsu in eastern China was detained by police in March.

Last year, Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai, who claimed on social media that a high-ranking official had pressured her into sex, disappeared from the public eye weeks before withdraw her comments in carefully managed interviews.

In April, the official Weibo report on China’s Communist Youth League was published a post says 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 design is in line with official announcements about women’s rights in China.

“The government is concerned that people are 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 progress. Outrage over the case of the chained mother ignited internet users, inciting 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 undermines criticism that Chinese feminists have been brainwashed by Western ideology.

In May, a woman claimed in a post on Weibo that an associate professor at Nankai University in Tianjin had used her position to trick her into having a sexual relationship with him when she was a student. She quoted Taiwanese author Lin Yi-han’s 2017 novel about a young girl being seduced by her teacher, based on Lin’s life story. Lin committed suicide shortly after the book was published.

“This case has been torturing me for six years with several attempts to commit suicide,” the woman wrote. “If I die, I hope the world will know my story,” read the post, which could not be independently verified by The Washington Post. It attracted 1.4 million likes when internet users called to prevent another tragedy like Lins.

In the wake of the post, two other professors in Tianjin were accused of having affairs with students, and within a week, the school fired the accused professor for “having inappropriate relationships with women” and issued disciplinary action 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 number eight on a list of those top 250 books as ranked by Douban, a popular review site. On a fan page for Lin with more than 22 million views, rape victims leave messages about their experiences.

“[Lin] speaks for many Chinese women in a culture that places great emphasis on shame, ”Lu said.

The attack in the late grill restaurant has also hit a chord on women’s vulnerability. Despite efforts by the Tangshan authorities to downplay the attack, the public continues to call for answers. On Monday, a popular topic about Weibo, which called for an update on the victims, received more than 1 billion views.

“The more you cover up facts from the people, the more dissatisfied the public becomes. Then more speculation will follow, which will lead to more negative effects, “said a widespread leader from the National Business Daily.

Following the public outrage, Hebei’s public security department issued a announcement Tuesday said the conditions of the two hospitalized victims had improved and that nine suspects had been arrested. Authorities also said the deputy chief of Tangshan police had been removed and that five other police officers were being investigated for their handling of the attack.

However, censorship has been quick against any perceived activism over the incident. A woman from Shanghai got his account banned on Weibo after posting a picture of himself with a sign calling for information about the women’s situation. ONE hashtag“I speak for the Tangshan girls,” it also appeared to have been censored.

Still, women rights activists 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 eliminate this movement.”

Lyric Li of Seoul contributed to this report.

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Javed Iqbal

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