Tangshan And Xuzhou: China's Treatment Of Women

Unprecedented levels of online criticism have raised questions, particularly among young women, about misogyny and male power. (AFP Photo)

It was a busy Friday night at a barbecue restaurant in the Chinese city of Tangshan. A group of women were having dinner together when one of them was approached by a male diner.

Recoiling from his touch, she said "go away". In return, he clubbed her in the head, throwing her to the ground.

His friends then joined him, using chairs and bottles to hit the women, some of whom were then dragged outside and kicked in the head.

It was just the latest example of violence against women that's outraged the Chinese public – in January, news of a woman found chained in a shack sparked similar distress.

Both cases have triggered unprecedented levels of online criticism as well as rare acts of activism. They've also raised questions, particularly among young women, about misogyny and male power.

"It's profoundly disrupted how Chinese people view their own society and specifically, the gender norms and stereotypes underpinning it," said Pichamon Yeophantong, a China researcher at the University of New South Wales.

Endemic Violence

Women being assaulted in public by their partners "is disturbingly common online", says Kerry Allen, a Chinese media monitoring analyst.

"I see footage almost every day of either covertly filmed domestic violence or attacks that have been picked up via surveillance footage."

A 2013 United Nations (UN) study involving 1,000 men in a county in central China found that more than half admitted to physical or sexual violence against their partner – a similar number also said they would use violence to defend their honour.

The UN report attributed gender-based violence to deeply-rooted gender norms in China – a country where domestic violence was only made a criminal offence in 2016.

In Chinese society, "toughness, sexual prowess… and use of force in some occasions" remain ideals of masculinity, it said.

But observers say there is also a reluctance to intervene in what is still widely seen as a private matter between a couple.

Ms Allen said that when living in the country a decade ago she witnessed several attacks in broad daylight where "groups of bystanders [were] simply watching on".

That's what happened in Tangshan, although the victim didn't know the attacker. 

It was the same in Xuzhou too, where a woman had been chained by her neck in a hut outside her home.

Her husband had claimed she was locked up because her mental illness made her a threat to others. But a police investigation confirmed suspicion that she had been trafficked as a bride in the 1990s.

The footage only surfaced and went viral after a vlogger came across her while touring the village –the fact that it took so long for her to be discovered deeply shocked people.

"She is a person, not an object. After having eight children over 20 years, she is only to be found today? None of the government departments involved are innocent," one user wrote on social media platform Weibo. 

Demands For Change

Many Chinese women were surprised with the extent of violence shown in the Tangshan and Xuzhou cases, particularly given China's low crime rates and high levels of surveillance.

"Speaking to the younger generation – university students, in particular – I've heard many of them express genuine shock that such violence against women still exists, if not condoned, in modern Chinese society," Dr Yeophantong said.

With the bubble burst, many are interrogating gender dynamics for the first time, she added.

Calls for social change appear to be most prominent among Chinese millennials who are active on social media and keenly aware of global movements like #MeToo.

Some of the most popular posts on Weibo about the two cases voice concerns about how women are treated in a society that still largely promotes patriarchal Confucian ideas.

"We need to... acknowledge that there are still forces in our environment that support, encourage, and drive men to engage in gender-based violence against women," read one essay. Many have also expressed discontent over how authorities have responded to these cases, accusing those in power of downplaying the role of gender.

In the Tangshan incident, the initial police and media response appeared to focus on the attackers' links to local gangs and their criminal history.

One report said the woman had only been approached for "conversation". But on Weibo many users objected, saying it was sexual harassment.

Outrage over the chained woman also prompted rare acts of public protest.

In separate incidents, two women drove across the country to try to rescue her. Unmasked demonstrators photographed themselves with signs and posted the pictures online. One bookshop set up a display of feminist literature.

Is This A Turning Point?

"Women are angry now and speaking up. But I'm not optimistic that this will lead to fundamental changes," said Yaqiu Wang, a China researcher with Human Rights Watch (HRW).

In the face of immense public pressure, authorities responded to both cases by launching investigations and taskforces.

Amid outrage over the condition of the woman in Xuzhou, they promised a trafficking crackdown by stepping up checks on local marriage licences. After the restaurant attack, they increased night patrols in Tangshan, and dismissed a local police chief. Alleged perpetrators in both cases have been arrested.

But Guo Jing, a domestic violence case worker in China, said it's typical for authorities to treat gender-based crimes as one-off incidents, solved by catching and punishing the accused.

"These incidents are not viewed from the structural point of view; there is no long-term perspective nor institutional solutions," she said. 

In March, some party members at the National People's Congress (NPC) suggested strengthening laws protecting women, and increasing punishments for human trafficking.

But these have yet to materialise, and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership has not signalled any changes.

Meanwhile, censorship has increased.

In the wake of the Tangshan attack, Weibo removed accounts that "incited gender confrontation". Older threads about the chained woman – which often included discussions about sexism – have also been wiped.

Ms Wang said it's near impossible to sustain grassroots activism given how China has been erasing its civil rights groups in recent years.

Observers are concerned that the crackdown has also hit women's rights activism: vocal feminists have been arrested and high-profile MeToo court battles dismissed.

The recent case involving tennis player Peng Shuai has also prompted fears that sexual assault accusers are being silenced.

"The forces that used to exist that pressured the government to do better on gender issues have been eliminated," Ms Wang said.

"All these bode ill for women's rights in China."