The furore surrounding the chilling internet video of ‘Xiaohuamei’ 小花梅or ‘Little Plum Blossom’, the chained woman of Jiangsu, had barely died down when a restaurant surveillance camera captured another disturbing vision of violent and misogynist behaviour that stunned the world and once again put China’s gender relations under the spotlight.

It is 2:40 am on 10 June 2022. Three young women are dining in a barbecue restaurant in Tangshan, Hebei province when a middle-aged man, a stranger, approaches one of the women and puts his hand on her back. The woman, who is dressed in white, pushes his arm away and raises her voice at him, questioning his intention and telling him to leave her alone. The man slaps the woman in the face. While she stands up to fight back, one of her friends (dressed in black) breaks a beer bottle on the man’s head. The woman in black is pulled away immediately and beaten by the man and two of his companions. Meanwhile, several other men drag the woman in white outside by the hair. The harasser kicks her repeatedly and smashes a beer bottle on her head. The video ends with the woman lying on the ground, covered in blood, and it’s unclear what has happened to her friends off-camera.

Photo: screenshot from Sina Weibo

As with ‘the woman in chains’, this incident triggered a nationwide uproar on social media, with over 4.8 billion views of the leaked surveillance footage within a few days on Sina Weibo. It reverberates with many other gender-based acts of violence caught on camera. These include the high-profile domestic violence case of Kim Lee, an American, who shared photos of her bruises online in 2013 after being brutally beaten by Li Yang, her Chinese husband, the creator of the famous English learning method Crazy English. Then there was footage of a woman being attacked by a man in a Beijing hotel in 2016, with no bystanders or staff stepping in to prevent the assault; the livestreamed murder of the Tibetan vlogger Lhamo 拉姆, who was set on fire by her ex-husband in 2020 as her horrified followers watched; and a husband frenetically beating his wife right next to their toddler at home in Xi’an, Shaanxi Province in 2022.

Wave after wave, these stories spilled into the public consciousness. Each time they triggered momentary outrage, which then subsided until the next wave rose. Violence against women has always been widespread in China but hidden from sight. However, it appeared to grow prominent in recent years triggered by heightened misogyny that has come about as a backlash against rising feminism. What does it tell us about gender relations, rule of law and social morality in China today?

Gender Relations

In 1949, women under the People’s Republic of China gained constitutional rights equal to those of men as well as increased mobility and higher than ever social and economic status. They were aided by the banning of arranged marriages and concubinage and, in the mid-1950s, Mao’s dictum that ‘women hold up half the sky.’ (He was commenting on a report that when a village decided to pay women the same number of ‘work points’ as men, productivity tripled). However, this did not result in a fundamental change in gender relations. China remains a modern patriarchal society in which most of the power is held by males at all levels of the social and political hierarchy. And women still live with various forms of gender inequality, from disparity in wages and educational opportunities, workplace discrimination, unfair distribution of domestic labor, to rampant sexual harassment and domestic violence. Tech-savvy feminists have been calling out these issues on social media for years, exemplified by the ‘Bloody Brides Against Domestic Violence’ campaign in 2012, in which young women wore red spattered wedding gowns in public to draw attention to the problem; the #MeToo movement that began in 2018; and the #SeeingFemaleWorkers campaign on Weibo in 2020 that called for the recognition of women’s contribution during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Despite official crackdowns on feminist protests, including the detention of the Feminist Five in 2015 for planning to protest sexual harassment on public transport, feminism has grown stronger in China in recent years. This has been accompanied by a patriarchal/misogynistic backlash, causing a ‘gender war’ in cyberspace, where misogynistic sentiment fuels the use of sexist labels such as ‘feminist whores’ 女权婊 (Chinese feminists who criticize Chinese men harshly but behave warmly towards Western men), ‘green tea bitch’ 绿茶婊 (an ambitious woman who pretends innocence), and sayings likening women older than thirty to tofu dregs女人三十豆腐渣. Intertwined with rising nationalistic sentiments, misogynistic labelling has also applied to US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on account of her high-profile visit to Taiwan in early August 2022: misogynistic nationalists mocked her as an ‘old witch’ 老巫婆, ‘old devil’ 佩老妖 and ‘unhinged hag’ 神经病老太婆 by users on different online platforms.

Looking back at the Tangshan restaurant attack, even as the majority of netizens were condemning the gang of abusive men at the Tangshan barbecue restaurant, a few others were blaming the female victims for going out too late at night, or for reacting too strongly to the harassers, with some even called the attack ‘a fight between street rogues’.  At the same time, authorities censored discussion around this attack, suspending 900 accounts on Chinese social media site Weibo for such breaches of the rules as attacking national policies and stirring ‘gender confrontation’, and the messaging app WeChat removed several articles on this topic. In the contemporary Chinese patriarchal environment, one that exists within an increasingly commercialised society, there is an emerging Sino-‘manosphere’ (described by Xiaoting Han and Chenjun Yin as ‘a fragmented group of digital communities promoting misogynist discourses’). It is similar to what Laura Bates described in her book Men Who Hate Women, which describes misogyny in Western societies. This also echoes some feminists’ view that sexism functions to maintain patriarchy and misogyny serves as its ‘police force’. [1]  From this perspective, wherever women are subjected to the degrading view that they are sexual commodities and inherently inferior to males, misogynistic men may resort to violence when confronted by women strongly defending their rights or ‘breaking the gender rules’.

The Chinese government under Xi Jinping is campaigning for boys to toughen up and be more ‘masculine’. It also promotes traditional feminine virtues and encourage women   to have several (ideally three) children. While the last has to do with the need to address China’s demographic imbalance and aging population, taken as a whole, these campaigns are about consolidating national identity, social stability and familial harmony – and at the same time reinforcing patriarchal norms and structures. In this context, misogynistic violence may grow new roots.

Rule of law

Violence against women takes various forms, including sex trafficking, domestic/intimate partner violence and sexual harassment or assault, all of which can result in physical, mental, sexual, and emotional harm. As soon as the PRC was founded, the Communist Party of China (CPC) implemented a Marriage Law (1950) that abolished arranged marriages, the extraction of money or gifts in connection with marriages and the buying and selling of wives. However, this practice has never completely stopped. Trafficking of women (and children) still prevails today in poor and remote areas of China despite the overall decline of reported trafficking cases from 14,458 in 2000 to 1,135 people in 2021. With marriage matchmaking and bride prices resurgent, many rural dwellers still do not distinguish between a legitimate marriage and the purchase of a woman. The gender imbalance created by unknown incidences of female infanticide and sex-selective abortion in the years of the one-child policy has made many, particularly rural men, desperate. Statistics of the ‘missing’ girls due to sex-selective abortion vary, some sources indicate it’s more than 40 million, other sources suggest it’s less than that, including unregistered girls at birth.

Under Chinese Criminal law, traffickers can be sentenced to five to ten years in prison or death, depending on the seriousness of the crime.[2] However, those who purchase women face a maximum imprisonment of three years, and some may evade criminal liability if they do not obstruct the bought women from going back to where they came from if they wish.[3] Three years is less than what the Criminal Law prescribes for buying a panda (ten years in prison) or two birds of rare species (five years).[4] It’s a good sign that China has launched a nationwide crackdown on human trafficking following the ‘Xiaohuamei’ incident. However, more needs to be done. At the very least, China’s lawmakers must consider increasing the penalty for human trafficking, including for buyers.

In 2001, the Chinese government first introduced the term ‘domestic violence’ 家庭暴力 in its revised Marriage Law and made it a valid reason for divorce (previous laws only prohibited mistreatment 虐待 and abandonment 遗弃 rather than domestic violence. The revised law, however, does not cover marital rape).[5] In 2016, China also welcomed its first, belated Anti-Domestic Violence Law. This increased public awareness about domestic violence, as evidenced by a growing number of calls to police and anti-domestic violence hotlines, as well as post-sharing about domestic violence on social media. However, in practice, domestic violence tends to be downplayed by local police as ‘a family affair’ 家事. They are often unwilling to intervene, in part because the law does not offer details about punishments for domestic violence. Domestic violence remains rampant: according to the All-China Women’s Federation, a woman faces domestic violence in every 7.4 seconds in China. During the COVID-19 pandemic, this problem was amplified not only in China, but also world-wide, when lockdowns trapped women at home with abusive partners.[6]

In addition, China has implemented different regulatory frameworks to deal with sexual harassment/assault, including the kinds of gendered violence detailed above. These include the Law on the Protection of Women’s Rights and Interests (2005), the Public Security Penalties Law (2012), the Criminal Law (2020), and the Civil Code (2020). However, they have not done as much as might be hoped to stem the tide of sexual harassment and assault and gendered violence – In reality, there have been few wins among #MeToo cases and many Chinese women do not report harassment and assault for fear of victim shaming and other reasons.

It’s reassuring that the deputy chief of the Tangshan police bureau was removed from office after he delayed arresting the women’s attackers and that the state launched a 100-day ‘Thunderstorm’ 雷霆风暴 campaign to ‘crack down on illegal behaviours to eliminate security problems’. It’s also a relief that the Chinese authorities charged twenty-eight people with eleven different crimes two months after the incident. On 29 August, China’ state media broadcaster CCTV also released an eleven-minute segment featuring police officers’ description of the attack, and with brief account from one of the victims.

However, to date, many questions remain unanswered regarding the shocking display of violence in Tangshan. For example, why was there no news conference on this incident? Why do the censors appear to be cracking down on internet discussion of the incident? Why is there no detailed information about the victims’ injuries (with doctors claiming they had ‘second-degree light injuries’ and that their conditions were improving) and no direct word from all the victims or their families? While there is a crackdown on gangs, there is no detailed information of the gang’s ‘protective umbrella’ (corrupt officials) despite the public loudly demanding answers on these issues.

Social Morality

‘Cry out at the sight of injustice, give a hand when others are in need’ 路见不平一声吼 该出手时就出手 are lyrics from The Song of the Heroes 好汉歌, the very popular theme song of the 1990s TV series The Water Margin 水浒传, adapted from one of China’s four great classic novels. This spirit, however, is fading away in present-day China. In the security footage from Tangshan, it is disheartening to see that no men stepped in to stop the violence leaving the three women diners to defend themselves. In the middle of the fight, one female bystander tried to intervene but was immediately dragged back by her partner. Others watched and filmed the attack: were they scared about being beaten or being charged with civil liability if they hurt someone (as has happened in the past)? Did they even care about what was happening to the victims?

In recent decades, people have grown increasingly unwilling to help strangers in distress for fear of extortion, as indicated by online surveys run by Chinese state media including the People’s Daily and Sina Weibo. There have been several cases of people who have helped elderly people who have fallen in public spaces but were sued by them as a result, leading to tremendous financial loss. The Chinese media have compared these cases to the story of The Farmer and the Viper from Aesop’s fable, in which a kind-hearted farmer was killed by a viper after placing it inside his coat to keep it warm on a freezing cold day. There have also been other incidents which have led to much agonized self-reflection, including that in which a two-year-old child, Wang Yue 王悦 (known as ‘Xiao Yueyue 小悦悦), was run over by two vehicles on 13 October 2011, with eighteen passers-by failing to help the little girl who lay critically injured and bleeding for more than seven minutes before a woman (a rubbish collector) finally stopped to help. She died of severe brain damage within a week. One witness confessed that she did not help because she was afraid of being prosecuted by the girl’s family who might allege that she had caused the child’s injuries.[7]

At the time, the media was reporting rising numbers of staged accidents (‘porcelain bumping’ 碰瓷 in Chinese). These cases, together with reports on abuses of power, official corruption, reports of toxic additives in food, and officials and celebrities’ extramarital affairs ran against the moral frameworks and the ‘positive energy’ the state intends to build. They have triggered widespread concern and debate over the decline of social ethics and morality in contemporary Chinese society. This widely shared perception of moral crisis has also inspired ‘soul-searching processes’ in society.[8] Gendered violence may be unavoidable in patriarchal societies. For such a ‘moral awakening’ to result in positive changes, however, the state must take a firmer stance on gender inequality and a more inclusive or transparent approach to discussions that question how best to build the genuinely ‘harmonious society’ that is supposed to integral to the China dream.

In a nutshell, violence against women in present-day China points to numerous issues: systemic inequality between men and women, rising misogyny, loopholes in the criminal justice system, gang violence connected to official corruption, and general deterioration in the moral sphere. In order for China to build a genuinely harmonious, violence-free and gender-equal society, profound reforms in education, law, policing and social ethics will need to be put in place.

References

[1] Ellis Gunn, Rattled, Australia: Allen & Unwin, 2022.

[2] See Article 240, Criminal Law of the Peoples’ Republic of China, online at: https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/ce/cgvienna/eng/dbtyw/jdwt/crimelaw/t209043.htm#:~:text=The%20tasks%20of%20the%20PRC,laboring%20masses%3B%20to%20protect%20citizens%27

[3] See Article 241, Ibid.

[4]See Article 341, Ibid; 买熊猫判10年,买鹦鹉判5年,买妇女最重判3年? [Buying a panda leads to ten years in prison, buying [two] parrots for ten years, the heaviest sentence for buying a woman is three years?] 163.com, 8 February 2022 online at:  https://www.163.com/dy/article/GVL49F650551LSF2.html

[5] See Article 32, Ch4 Divorce, Marriage Law of the People’s Republic of China, 2001, online at: http://www.npc.gov.cn/zgrdw/englishnpc/Law/2007-12/13/content_1384064.htm

[6] Pan Wang, ‘Struggle with Pandemics: Women, the Elderly and Asian Ethnic Minorities During the COVID-19 Pandemic, Portal Journal of Multidisciplinary International Studies, 2021, 17(1/2):14-22.

[7] Yan Yunxiang, ‘The Moral Implications of Immorality: The Chinese Case for a New Anthropology of Morality, Journal of Religious Ethics, 2014, 42(3): 460-493.

[8] Ibid.