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SCREENSHOT OF A SECURITY FOOTAGE THAT SHOWS THE ASSAULT OF FOUR CHINESE WOMEN AT A RESTAURANT IN TANGSHAN CITY. PHOTO: SCREENSHOT FROM RELEASED VIDEO

Women Brutally Attacked for Turning Down Man’s Advances Sparks Uproar in China

Beijing has silenced voices calling out violence against women but activists say this latest abuse is only the "tip of the iceberg."

The man approached four women at a table in a restaurant and placed his hand on one woman’s back. When she pushed him away, he started beating her. He violently dragged her out of the restaurant by her hair, before his companions joined in, raining blows and kicks on the woman as she lay on the floor. They also knocked down her friend and struck a woman that tried to intervene.

Security footage of the shocking incident at a restaurant in the city of Tangshan in Hebei province went viral on Friday and has caused uproar in China. A photo that emerged later showed the victim on a gurney in hospital, her face and shirt covered in blood. 

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“Chinese women are angry and frustrated because they have similar experiences where they faced aggression from male strangers on the street,” said Xiaowen Liang, a prominent feminist and lawyer now based in New York. 

Chinese authorities have hailed the arrests of nine men in relation to the attack as justice served, but experts say the assault is not an isolated incident. At its heart is a culture of impunity that allows Chinese men to escape blame for misogyny, but punishes women for speaking out. 

“The incident is only the tip of the iceberg,” Lü Pin, a Chinese feminist activist now based in New Jersey, told VICE World News. “Our society is rife with gender-based violence because such acts are silently tolerated.”

In the footage, only female bystanders at the scene attempted to stop the violence, albeit to no avail. A female shopkeeper was seen calling out to the men, asking them to stop. Another female customer tried to run over, but was held back by her male companion.

A due diligence report compiled by lawyers and seen by Vice World News later found that some of the men were wanted by authorities since 2015 for affray and aggravated assault among other crimes, yet they were able to roam freely and run several businesses – and publicly abuse the women in the video. 

As of Wednesday, two women were still hospitalized and in stable condition, according to Chinese media. 

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The assault is part of a disturbing pattern of gender-based violence, enabled by a lack of deterrence. 

The collective outrage that ensued showed how widespread sexual harassment is, an issue that tends to be swept under the rug in China – as reflected in media coverage of the vicious attack. Some Chinese outlets, for instance, framed it as an altercation between two parties. In a now-deleted post, the state-owned Beijing Youth Daily went as far as to suggest that the man was “striking up a conversation” with the women and his companions rushed in to help him “resist the women.”  

Meanwhile, attempts to call out the social pattern of misogyny were also silenced. By Monday, Chinese social media site Weibo had suspended more than 900 accounts, some permanently, for breaches, including attacking national policies and stirring “gender confrontation”—a blanket term Chinese authorities use to shut down criticism of gender inequality. A number of articles analyzing the incident from a gender perspective were also removed from the messaging app WeChat. 

“China does not allow any discussion about sexual oppression because women are not considered as humans, but only as a property for reproduction and sex to maintain state control,” a woman in her mid-20s, who works in the creative industry at Chengdu told VICE World News. She requested anonymity to avoid government reprisals. The state does not allow progress in women’s rights as it ultimately goes against the patriarchal values that underpinned the regime’s rule, she added.

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There is hardly any data publicly available on gender-based violence in China. This weekend alone, a school bus driver in Anhui province was sentenced to six years in jail for molesting multiple children, while a university student in Shanghai was caught trying to drug a fellow female student in the library. 

Yet far more cases have gone unreported or did not make news headlines, as they were routinely dismissed by authorities. “We can't tell clearly how prevalent these cases are in Chinese society because we have not been able to name or categorize them properly,” He Yuan, an associate lecturer at the University College London, told Vice World News.

From a lack of legislation to the absence of a functional mechanism for women to report sexual violence, He said the recent assault shows how China’s criminal justice system has failed at every level to protect women.

It is notoriously difficult for female victims to hold their perpetrators accountable in China. The few who dared take their cases to court or raised their allegations in public often became targets of crackdown as authorities sought to nib a MeToo movement in the bud. “On one hand, the system allows men to get away with acts of violence against women, On the other hand, Chinese women, even if they are victims, bear the consequences for fighting back or speaking out,” Liang said.

On Monday, a woman named Wang Yu-dan accused her superior at a finance company in the Southern city of Shenzhen of rape in online videos and social media posts, which garnered millions of views before they were promptly censored. According to her account, when she first reported the crime last April, the police questioned if she was a virgin. In an audio recording of the conversation, an officer asked what was the point of dwelling over the issue of consent. Authorities eventually rejected her case and instead demanded her to issue a public apology to clear the name of her superior. “I feel like he has ruined my life,” Wang said in one of the videos.

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“If nationwide attention is the benchmark in order for a case to be solved, this phenomenon, including the fear and insecurity women feel, will never be addressed,” said Lü. “What it requires is a systemic review and reform, but we are not even allowed to discuss all the cases the system has condoned.”

Despite the obstacles they are up against, changes are happening in small corners of the internet, where women find safe spaces to talk and bond by their shared struggle. In a step to acknowledge the harassment they suffered, a group collected dozens of submissions over the weekend, where Chinese women recounted their own experiences of sexual violence, from being groped at a work event and being subjected to domestic abuse to witnessing similar attacks as the one in Tangshan. 

Common to them is the sense of helplessness and shame, but articulating these emotions is the first step to liberation. “Only by pointing out the elephant in the room, would we know where to direct the arrows of our anger,” the group wrote. 

“Precisely because everyone has been through it, they are able to empathize and connect with each other, including strangers,” He Yuan said. “It is powerful because no matter how Chinese authorities try to rewrite these incidents, they cannot deny women’s lived experiences.”

Follow Rachel Cheung on Twitter and Instagram.