Foreign Policy – A violent attack in the Chinese capital of Beijing on the evening of April 3 has set Chinese social media ablaze, calling attention to the indifference that female Chinese citizens encounter when trying to seek help after — or even during — an assault. Surveillance footagefrom Yitel Hotel in an affluent neighborhood in Beijing shows a man dragging a woman down a hallway at around 11 o’clock at night. The man approaches a woman, grabs her neck, and pulls her hair as she struggles to escape. A staff member approaches, but does not intervene, while several other passersby made no attempt to help or call police. Finally, a bystander steps forward to grab the woman’s arm, and the man runs away.
According to the victim, who uses the online nom de plume Wanwan, officers checked surveillance footage and took witness statements following the incident. But when she later called local police station to ask about the investigation, Wanwan said she was told that investigators would not be available until the next week. It might have become yet another case where citizen and police indifference compelled a Chinese woman to endure abuse, with no consequences for the abuser. Instead, social media made the difference between police action and inaction. Wanwan took to microblogging site Weibo and uploaded a video of herself commenting on the surveillance footage, writing that her assailant had asked for her room number and when she refused to tell him, became violent. She added that the hotel worker who hovered nearby not only failed to help, but also asked the both of them to quiet down.
The video promptly went viral; on sharing site Youku, it received over 7 million views. On Weibo, thousands of users reacted angrily to the victim’s complaint that police continued to deny her information on the case. They called her their “sister” and told her to not be afraid. One commenter wrote that “police inaction” in response to violence against women “is a fact. So many people have responded powerfully to this case because they have had similar experiences with police.” Another noted that Beijing, China’s capital and its richest city, should have some of the best law enforcement personnel; “If police are being so absurd in a big city, what is happening in more backwards cities?”
These comments have remained live, with China’s often-busy online censors declining to delete them, even though many are harshly critical of authorities. While authorities don’t hesitate to delete comments relating to social injustices like forced house demolitions, suppression of religious practice and police use of torture, they are less likely to delete online complaints about physical and sexual assault or imprison bloggers for “spreading false rumors” about such crimes. One of the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s founding principles, after all, is that women and men are equal, and recent changes in legislation introduced harsher penalties for rapists and child abusers. In December 2015, China’s legislature passed a domestic violence law, although it does not directly address sexual violence.
Indeed, when it comes to violence against women, China’s ostensible founding ideals are far from realized. While China’s crime data is mostly inaccessible to the public, the most recent International Crime Victims Survey by the United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute found the rate of sexual assault reporting in Beijing to rank among the world’s lowest, besting only Cairo and Jakarta. In Hong Kong, a semi-independent Chinese city, only two per cent of all sexual assault cases are known to law enforcement. Of those two per cent reported, according to University of Hong Kong findings, the majority will not end up getting brought to court and convicted.
That’s why social media still plays such an important part. To the surprise of Wanwan’s many supporters, on April 8, police arrested her alleged assailant, a 24-year-old surnamed Li, in a city in Henan province, more than 350 miles south of the capital. The hotel chain apologized a few days after Wanwan shared her story, saying in a statement that it had identified “problems in security management and customer service during the incident” and “sincerely apologize to the victim and the general public.”
“I’m not sure if authorities would have acted so quickly if the case hadn’t gone viral,” Edward Chan, associate professor in the Department of Social Work and Administration at the University of Hong Kong, told Foreign Policy. “Training on sexual and domestic violence is not compulsory for police, which could explain some of the insensitivity shown to victims,” Chan said. China’s criminal justice system is especially ill-equipped to deal with cases involving attacks on women, Chan argues in his research, noting a Chinese “cultural tendency to think that female victims are probably involved in an intimate partner dispute and therefore police should not intervene.”
This isn’t the first time that social media has changed the outcome of abuse cases that would likely have otherwise gone ignored. In one high-profile assault case in May 2011, a school principal in the southwestern municipality of Chongqing was eventually found guilty of sexually assaulting a teacher after forcing her to drink 16 cups of liquor. A reporter from the Chongqing Evening News published the local police station’s initial response that rape might not have been committed because of the use of a condom. On social media, people eviscerated police for making the comment, a reaction that likely put pressure on authorities to take the case more seriously. Also in 2011, American Kim Lee accused her Chinese husband, famous English teacher Li Yang, of beating her, posting photos of her injuries onto her Weibo page. Two years later, a court in Beijing granted Lee a divorce on the grounds of domestic violence and issued an unprecedented three-month restraining order against ex-husband Li.
Ad hoc justice is better than no justice, but that’s of little comfort to the many women who still cannot rely on a system truly prepared to prevent domestic violence. “When the system fails victims, some turn to social media to create pressure on authorities, and sometimes it works. But people shouldn’t have to go through this process every single time — it’s not sustainable for the long-term,” Chan said. Feng Yuan, a veteran women’s rights activist, said violence against women is so common partly because media and advertising depict women and even young girls as sexual objects. “There is nearly nonexistent public education teaching men that females deserve respect,” the Beijing-based activist told FP.
It is unclear whether Wanwan’s case will spark a longer-lasting national discussion on China’s gender-based violence problem. In a 2013 U.N. study, nine percent of about 1,000 Chinese men surveyed reported that they had committed rape, and 14 percent of men reported that they had sexually harassed a woman. One in seven women, among the more than 1,000 surveyed, reported that they have been the victims of attempted rape.
There are also barriers to who is able to turn to social media for support, said Børge Bakken, a sociologist in the field of Chinese criminology at the Australian National University. In the online discussion following recent assault cases, the perspectives of two groups are strikingly absent from the conversation: migrant and “unregistered” women. A 2005 survey by sociologists of police station data in the southern province of Guangzhou found that as high as 93 per cent of all rapes have migrant women as their targets. “Migrant women are without a protective network, are often even illegal migrants, and often neglected, even targeted by the police as well as sexual predators. The victims fear the police,” Bakken told FP.
Attacks by men against women have been made more serious by demographic factors too, with the ratio of men against women in China as high as 118 to 100, “resulting in an army of bachelors out there in the criminally dangerous age group,” according to Bakken. Because of the cultural preference for boys and because China’s strict one-child policy was only relaxed recently to allow married couples to have two children, females make up the majority of an estimated at least 14 million unregistered people in China. “These unregistered persons are living under the radar of the authorities and their unregistered status clearly makes them more vulnerable to sexual attacks, as few of these girls would report the crime to authorities,” Bakken said.
Little will change if underlying cultural beliefs that condone violence in China are left unchallenged. Until then, it will remain unjustly incumbent on victims to publicize their assaults — and in so doing, relive a moment in their life they’d rather forget. In a Weibo post informing her followers about the arrest, Wanwan, who is still surely wrestling with her own trauma in the aftermath of her attack, wrote that she was feeling “very tired” from her outreach efforts and will no longer accept media interviews. “I hope to have a normal, quiet life with my family and friends,” she wrote. “Thank you so much for your caring and support.”