In June, a thirty-one-year-old woman named Wang was eating with three friends at a barbecue restaurant in Tangshan, about a hundred miles east of Beijing. It was late at night. around 2:40 IN THE, a man came over and put his hand on Wang’s back. She pushed him away and loudly protested, “What are you doing? What’s wrong with you?” He reached for her face and she pushed him away again. “Get lost,” she said. Then the man slapped her. A struggle ensued. beer bottle and hit the attacker. Several men ran to the table. One of them grabbed Wang by the hair and dragged her out into the street. The group repeatedly stomped and beat her. Wang, whose short-sleeved white shirt was covered in blood, begged them to stop. One of her friends tried to rescue her and was pushed to the ground. His head hit the pavement, making a loud noise. Other customers in the restaurant looked on, stunned. Some were crying and one started vomiting. corner, a woman tried to intervene, but her companion stopped her.
By early afternoon, a five-minute surveillance video of the attack had gone viral on Chinese social media, sparking a new reckoning over the state of women’s rights in the country. In recent years, a series of scandals involving sexual violence have captured national attention. On the heels of the #MeToo movement in the United States, and despite widespread censorship, women in China have spoken out against stalkers and bullies, including Zhu Jun, a prominent state television host, accused of groping and kissing the forces a former intern, and Liu Qiangdong, the founder of one of China’s largest e-commerce platforms, who allegedly raped a twenty-one-year-old college student after a dinner party. (Zhu was exonerated by a Beijing court. Liu, who was not charged with any crime, faces a jury trial in Minnesota next month in a civil lawsuit. He has denied any wrongdoing.) Especially raw is the memory of “tiliannu,” or the “chained woman”; was filmed by an influencer earlier this year, drawing widespread condemnation. A man in Xuzhou, a poor area of Jiangsu province, had kept her chained by her neck in a shed. She (she Supposedly she gave birth to eight of her children).
The crackdown on civic speech and activism has trapped the storm in a box. Although individual cases like the one in Tangshan create fleeting moments for people to express their anger, the voices of feminists are increasingly marginalized. “The Tangshan incident indirectly reflects the MeToo conundrum,” Lu Pin, a longtime Chinese women’s rights advocate, told me. “MeToo was empowering. Women wanted to speak up and change the way things were. They got some. But four years later, Tangshan made people realize that there is not much you can do, even when you make a very loud noise.”
After the initial outrage, the responses to the attack had a tone of resignation. “It is impossible for ordinary people to change the big picture; we can only pray,” wrote a blogger on Zhihu, a platform similar to Quora. “No matter how viral a news item is, it will become the past; no matter how strong a slogan is, it will go away,” wrote He Siyun, a former elementary school teacher who lost her job after reporting that a colleague had sexually abused several students. (The colleague was sentenced to four years in prison for child abuse.) Passers-by in the restaurant felt a more immediate sense of hopelessness. “Over the past few days, I have been reflecting and replaying non-stop what happened that night,” one witness, a twenty-nine-year-old man, told an online media outlet. “I want to know what I could have done differently and if a better result was possible.”
Two days after the incident, Weibo announced a zero-tolerance policy toward users who spread “harmful speech,” including comments that “attack state politics and the political system” or “incite gender conflict.” In 48 hours, the platform removed more than 14,000 posts, suspended 8,000 users, and permanently banned another 1,000. On Weibo and other platforms, like WeChat, where hundreds of millions of people in China get their news, feminists are often called “women’s fists,” which sounds like the Chinese phrase for “women’s rights.” Popular words that refer to gender discrimination, such as “Hunlu”, which means “marriage mules”, a sarcastic term about the thankless work of married women, have been banned. Even the phrase “MeToo” is heavily censored, making it impossible to file new public complaints with the firm’s hashtag.
Eric Liu, who used to work as a Weibo censor and now oversees state censorship for the Berkeley-based China Digital Times website, told me the goal is to flatten the discussion without appearing to stop it altogether. “The voice of real feminists is removed, because they are forced to use a lot of ‘sensitive terms’ that ensure their post is removed,” Liu said. All that remains are bland expressions of public sympathy and the state’s version, known as the “official narrative.”
With Tangshan, it soon became clear what form the “official narrative” would take. Initial coverage in state media downplayed the incident. A video channel called Feidian reported that “conflict broke out on both sides”; a Beijing-based news app said the man had “struck up a conversation” with Wang and that they began “pushing each other, leading to physical conflict,” prompting the man’s friends to join him for ” counteract women. Soon, coverage was almost entirely focused on whether the men were gangsters. A buzzword in almost every news report was “saoheichu’e”, which means, more or less, “sweep away the black forces and eliminate the evil elements”. “First, they try to diffuse the conflict,” Liu told me. “Then they direct the discussion to narratives they are familiar with, such as law and order in society.”
Authorities approved seven men and two women involved in the attack. (Police initially said they arrived at the scene five minutes after the beating began; the official account, released days later, said police did not arrive until half an hour after the assailants had left.) The district public security bureau fired the deputy chief of the local police station, announcing that the case involved crimes including violent assault and “provoking fights and stirring up trouble,” a controversial charge that carries up to five years in prison and is used a often to criminalize peaceful activists. . In the past, there have been few substantial penalties in such cases. In 2020, a twenty-five-year-old woman from Zhejiang province was beaten until she passed out after a man tried to touch her body and face while she was having a late-night snack. The man and three of his friends were detained for about ten days and then released.
In response to Tangshan, the police launched a program called Thunderstorm Action, aimed at improving public safety. The program quietly ended at the end of June without announcing any concrete results. “What we see in Tangshan is the malfunction of all aspects of society,” He Yuan, a professor at University College London whose research focuses on prosperity and human development in China, told me. “If you try to find a solution using the existing process, you will find that it doesn’t work, from the police, the prosecution and the media.” Following the incident, journalists trying to enter Tangshan were detained or obstructed. For weeks no one heard from the four women or their families. When rumors began to circulate that one of them had died, a local branch of the Women’s Federation, an organization run by the Communist Party, told a reporter that all four were alive. The lack of information worried even Hu Xijin, an influential nationalist columnist in the globaltimes, a Party-affiliated tabloid, who wrote, “Tangshan should help certain media get in touch with the four women. First of all, the city should not guide them to be ‘low profile’. . . . In this way, we can reduce the suspicion that the government is doing ‘information control’. ”
Two months have now passed since the incident and nothing is known about the whereabouts or health of Wang and his friends. According to the WeChat Index, a tool that tracks key terms used on the platform, the popularity of “Tangshan” peaked in mid-June and has since plummeted to pre-incident levels. Meanwhile, at least one attempted assault surveillance video and one personal account of sexual assault have circulated, but neither have reached a national audience. Lu Pin pointed out that public discussion of women’s rights in the country rarely extends beyond specific cases that appear in the news. “Discussions only increase when there is a breaking news story,” she told me. “Then you will realize that the public space does not exist and the public can no longer continue a conversation or participate in activities.” He Yuan, from University College London, found that young students in China who are exposed to sexual inequality and violence now understand that their rights have been violated, but have trouble figuring out how to address it. (Last summer, at least a dozen college queer and sex education groups across the country found their WeChat accounts deleted. Overnight, they became “unnamed public accounts.”) think about the issues more deeply,” she said.
On August 10, the final appeal of Zhou Xiaoxuan, the intern who accused the state TV host of workplace sexual harassment, was rejected. “What I experienced happens all the time and is a universal conundrum for women,” Zhou told the audience. “I hope that the next person who comes to court will be treated with more understanding.” As these incidents go through their news cycles, people looking to revive interest or seek meaningful accountability become targets of the authorities. Lu knows several feminist activists in China who have been warned by local police not to say or do anything after Tangshan. A woman who went to Xuzhou to investigate the tiliannu the case is still missing. “I had a hard time imagining how the government could suppress feminism,” Lu told me. “Now, I am seeing how the country erases this movement.” ♦