When a mother was found chained in a shed in the winter in Fengxian, Jiangsu province, authorities blamed mental illness. A few months later, when three women in Tianjin accused professors of pressuring them into sex, they were criticized for not owning their decisions as adults.
For years, activists have struggled to highlight the country’s casual attitudes about violence against women only to be told that gender has little to do with it. Grass-roots advocacy for women’s rights, including the #MeToo movement, have struggled in China, where it has clashed with Beijing’s intolerance for activism and been accused of being a Western import. But as the incidents and the outrage mount, it is becoming increasingly difficult to suppress the debate.
More women are refusing to be gaslighted about the prevalence of sexism in Chinese society. “From the woman in Fengxian to the violent beating in Tangshan, the ‘she’ in those situations are all vulnerable. Maybe next time it will be you, or me, or all of us,” wrote a blogger under the pen name Zhao Qiaoqiao in one popular commentary about the incident.
“When one case turns into an incident and when one incident turns into a phenomenon, only then will society pay attention and try to solve this problem,” Zhao wrote.
In an article that was later censored, another blogger asked, “Why is it that with the Tangshan incident they became not just gender blind but are doing everything possible to erase the gender dimension of this incident?”
Video footage of the attack in the early hours of June 10 in Tangshan shows a man approach a table of women and place his hand on one of their backs. The woman pushes him away. After a second exchange, he slaps her. When her friends try to intervene, other men rush to the table and beat them, dragging one outside and kicking her repeatedly on the ground as other diners look on.
Authorities in Tangshan launched a public security campaign and pledged to crack down on crime, with police stationed throughout the city and at restaurants. A prominent sociologist wrote in an essay that this was an “ordinary incident” of threats to public order, arguing that it “stemmed from sexual harassment but does not reflect gender discrimination in society.”
Articles about the incident and gender-based violence were deleted, including one that called on the government and state media to stop avoiding talking about feminism. Weibo, the microblogging website, banned 265 accounts for “instigating gender conflict” in discussing the Tangshan violence.
The response is in line with other campaigns to limit the fallout over such episodes. Support online for a landmark #MeToo lawsuit in which a former intern accused a prominent TV host of sexual assault last year has been heavily censored. An activist who tried to visit the woman found chained outside in Jiangsu, in eastern China, was detained by police in March.
Last year, Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai, who alleged on social media that a senior official had pressured her into sex, disappeared from public view for weeks before retracting her comments in carefully managed interviews.
In April, the official Weibo account of the Communist Youth League of China published a post saying that “extreme feminism has become a malignant tumor on the internet.”
Wang Yu, a Beijing-based rights lawyer, said such framing is consistent with official messaging about women’s rights in China.
“The government is concerned about people talking about gender because any discussion about human rights is considered sensitive by the officials, and that includes women’s rights,” she said.
Still, observers say the movement has made some gains. Outrage over the case of the chained mother ignited internet users, spurring forms of online and offline activism rarely seen as the space for Chinese debate has shrunk.
A recent case of online #MeToo activism, taking inspiration from a Taiwanese writer, also undercut criticisms that Chinese feminists have been brainwashed by Western ideology.
In May, a woman alleged in a post on Weibo that an associate professor at Nankai University in Tianjin had used his position to trick her into a sexual relationship with him when she was a student. She cited Taiwanese author Lin Yi-han’s 2017 novel about a young girl being seduced by her tutor, based on Lin’s life story. Lin killed herself shortly after the book’s release.
“This matter has been torturing me for six years with several attempts to commit suicide,” the woman wrote. “If I die, I hope the world will know my story,” read the post, which could not be independently verified by The Washington Post. It attracted 1.4 million likes as internet users called for preventing another tragedy like Lin’s.
In the wake of the post, two other professors in Tianjin were accused of having affairs with students, and within a week, the school fired the accused professor for “having inappropriate relationships with women” and issued disciplinary measures against the other two, according to a statement from the university.
Lu Pin, the founding editor of Feminist Voices, a Chinese platform banned in 2018, said Lin’s book had become a symbol of women’s rights in China. The novel is eighth on a list of the top 250 books as ranked by Douban, a popular review site. On a fan page for Lin with more than 22 million views, rape victims leave messages about their experiences.
“[Lin] speaks for many Chinese women in a culture that attaches great importance to shame,” Lu said.
The attack in the late-night barbecue restaurant has similarly struck a chord about women’s vulnerability. Despite Tangshan authorities’ efforts to play down the assault, the public continues to call for answers. On Monday, a trending topic on Weibo calling for an update on the victims received more than 1 billion views.
“The more you cover up the facts from the people, the more dissatisfied the public will be. Then more speculation will follow, bringing more negative effects,” read a widely circulated editorial from National Business Daily.
Following the public outrage, Hebei’s Public Security Department issued a statement Tuesday saying that the two hospitalized victims’ conditions had improved and that nine suspects had been arrested. Authorities also said that the deputy chief of the Tangshan police had been removed and that five other police officials were being investigated over their handling of the attack.
Censorship has been swift, however, against any perceived activism over the incident. One woman from Shanghai had her account banned on Weibo after posting a photo of herself holding a sign that called for information on the women’s situation. A hashtag, “I’m speaking out for the Tangshan girls,” also appeared to have been censored.
Still, women’s rights advocates say the feminist movement in China will persevere.
“The existence of the feminist movement is based on the needs in people’s hearts,” Lu said. “People are always waiting for the next opportunity to speak out for themselves. There is no way to eliminate this movement.”
Lyric Li in Seoul contributed to this report.