Harassment case in a Shanghai Starbucks ignites online debate about preserving ‘ethnic unity’ – China’s latest society and culture news

Society & Culture

A summary of the top news in Chinese society and culture for September 18, 2017. Part of the daily SupChina newsletter, a convenient package of China’s business, political, and cultural news delivered to your inbox for free. Subscribe here.

“Why is the identity of a Muslim suspect in China exempted from disclosure in an announcement by the police? Why couldn’t the police just tell us the suspect’s ethnicity, religion, and last name, and which part of China he comes from?”

“I assumed the case happened in a foreign country when I saw the suspect was described as ‘a person of Chinese nationality,’ but it was actually in Shanghai. Muslims in China are given some privileges that Han Chinese don’t have.”

These two angry comments (in Chinese) indicate how Chinese internet users were infuriated by the detention of a Muslim man who harassed a girl in Shanghai last week, the censorship of the victim’s story online, and the local police’s intentional failure to reveal the suspect’s background in a public announcement following the arrest.

According to What’s on Weibo, the victim, nicknamed “NINGSUK_” on Weibo, broke the story on her social media account on the evening of September 15, claiming that she was attacked by “a Middle Eastern-looking Muslim man” at a Starbucks on the Bund of Shanghai. Seated alone, the victim was approached by the harasser, who attempted to start a conversation with her. To reject the man in a polite and subtle way, the girl lied that she was waiting for her boyfriend, but the suspect ignored the hint and took on a threatening tone. “He repeatedly said that there are many Arabs and Muslims around and he could get many people to come over by just making a phone call,” the victim recalled. After about two hours of fruitless flirtation, the man forcibly dragged the girl to a corner and tried to pull her out of the coffee shop. Luckily, the girl was saved by the Starbucks staff after she ran behind the cashier’s desk, pleading for help.

Soon after the story post (in Chinese) went viral on Chinese social media, the victim said she received an anonymous phone call ordering her to delete the post because it “undermined ethnic unity.” Even though she refused to do so, the post was censored. On September 16, Shanghai police published a statement saying that they had detained the suspect, who is “a 23-year-old person of Chinese nationality,” without providing further details about the suspect’s background.

The withholding of information by the police sparked another wave of anger on Chinese social media, with many internet users still demanding an official explanation of why the woman’s story was removed and why the police didn’t openly point out the fact that the suspect was a Muslim. In response to the public’s fury, Global Times published a commentary (in Chinese) stressing that China prosecutes everybody equally regardless of ethnicity and religion, but that Muslim-related issues in China warrant an unusual approach due to their complexity and sensitivity. “There might be some negative consequences caused by the authorities’ approach in dealing with this case, but if they chose to handle it in a different way, other negative consequences would be worse,” the article stated. “Preserving ethnic unity is critical to China’s long-term interests.”