Warning: Video shows a violent attack.
The security camera footage was appalling in its brutality. A young Chinese woman was at a restaurant in Tangshan, Hebei Province with three female friends when a middle-aged man approached her and put his hand on her back. She pushed him away, but the man refused to go back to his table. After the woman brushed away his hand again, he slapped her in the face, pulled her hair, and dragged her outside.
On the sidewalk, the man, joined by a group of male friends, repeatedly kicked the woman as she lay crumpled on the ground. Her friends tried to intervene, but the men beat them too.
As the violent scene unfolded, other customers at the restaurant stood by without helping. A female passerby seemed to want to come to the woman’s aid, but the man she was with quickly pulled her to the side and locked her in his arms to block her view.
Even at a time when male violence against women has regularly made headlines in China, the video — which appeared on the Chinese internet yesterday and instantly went viral — struck a special chord with many Chinese women. The sheer brazenness of the attack, combined with the seeming indifference of the bystanders, unleashed a renewed wave of fear and fury among them, prompting them to take to social media to call for an end to what they described as “an epidemic of gender-based violence” in the country.
“I couldn’t stop shaking when I watched the video. I’m in despair,” one woman fumed (in Chinese). “She was just hanging out with friends and didn’t want to be disturbed by some random guy. This is something that could happen to me one day.”
Further fueling the outrage was the delay of action by law enforcement authorities. According to sources close to the matter, local police were called to the scene when the incident happened on Thursday evening. When they arrived, the attackers had already left. In the following hours, little was done by the authorities while the woman and one of her friends were at a hospital recovering from serious injuries (in Chinese).
It wasn’t until the video blew up on social media that a police department in Tangshan issued (in Chinese) an announcement later Friday night, saying that it was “pulling out all the stops“ to find the group of men who attacked the women. As of the time of writing, two of the men have been detained (in Chinese) in connection with the assault.
Anger was also directed at several news outlets, which were accused of using vague and biased wording to manipulate public perceptions of the incident. In a now-deleted Weibo post (in Chinese) by the Beijing Youth Daily, the main attacker was described as “having a conversation with the women” before his friends “joined the battle to fight against them.” Some news organizations labeled the attack as “a physical conflict” and wrote that the trigger of the assault was the man “being turned down after hitting on a woman under the influence of alcohol.”
“Is a man entitled to touch a woman without her consent when he hits on her? Does the woman have no right to reject him? Is it okay to call it a fight when the lady defends herself in the face of violence? Is being drunk a valid excuse for the man’s horrendous behavior?” a Weibo user asked in a post (in Chinese), which has so far received over 167,000 likes.
In a rare display of public criticism over social issues, a host of Chinese celebrities also spoke up. “Next time an announcement is made, I want to see posthumous photos [of those men],” Mǎ Tiānyǔ 马天宇, a Chinese actor and singer, wrote to his 32 million followers on Weibo.
The incident has reminded many Chinese women of the constant threat they feel in public and the eternal vigilance required to stay safe, whether by carrying self-defense weapons wherever they go, using location-tracking apps, avoiding venturing out at night alone, adjusting outfits to cover up skin, or calculating what exact tone to use when responding to a stranger’s approach without provoking anger or inviting further conversation. Online, many Chinese women said they were exhausted by the burden of self-protection, arguing that it should be men’s responsibility to stop harming women.
“I’m sick of society telling women how to protect themselves from violent men. It’s like you are a pedestrian and you follow traffic rules diligently. You always stop at the red light and wait for the green light to go. But one day when you are on a zebra crossing, you are hit by an asshole who’s drunk driving,” a Weibo user wrote (in Chinese). “How can anyone possibly prevent that? The only way to solve the root cause of the problem is to eliminate drunk driving, instead of telling those rule-abiding pedestrians to better protect themselves.”
The anger over the assault in Tangshan built on outrage that has intensified after a series of injuries and deaths caused by gender-based violence in the past few years. In 2018, two female passengers were murdered by their drivers in separate incidents in China while using ride-sharing services. Last year, a woman was yelled at and attacked with hot soup by a man in a hotpot restaurant in Chengdu after she asked him to stop smoking.
For many, home isn’t any safer. A 2020 report (in Chinese) by Beijing Equality showed that more than 900 women had died at the hands of their husband or partners since China’s anti-domestic-violence law came into effect in 2016. In one of the most high-profile and disturbing instances, Tibetan video influencer Lhamo 拉姆 died in 2020 after her ex-husband set her on fire during a livestream. In the years leading up to the incident, Lhamo had called the police multiple times when abuse occured, but her complaints weren’t taken seriously, and she never received the protection she sought.
Many observers, particularly women, said they hoped the Tangshan incident would be a tipping point forcing authorities to reflect on systemic misogyny within society. They called for officials to improve the criminal justice system to hold male perpetrators accountable for their behavior and create a men and boys’ strategy to reduce male violence in the first place. “We are in survival mode,” a woman wrote (in Chinese) on Weibo. “We’ve reached a point where radical social reform needs to happen.”