The industrial city of Tangshan is only 150 kilometres east of Beijing, the heart of Chinese government.
Yet it appears the writ of the capital has been chronically weak here after a violent attack on three women in a restaurant exposed years of corruption and gang-led criminality.
The attack, which happened in a brightly lit restaurant on June 10, has triggered a renewed national debate about women’s safety in China and the government’s suppression of feminist discourse.
Seven men and two women have since been arrested in connection with the beatings which occurred after one of the injured women rejected the advances of a man who had been sitting at another table with several other male companions.“Let’s grab those women and rape them by the side of the road,” 163.com reported one of the men as saying a few minutes prior to the attack.
After that he approached one of the women and put his hands on her back. When she pushes him away, he slaps her in the face.
Friends from both sides then join in, with one of the woman’s friends smashing a bottle over the man’s head, while a man from the other side hurls a chair at the women. Eventually the men pull the women out on to the street by their hair, where they are kicked and attacked with bottles.
Very few of the other late-night diners do anything to protect the women. Two of the victims remain in hospital in a stable condition.
Videos of the violent attack quickly reached half a billion views on Chinese social media, with many women complaining they have seen or experienced similar acts of harassment or violence.
The case then took an unusual twist when provincial authorities handed the investigation of the case to the neighbouring municipality of Langfang rather than allowing Tangshan’s public security department to handle the matter.
The city’s mayor and Party chief have since announced a crackdown on organised crime that’s been codenamed “Operation Thunderstorm”. According to a police notice published on Tuesday, the operation will focus on fraud, prostitution, gambling, harassment of businesses, crimes against women, dereliction of duty and the official cover-up of crimes.
The public were encouraged to report present and past violations by calling a hotline. But many also joined long lines at police stations and took to social media to describe crimes committed by local gangsters.
Tangshan turns out to be rather a thuggish place to live. One woman, a singer in a bar, said she had been held against her will and the police had not responded; a small business owner said he had closed his shop because local thugs kept demanding money; another woman accused a local police chief of helping a gang extort Rmb150 million ($7.45 million) from her business.
Quite how criminality in Tangshan was allowed to grow to such levels is unclear, given how China’s leader Xi Jinping has launched several high-profile anti-corruption and anti-gang crackdowns in the last decade.
Tangshan has a busy port and large steel and chemical industries. It is also close to the fast-growing city of Langfang and the affluent metropolitan centres of Beijing and Tianjin.
“The people of Tangshan have suffered from underworld forces for a long time, but where do these forces come from?” asked Phoenix News.
“Who do these mad dogs actually belong to… why do they act with impunity” asked 163.com, referencing the fact that five of the arrested men were well known to the police and had multiple charges against them.
Many women added that criminality was only part of the problem and that females regularly face harassment and gender-based discrimination. They complained Chinese activists who fight for greater protections and who try to shed light on these gender-based issues are often labelled as troublemakers or, worse, are arrested. Earlier this month the BBC reported that MeToo activist Sophie Huang, who had been detained for over six months, is expected to face trial for “inciting subversion of state power”, for instance.
Many Chinese feminists have had their social media accounts suspended and nationalist trolls often attack women online if they espouse feminist views.
One widely circulated essay last year accused so called “female fists” of brainwashing other women into hating men, eschewing marriage and refusing to have children. “They also provoke males into hating females as women are becoming less adorable, too demanding and looking down on males” it said.
The polemic goes on to accuse Chinese feminists of being “foreign-funded” before suggesting they should also be designated as a “cult”.
In April this year the Communist Youth League also denounced “extreme feminism” as a “cancer that needs to rooted out” in a Sina Weibo post.
Meanwhile back in Tangshan police made a public display of protecting late-night diners on Monday by patrolling popular barbecue restaurant spots. The images of police with shields standing behind women eating kebabs divided public opinion with many saying the action was over the top and of little long-term benefit. Some joined in the mockery by posting images of themselves eating in crash helmets with the a hashtag ‘How to eat safely in Tangshan’.
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