A brutal attack on a group of female diners in a restaurant in north-eastern China over the weekend has sparked a public uproar over sexual harassment and gender violence in the country as authorities raced to silence a backlash.
Video footage widely shared on social media showed nine men punching, kicking and dragging three women inside and outside a barbecue restaurant in the city of Tangshan on Friday night.
The incident has triggered outrage nationwide as tens of millions of people voiced frustration online over the lack of legal protections for women and anger at patriarchal social norms.
Weibo, the Chinese microblogging platform, said in a statement on Saturday that it had blocked 265 accounts for breaches including encouraging “gender confrontation”. The social media platform also banned related hashtags such as “wishing for every girl to grow up safely”, which it said did not comply with government regulations.
Analysts said the incident and government efforts to control the narrative underscored Beijing’s failure to address the widespread mistreatment of women as authorities have tightened their grip on the #MeToo movement in the country.
“What happened in Tangshan means any Chinese woman can be beaten up at any time for any reason,” said Lu Xiaoquan, a Beijing-based lawyer who focuses on women’s rights. “There is no way to avoid it.”
The shocking incident in Tangshan, a city of 7.7mn in Hebei province, began when a man approached three women eating in a restaurant and put his hand on one diner’s back. The woman asked what he wanted before yelling “you are sick” and slapping his hand away.
The man responded by hitting the woman in the face, setting off a melee that spilled in to the street, where the initial victim was dragged by her hair. A group of men dining outside joined the assault, beating the women with chairs and beer bottles, stomping on them and shouting “beat her to death”.
Two of the woman targeted were hospitalised but were in stable condition, according to local media.
The public fury in the wake of the attack also focused on passivity on the part of law enforcement. A case report reviewed by the Financial Times showed that the local police station failed to respond to multiple calls about the attack shortly before 3am. The document, prepared by the Tangshan Airport Road Police Station, labelled the incident a “normal scuffle”.
Police in Tangshan arrested nine people over the weekend who allegedly participated in the violence. Some of the suspects had previous criminal records, according to court documents.
But the brutal assault prompted an outburst on social media, where many decried the lack of legal protections for women in China. One post on Weibo published on Saturday night and read tens of thousand of times argued that the incident was not random, but a reflection of systematic sexual violence rooted in Chinese society.
“We should admit that our environment contains forces that support, encourage and drive male violence against females,” the user wrote.
The attack in Tangshan followed a series of recent incidents that have drawn attention to sexual violence and gender inequality in China. This year, a video of a woman chained in a hut in a rural area of eastern Jiangsu province sparked widespread outrage and highlighted authorities’ failure to stamp out human trafficking and abuse.
Last December, an employee of ecommerce giant Alibaba was fired after she publicly accused her manager and a client of sexual assault on a business trip. She said she had reported the incident to the company but it had failed to respond.
The previous month, Peng Shuai, a Chinese tennis star and three-time Olympian, accused former vice-premier Zhang Gaoli of sexual misconduct. Peng later withdrew the allegations after disappearing from public view, but the incident, which implicated the very highest echelons of Chinese politics, undercut Beijing’s narrative of improving conditions for women.
Authorities have sought to play down incidents of sexual violence, despite its prevalence, launching numerous attacks on women’s rights groups that activists said could serve to further entrench gender inequalities.
China’s Communist Youth League in April labelled “extreme feminists” an “online tumour” that undermines policy priorities such as raising the country’s sinking birth rates.
That rhetoric, said Lü Pin, a Chinese women’s rights activist based in New York, meant the Tangshan incident would not be the last. “China’s male-dominated government lacks the motivation to improve women’s rights because it benefits from the status quo,” she said.