BEIJING — The man walked into a barbecue restaurant in northern China and approached a table of three women. He put his hand on the back of one, who shook him off. In response, he slapped her — then, with several other men, savagely beat her and the other women, hitting them with chairs, kicking them and dragging them outdoors.
The security camera footage of the brutal attack, which took place in the city of Tangshan on Friday and left two women hospitalized, spread rapidly online and has continued to dominate public conversation in recent days. Women flooded social media with their outrage and terror at the threat of sexual violence that looms over everyday life. Just three of many related hashtags on the Twitter-like platform Weibo have been viewed more than 4.8 billion times.
The intensity of the public response made clear the growing attention to sexual harassment and gender-based violence in China, where conversations about equality are increasingly common. But almost simultaneously, other narratives that played down the gender angle emerged. Some legal scholars said the incident was about public safety writ large, not just for women. State media outlets focused on the possibility of gang violence. Weibo deleted hundreds of accounts, accusing their users of seeking to stoke enmity between genders.
The conflicting interpretations underscored how divisive feminism remains, both for the general public and for a government that sees any independent activism as a potential challenge to its control.
Feminist activists have been dismissed in court, sued or arrested. State-owned media outlets have described the #MeToo movement as a weapon for foreign forces to weaken China. Protections against domestic violence and sexual harassment are spotty.
In January, Chinese social media similarly erupted after a woman was found chained in a shack in eastern Jiangsu Province, and the authorities later acknowledged she was the victim of human trafficking. But officials also detained or censored some who pressed for more information. Last year, the tennis player Peng Shuai disappeared from public view after accusing a high-ranking former Chinese leader of coercing her into sex.
The Tangshan attack ignited so much outrage in part because the violence was so extreme. But that anger will not necessarily translate into more public recognition of the risks that women face, said Feng Yuan, the head of Equality, a Beijing-based feminist advocacy group.
“The primary reason he beat her was that his harassment did not yield his desired result. But many mainstream commentaries didn’t see that,” Ms. Feng said. “The role of gender being erased — this is what we need to fight against.”
The footage of the attack in Tangshan, a city of 7.5 million about 100 miles east of Beijing, shows a man walking into the restaurant, which still has several tables of diners, shortly before 3 a.m. When he approaches the women’s table and places his hand on one’s back, she can be heard asking what he is doing, and pushing him aside — then doing so a second time, after he tries to touch her again. He slaps her.
Her friends try to intervene, but several men rush in from outside and begin hitting them, pushing them to the ground, throwing chairs and dragging one outside by the hair, where they kick her as she lies on the ground.
One onlooker called the police almost immediately, according to an interview she gave to a state media outlet. Around 6 p.m. on Friday — 15 hours later, after the video had already spread widely — the local police issued a statement saying they were “going all out” to arrest the suspects, prompting some observers to accuse them of responding only because of the public outcry. By Sunday, the authorities said they had arrested seven men and two women. The suspects, who are in detention, could not be reached for comment.
Social media exploded with comments from users decrying both the assailants and broader sexist attitudes that they said enabled them. They fumed that the authorities could track down suspected coronavirus patients immediately but seemed unwilling to deploy similar resources to protect women. Many noted that the women had fulfilled all the usual tips about how to avoid harassment — they had gone out in a group and were in a well-lit public space — and were still unsafe.
“Just what kind of precautions does this world want me to take for them to be enough?” wrote the author of one widely shared article on WeChat.
One state media outlet, The Paper, examined legal records of similar cases of men assaulting women after being rebuffed. It found several instances of men being sentenced to one or two weeks of detention. In some cases, the men spent less time in detention than the women spent in the hospital.
But even as many pored over the role of gender in the attack, other voices dismissed its importance. Some social media users asked why the women were out so late. The state-owned Beijing Youth Daily, in an early report, said the man had “chatted” with the women, and then “both sides began to push and shove.”
Editorials in other state media outlets demanded improvements to public safety but did not mention the specific dangers that women face. Many focused on speculation that the attackers were gang members — a perception that gained traction as many Tangshan residents began sharing their own stories of being harassed by criminal groups. On Sunday, officials announced a two-week campaign against organized crime.
Others were more explicit in disavowing the role of gender. “The perpetrators in similar cases have not specifically targeted women, but rather target all weak people (including men),” Lu Dewen, a sociology professor at Wuhan University, wrote in a blog post.
Huang Simin, a mainland-based rights lawyer who has worked on cases related to gender violence, said it was important to consider other factors such as gang violence or inadequate law enforcement. But many people seemed unable to see how disregard for women might be driving those other elements, she said.
“We can analyze this incident from many angles: cultural, regional differences, legal. But at the heart of all these angles is gender,” Ms. Huang said. “If we can’t even admit that, then this problem will be very difficult to resolve.”
Because China has few laws that explicitly address gender-based violence, she added, many people do not have the framework to understand the attack in terms of gender. The attackers were charged with “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” and intentional assault.
In a sign of the often still hostile environment for feminist activism, even some who said they were sympathetic to the cause urged women to avoid being too confrontational.
Laura Yu, a Beijing-based lawyer originally from Tangshan, said the video had infuriated her. But if women appeared overly angry, she said, they would give fodder to men who cast feminism as a threat to their own rights.
“It’s not that I want to compromise,” she said. “It’s that if I don’t compromise, I can’t achieve anything.”
Some state media outlets and nationalist commentators have long tarred feminists as extremists. Even as state media denounced the Tangshan attack, censors deleted several articles arguing that the problems were systemic, including one linking the attack to the case of the chained woman in Jiangsu. Weibo said that it had shut down over 1,000 accounts, some of them for “inciting conflict between the genders.”
And there are so many more cases that never even receive this level of attention, said Ms. Feng, the feminist activist.
“There are so many incidents that were not filmed,” she said. “Violence against women, no matter what kind, in our society is really nothing new.”
Liu Yi, Joy Dong and Claire Fu contributed research.