China Brief

A weekly digest of the stories you should be following in China, plus exclusive analysis. Delivered Wednesday.

A Brutal Attack Stirs Anger and Shame in China

Video of an assault on a woman in Tangshan has gone viral, raising uncomfortable questions about gender-based violence.

Palmer-James-foreign-policy-columnist20
James Palmer
By , a deputy editor at Foreign Policy.
Police officers patrol a night market in Laishan, China.
Police officers patrol a night market in Laishan, China.
Police officers patrol a night market in Laishan, Shandong province, China, on June 12. CFOTO/Future Publishing via Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.

The highlights this week: A violent attack against women in Tangshan sparks outrage online, China offers stronger support for Russia as it advances in the Donbas, and mass COVID-19 lockdowns loom again in Beijing.

If you would like to receive China Brief in your inbox every Wednesday, please sign up here.

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.

The highlights this week: A violent attack against women in Tangshan sparks outrage online, China offers stronger support for Russia as it advances in the Donbas, and mass COVID-19 lockdowns loom again in Beijing.

If you would like to receive China Brief in your inbox every Wednesday, please sign up here.


Tangshan Attack Stirs Major Reaction

An attack on three unnamed women at a restaurant in Tangshan, China, has stirred anger across the country. The assault, captured on video on June 10, began after a man approached one of the three women, putting his hand on her back. He hit her when she pushed him away, and his companions joined in; the attack continued outside, leaving the woman with severe injuries. Her friends attempted to defend her and were also hurt; no other bystander appeared to intervene.

The video has lit the Chinese internet on fire, with threads on social media platform Weibo racking up more than 4.8 billion views in just a few days. Nine men were arrested for their involvement in the attack, but the online mood remains one of rage, fear, and despair. The case—and the attackers’ seeming sense of impunity—stirred memories of other assaults caught on video, such as one of a woman in a Beijing hotel in 2016, and of abuse against women in general.

Although state media jumped on the incident at first, as usually happens with hot-button issues, censorship has now dampened unauthorized discussion. Weibo suspended more than 900 accounts for violations including stirring “gender confrontation” over the story.

Some of the attackers’ appearances and previous criminal records suggest that they are gangsters. Tangshan authorities quickly responded with a crackdown on organized crime, with some other Chinese cities following suit. I spent several years traveling to Tangshan for research, and it has long had a visible gang problem; as in many provincial Chinese cities, there are persistent reports of connections between organized crime’s local officialdom.

Furthermore, brutal violence against women is a common part of organized crime in China. In her study of Dalian, China, sociologist Tiantian Zheng repeatedly witnessed violent attacks and sexual assaults on women at the karaoke bar where she worked. The temporary political space opened up by outrage at the Tangshan incident caused others to come forward; local authorities have been overwhelmed by reports of other gang violence.

Many commenters remarked on the failure of the police to respond to the attack until after the video went viral. As Suzanne Scroggins shows in her book Policing China, so much of the Chinese security budget goes to so-called stability maintenance and protest control that actual police work is underfunded, leaving Chinese officers demoralized. In many cases, the police seek to avoid the paperwork involved with a crime, Scroggins reports—for example, authorities may refuse to charge attackers if they pay the hospital bills for their victims.

However, the focus on gangs in the wake of the Tangshan attack is also a deliberate distraction from the question of male violence, which is an endemic problem in China. Surveys have reported that anywhere between 25 percent and 39 percent of women experience intimate partner violence. The issue is often trivialized in court. China’s patriarchal government system regards the country’s burgeoning feminist movement as a danger, despite the emphasis on women’s rights among the original revolutionaries.


What We’re Following

Xi’s support for Moscow. Perhaps emboldened by Russian advances in the Donbas, China has offered stronger rhetorical support for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. In a recent call with Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping praised Russia’s need to protect its security. Chinese state media blames the United States for the war as well as for promoting conspiracy theorists and propagandists. Nevertheless, Chinese institutions have steered clear of violating U.S. sanctions. Russian institutions are having trouble processing yuan transactions.

Meanwhile, some misleading commentary has suggested that China is adopting the language of “special operations” from Russia’s own euphemism for its invasion of Ukraine. But this terminology has been part of China’s use-of-force spectrum for years; it’s unlikely the Russian example is an inspiration.

Beijing on the brink. Official declarations of victory against COVID-19 have again proved premature. In Beijing, the prospect of mass lockdowns looms after an outbreak was linked to the Heaven Supermarket Bar, a longtime hangout in the expatriate-heavy Sanlitun neighborhood. The capital’s streets are largely empty, with parks and malls closed in many areas. Expect to see bar culture seriously curtailed in Beijing even when the zero-COVID policy ends; the authorities were already uncomfortable with it anyway.

Papua New Guinea elections. Parliamentary elections are scheduled to be held in Papua New Guinea from July 2 through July 22; according to U.S. and Australian sources, China is spending considerably to fund candidates. Vote-buying is a widespread practice in elections in Papua New Guinea; the average cost of a first-preference vote in the limited preferential voting system has increased nearly fourfold to as much as $100, reflecting the amount of money poured into the campaign.

In recent years, Papua New Guinea’s prime minister, James Marape, has moved closer to China and praised Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi during his trip to the country this month. A Solomon Islands-style security deal in Papua New Guinea would spark massive concern in Canberra, which has invested considerably in security and defense aid there.


Tech and Business

Health code abuse? China currently restricts travel within the country by tracking a person’s latest COVID-19 test status and clearance—or health code—via mobile app: red for high-risk exposure, yellow for medium, green for recently tested and safe. There is not a single system, but hundreds of localized systems that are somewhat connected. The system has raised concerns about its potential for abuse for explicitly political control.

A likely case of this has emerged in Zhengzhou, Henan province, where local banks are struggling to make payments following alleged financial crimes by a major shareholder. Visitors from other provinces seeking to retrieve their money saw their health codes turn red, forcing them to report to local police stations. It’s likely the local authorities sought to prevent protests and complaints. State media has taken the side of the depositors, with the move portrayed as a serious abuse of power by local governments.

Semiconductor boost. Semiconductor manufacturing imports to China have risen by 58 percent this year despite U.S. efforts to rein them in—part of an expanding fight over control of the critical industry. Chip shortages have hit numerous industries since the pandemic began, from cars to cryptocurrency, heightening China’s desire to build up its domestic industry to the point of self-sufficiency. Before COVID-19 provided the spark, the targets proved way off: China’s goal was 70 percent self-sufficiency by 2020, but it reached just 16 percent.

BBC Africa investigation. A BBC Africa investigation has uncovered networks of Chinese bloggers and video-makers who pay African children and others to unknowingly perform in racist videos. Anti-Black racism and xenophobia is widespread in China, but that has largely not affected the country’s reputation in Africa, where skilled diplomacy and heavy funding have created a largely positive image. Chinese embassies across the continent have responded by condemning the racist videos.

James Palmer is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BeijingPalmer

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