China probes police handling of attack on women at eatery

BEIJING • China is launching an investigation into a group of police officials over their handling of an attack on female diners at a restaurant, an incident that prompted an outpouring of stories from women in the country who said they had been badly mistreated in the past.

Mr Ma Aijun, the police chief of the district in the northern city of Tangshan where the incident occurred earlier this month, and four other officers were being probed for "severe disciplinary violations", China Central Television reported on Tuesday, citing the anti-graft agency in Hebei province. The report used a Communist Party euphemism that can mean corruption is involved but can also cover issues such as dereliction of duty.

The state broadcaster said separately that Mr Ma's deputy has been relieved of duty for "improper" law enforcement, citing police officials in Hebei. That story did not provide the deputy's full name.

A video clip showed the violent assault on the women who had brushed off an advance by a man at a barbecue restaurant early on June 10. The video went viral in China, and local media reports later said two of the four women were sent to an intensive-care unit at a hospital.

The episode revived the #MeToo movement against gender inequality, spurring other Chinese women to share stories on social media about times men harassed them or how they feared leaving their homes at night.

In a sign of how the attack was still resonating with the Chinese public on Tuesday, social media users pointed out that local police initially said they responded to the attack within five minutes but the Hebei authorities later said it took them 28 minutes.

The government has repeatedly suppressed China's nascent #MeToo movement, viewing it as a vehicle for spreading liberal Western values, and women who have spoken about sexual assault have been silenced by the nation's patriarchal culture.

The Chinese government would be especially keen to avoid any flare-up of #MeToo voices now, given its preparations for a major party congress later this year that is expected to hand President Xi Jinping a third term in charge.

After the attack on the four women in Tangshan, an industrial city about 100km east of Beijing, state-run China Daily newspaper dismissed the idea that it exposed any problem with women's rights, saying in a commentary that the case "should never be interpreted as any form of sexual antagonism".

Police in Hebei had said they arrested nine suspects in the Tangshan case, and that some of them were suspected of involvement in online gambling and money laundering.

The fact that the attackers were caught only after security footage of the incident went viral raised questions on social media over whether the police were protecting gangsters.

Other people took to the Twitter-like Weibo platform to say they had been attacked or bullied by local thugs.

Police in Tangshan responded with what they called a "blitz storm" to collect clues on gang-related crime, with photos posted online later showing locals standing in long lines to file police reports.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 23, 2022, with the headline China probes police handling of attack on women at eatery. Subscribe