China probes police handling of attack on women in Tangshan restaurant

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BEIJING (BLOOMBERG) - 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, along with four other officers, was being probed for "severe disciplinary violations", China Central Television reported on Tuesday (June 21), 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 showing the violent assault on the women who had brushed off an advance by a man at a barbecue restaurant early on June 10 went viral in China, and local media reports later said two of the females were sent to an intensive care unit at a hospital.

The episode revived the #MeToo movement against gender inequality that the government has repeatedly tried to suppress, 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 were pointing out that local police initially said they responded to the attack within five minutes but 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 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".

Women's rights issues threatened to overshadow the Beijing Winter Olympics in February. Concern for tennis star Peng Shuai prompted the United Nations Human Rights Office, the White House and high-profile sports stars, including Serena Williams, to issue statements demanding Beijing clarify her whereabouts before the event.

Weeks later, the authorities in the eastern province of Jiangsu were accused of downplaying the case of a mother of eight filmed chained by the neck in a hut.

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

The fact that the attackers were taken into custody only after security footage of the incident had gone viral raised questions on social media over whether 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.

Chinese journalists have said on social media that they faced obstacles reporting from Tangshan recently because local officials used Covid-19 control rules to block some people from entering the city.

A reporter from a TV station in the south-western province of Guizhou said local police prevented him from filming outside the barbecue restaurant last week.

The Tangshan city government did not answer phone calls by Bloomberg News seeking comment on the treatment of reporters.

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