Li Tianyi, the baby-faced seventeen-year-old son of a Chinese celebrity couple was recently sentenced to 10 years in jail for gang rape, along with four others. Security camera footage from a Beijing hotel shows Li dragging the intoxicated victim into a hotel lift then hitting her in the face. The first rays of sun would have been coming through the hotel room windows when Li and three teenage friends, along with one of-age man, took their turns raping the 18-year-old university student and bar hostess.
Li’s defence team included his mother Meng Ge, a famed singer from the People’s Liberation Army, and together they worked the angle that the victim was a (consenting) prostitute. In the end this failed to move the courts, who according to the New York Times stated: “As for the assertion about whether the victim was or was not a ‘bar hostess’ or a virgin,” that was a question of “individual privacy,” which “has no influence on the determination of the facts of the case.”
The writer of that piece, Didi Kristen Tatlow makes the case that this is a win for legal protection of women in China, quoting a feminist legal scholar called Zhang Rongli: “The court didn’t go along with a quite widespread attitude, and an argument of the defense, that women in this line of business, women who are not virgins, deserve what they get.” And that the ruling sets an important precedence for sex worker rights across the country.
The law is one thing, but prevailing social attitudes is another. A cursory glance at the online chatter surrounding this case would seem to indicate overwhelming sympathy for the woman. One law professor who took to Weibo to say “raping hostesses is less harmful than raping women of good households,” was howled down by netizens for his outmoded logic. One user extended the professor’s line of thinking with the comment: “If you go kill a sick person, is it less harmful? After all, a sick person isn’t normal, and has a greater possibility of dying. The amount of harm is based on the amount of harm suffered by the victim.”
But in reading these comments, one should be wary about the way this story is framed in the imagination of the Chinese public. Li is considered one of the poster boys for China’s “fu er dai” or “second-generation rich.” In a country still in the process of pulling itself up by its bootstraps, those few born into wealth are viewed with both envy and suspicion. While reality is more complicated, for the plebs down below “fu er dai” lives appear to be spent swanning around the top floors of million-dollar ivory towers, with complete disregard for the lives – and laws – of the common people, safe in the knowledge that bribery and their highly-placed connections can act as instant escape hatches from any comeuppance.
That said, tables turn when corrupt moral behaviour goes public. And this isn’t the first time Li has raised the ire of the public. In 2011 he was sentenced to one year detention following a road rage incident in which he assaulted a couple in another vehicle. At the time the shiny, black BMW he was driving sported a fake licence plate. Which means when the story of this gang rape went public it became one of a young university student, making ends meet with whatever questionable work she could find, versus the Chinese Prince of A**holedom leading his Merry Squires, who were drunk on a heady mix of booze and lusty entitlement that only the rich and powerful carry.
Contrast this with another, brutal case of gang rape in New Delhi, India this year in which a 23-year-old physiotherapy student was raped and fatally assaulted by a group of four, drunk men who hailed from the poverty-ridden slums of the city. The story has triggered a public outcry about the status of women in the nation, with protests and online campaigns asking citizens to reflect deeply on what the incident reveals. Li’s story in China has failed to set off a similar period of soul searching, despite the fact that in China rape and violence towards women, too, is a serious issue.
Instead the Chinese public were after the blood of an elite, whose digression happened to be rape, and his indictment will – albeit temporarily – assuage the ever simmering public resentment towards the privileges of the Noble Set. Which is not to say that their sympathy towards a sex worker was insincere. In my own experience writing about Chinese sex workers, attitudes towards this underclass are invariably neutral (“they are simply doing their job”), except if the said worker were to be in their own family or friendship circle. (A kind of spilt between private and public life that can also be found in attitudes towards homosexuality, or failing to safeguard one’s virginity.)
The sad reality is that in China, like in most countries of the world, rape is more likely to happen between partners, than between strangers. The vast majority of these cases in China will go unreported. And according to a recent UN report, Chinese legislation regarding rape does not currently cover marital rape. Perhaps the most telling sign of just how much this story is not being viewed through a feminist lens can be seen in some of the online vitriol directed at Li’s mother, Meng Ge, which ironically include threats of sexual violence.
This means in the court of public opinion, Li’s conviction is a win for common man, but not so much for common women.
Daily Life, October 2013.