The video shows an enraged man repeatedly hitting a woman in an apartment elevator.
Filmed in the northern Chinese city of Langfang, the security camera footage went viral last Friday. In the video, the woman fights back, eventually pushing the man out of the elevator as her child cowers behind a bicycle.
The reason for his behavior? The woman said she requested that he stop smoking in the elevator.
According to Chinese media, the man is still at large.
The video attracted a deluge of Chinese news and social media commentary, with netizens and bloggers condemning the violence depicted and bemoaning the state of gender equality in China.
That may seem surprising given China’s history as a country that aspired to treat women with equality. After the Communist Party took power in 1949, China’s citizens were called upon to dedicate themselves wholeheartedly to the revolution, regardless of age or gender. Women toiled alongside men in agricultural communes and government-appointed work units. Mao Zedong’s famous declaration that “women hold up half the sky” became a rallying cry for gender equality for decades.
But as the elevator video demonstrates, women face many pressing issues in China, in terms of violence and in the workplace as well.
Violence against women is a continuing problem
According to a recent survey of married couples by the All China Women’s Federation, China’s state-run gender organization, 1 in 4 Chinese women experiences domestic violence. That means around 160 million women have suffered domestic abuse at some point in their marriage. Yet the organization says it only receives an average of 40,000 to 50,000 complaints a year.
A 2013 U.N. survey of 1,000 women found that 1 in 7 reported she had been the victim of attempted rape. Sexual assault on college campuses has also become a more visible issue within China over the last few years, largely owing to the efforts of student activists.
In September, Beijing Normal University opened up investigations after a student-written report found that a vice director at the school had sexually harassed a female student. Since the investigation began, five women have stepped forward with claims that they were sexually assaulted by the director as long as 10 years ago.
Workplace discrimination is an issue as well
The percentage of women participating in the labor force has steadily dropped in China during the post-reform years, from a high of 72 percent in 1990 to 64 percent in 2010. Strong social attitudes about what kind of work is “suitable” for men and women still prevail as does the perception that women will be less productive than men because they can take maternity leave if they have children.
In a well-documented 2014 case, a woman who had applied for a job with a postal delivery service was told that only men could fill the position because the work required heavy manual labor. She subsequently sued, a rare occurrence in China; the court ruled in her favor.
A 2010 national survey conducted by the All China Women’s Federation and China’s National Statistics Bureau found that 72 percent “had a clear perception of not being hired or promoted because of gender.”
Women may also face workplace discrimination because companies do not want to provide maternity leave. “In reality, some companies will make a pregnant female employee feel like she ‘cannot stay’ through a variety of methods. Other companies, for the purpose of lowering the maternity costs of their female employees, do not want to hire females, constituting an ‘invisible threshold,’ ” Meng Xiaosi, the vice chairwoman of the All China Women’s Federation, told The People’s Daily.
Meanwhile, women who pursue a career can find themselves socially vilified. They’re known as “leftover women” — defined as any unmarried woman above the age of 27. The state media casts them as too successful and well-educated to be considered attractive mates and too picky to settle. For China’s 20-somethings, the familial pressure to marry is such that companies have begun offering “boyfriend rentals” for those desperate to escape the barrage of marital queries during holiday time.
Protection is hard to come by
While China does have laws to protect women from gender violence and discrimination, implementation has been patchy or riddled with loopholes.
China earned plaudits last year for passing its first-ever domestic violence law, which explicitly grants legal protections for those suffering from physical and psychological domestic abuse. Yet experts point out that the law made no mention of sexual violence.
Moreover, the process for reporting cases of sexual assault and discrimination is sluggish and sometimes nonexistent. Women also face strong stigma against publicly talking about and reporting cases of domestic violence.
Workplace cases are hard to pursue. “Because of inadequacy in the language [of the laws], the legal system is not equipped to handle gender discrimination cases,” said Baozhen Luo, an associate professor of sociology at Western Washington University who studies the effects of China’s family planning policies.
For example, China’s Law on the Protection of Women’s Rights and Interests prohibits gender-based employment discrimination, “with exception of the special types of work or post unsuitable to women,” a clause that enables many companies take advantage of the behind-closed-doors hiring process to favor men over women.
They turn to the Internet for help
Unable to get the legal recourse and protection they need, many Chinese women turn to the Internet to raise awareness.
The woman who was assaulted in the elevator last week received an outpouring of support online and was applauded for defending herself and her child by striking back at her attacker. While the male culprit is still at large, the police are under pressure to find him after the video. Articles on the incident were shared hundreds of thousands of times on social media.
And Internet exposure has proven to deliver results even when government officials have dragged their feet.
In April, a woman was violently attacked and dragged out of her Beijing hotel room while multiple bystanders looked on. When the woman was told investigators were not immediately available to pursue her case, she uploaded the surveillance camera footage of the attack onto Weibo, a popular Chinese social media platform. Footage of the attack quickly went viral, causing the hotel to apologize. The perpetrator was caught several days later, nearly 350 miles away.