On the Tangshan assault

June 15, 2022 09:50
Photo: Reuters

The recent assault on two women by a mob of men in Tangshan, sent ripples across the Chinese netisphere. Not only were many deeply repulsed by the wanton and cantankerous violence towards the women, there were also fundamental concerns raised over the state of women’s rights in the country at large. The incident was portrayed by some in the media sphere as an ‘altercation’ – itself an indictment of the fundamental negligence and damning nonchalance of many in relation to the egregious injustices and pain inflicted upon women. The Tangshan assault, in my view, is but the tip of an iceberg: it is a capsule that encapsulates – but by no means tells a comprehensive and robust story of – the patriarchal hegemony that persists throughout the country.

In many ways, the actions of this mob could be compared with those undertaken by ‘incels’ – “Involuntary Celibates”, e.g. men who somehow believe that they are entitled to sex and sexual pleasure, and yet have found themselves devoid of partners. It’s no surprise, really: for most of these individuals (who could be found haunting online forums and disseminating truculent claims concerning women and their entitlement to the latter), their personal attributes and characteristics render it deeply implausible that anyone would be interested in pursuing a relationship with them. Unfortunately, we also live in a society where the broad anticipation is that women should get married, should find partners, and should develop relationships as a means of procreating for the next generation – such anachronistic narratives, of course, are amplified by traditionalist culturalist narratives centered around ostensible ‘family values’.

The anticipation that females ought to reciprocate male attention is by no means a nascent phenomenon. Whether it be the ‘male gaze’ that Simone de Beauvoir wrote of (speaking of which, I had the pleasure of paying last week a visit to Les Deus Magots in Paris, where de Beauvoir, amongst others, spent many an evening), or the concept of ‘phallogocentrism’ Derrida coined, or, indeed, the structural misogyny underpinning ‘Pick Up Artistry’ (PUA), the view that men ‘deserve’ women, and that women should only be seen through lenses that treat them as vassals and objects, is a historically entrenched principle that straddles East and West – terrifyingly ubiquitous, yet also despairingly enduring.

Which brings us back to the assault at hand. Some speculate that the violence might have something to do with mob violence and the mafia; others suggest that we should treat this incident as a one-off. Yet neither of these explanations is particularly satisfactory, for they are missing the fundamental question: why are women always the victims, and men almost always the perpetrators when it comes to grossly underprocessed and underinvestigated instances of social violence? Consider the chained mother of eight in Xuzhou, for another damning example of the patriarchy rearing its ugly head at the worst of places. We live in a society where such violence is routinely cast aside as ‘exceptions’ – and in so doing, we fail to pay heed to and take seriously the structural embedment of such transgressions. That, to me, is a fundamental error that demands urgent rectification.

With hope, the Tangshan Assault should trigger a cascade of serious, introspective conversations on female safety in China today. China has come leaps and bounds since 1949 – both under Mao’s era (where women were touted as revolutionaries to stand on equal footing with their male counterparts), and Deng’s reformist regime (where women were granted substantially more economic freedoms through rational, pragmatic market-based reforms that rewarded competence and skills). Yet as some have suggested, the progress for female empowerment in the country may well have hit a snag in recent years. It is high time that the voices of those who cannot speak for themselves (cf. Gayatri Spivak’s theory of the subaltern), be amplified and projected by those who can. For this is the least we can do.

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Assistant Professor, HKU