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An attack in China raises questions on its government's protection of women's rights


An attack on a group of women at a restaurant in China was caught on video and has gone viral. The incident has touched nerve in a country where many feel women's rights are not always protected and the government has staked its reputation on public safety and security. NPR's John Ruwitch reports.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: The attack happened late at night at a barbecue joint in the city of Tangshan, about 50 miles east of Beijing. A woman rebuffs a man who puts his hand on her back and he slaps her. She then tries to hit him over the head with a beer bottle, and it escalates from there.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Chinese).


RUWITCH: By the end, two women who'd been kicked, punched and hit with a chair were lying on the sidewalk outside. Photos surfaced later of one of them on a hospital gurney with her head wrapped in bloody bandages. A woman who called the police during the incident later posted a commentary online about it.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Through interpreter) This is a warning to all girls. We are not this girl, but this girl could be any of us. Who can protect our safety?

RUWITCH: That sentiment resonates. Activists complain that women's rights are not fully protected by a government that forcibly suppressed a nascent #MeToo movement a few years ago. And others, like Brian Li, who calls himself a concerned citizen and has been watching the news, thinks the incident just shows that sexism and patriarchal views remain widespread.

BRIAN LI: (Through interpreter) I feel like I've seen a lot of this, so I'm not particularly surprised. It looks like what many men would do in some less cultured areas.

RUWITCH: For the government, there's a credibility issue. It's poured money into domestic security over the years. The budget has even exceeded official defense spending at times. Of course, domestic security doesn't only mean public safety. It includes extensive measures to protect the Communist Party's grip on power and suppress dissent. Official crime rates are relatively low. And Michelle Miao, who researches law and society at the University of Hong Kong, says expectations are high.

MICHELLE MIAO: You do see the public expectation on this. I think if you dig deeper, you might find other areas where the public actually wants the government to do more.

RUWITCH: When the Tangshan attack started to blow up online, the authorities sprung into action. Police quickly arrested nine men they say are linked to the attack. Tangshan's mayor called for strict punishment, and the city launched a crime fighting campaign to run through the summer.

MIAO: Now we can see a kind of era where the government policy or government activity is driven by the media because the media actually reflect the most concerned or the most debated and most controversial issues in society.

RUWITCH: This attack was caught on camera and went viral, and because of it, the Communist Party will make sure that justice of a sort is done. Whether that makes women here feel more secure is a different question. John Ruwitch, NPR News, Shenzhen, China. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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John Ruwitch
John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.