BEIJING -- A 19-year-old woman in Shangli, a small county in southeastern China's Jiangxi province, died on Jan. 2 after being gang raped by five men. While the suspects were quickly apprehended and later confessed to the crime, the purported cause of death has unleashed a storm of debate online: According to the local police department, the woman died of alcohol intoxication.
Though the investigation is ongoing, the initial police statement circulated widely online the morning of Jan. 8, with many Web users casting doubt on the police department's claim.
"She was living just fine and then died right after being raped. Coincidence?" asked one user on Sina Weibo, China's most popular Twitter-like microblog. "Could she have really just died from alcohol?"
The incident has underscored a continuing debate over sexual assault in China, where rape goes widely underreported, and money and connections are often used to escape legal penalties for sexual crimes.
One seeming exception proved the unfortunate rule: In late December, human rights lawyers celebrated when Li Tianyi, the 17-year-old son of a famous Chinese military general, was sentenced to 10 years in prison after being convicted of gang raping a woman in Beijing. Though three of Li's accomplices confessed in exchange for reduced sentences, Li maintained his innocence throughout the trial, with his lawyers repeatedly bringing up the fact that the victim was a "bar girl," a Chinese term for a woman employed by bars or nightclubs to consort with male patrons.
At the time, well-known law professor Yi Yanyou of Tsinghua University, one of China's most renowned universities, caused an uproar on Sina Weibo when he implied that the victim's status as a woman of the night made Li's crime less pernicious, writing, "Raping a chaste woman is more harmful than raping a bar girl, a dancing girl, an escort or a prostitute." Professor Yi later apologized for his remarks, but he retains his position at Tsinghua University, where he is director of the school's research center on evidence law.
In 2011, an incident in southern Guizhou province garnered further attention to the debate over rape and attitudes towards women. After a teacher in Ashi village levied accusations of rape against the local land-bureau chief, the police commander reportedly told her, "If he wears a condom, it isn't considered rape." Only two months later, after the victim wrote a poignant appeal for help and a Chinese newpaper picked it up, did the local police take action and arrest the culprit.
In a country of roughly 1.4 billion, fewer than 32,000 cases of rape were reported in China in 2007, the latest year for which such statistics were released. The actual figure likely considerably higher: In a September 2013 report jointly conducted by four UN organizations and programs, 22.2 percent of 998 Chinese male respondents said that they had raped a woman, including a partner, while 2.2 percent admitted to having taken part in gang rape.
Adam Century writes for Foreign Policy magazine.