The Case of Bao Yuming and Beyond: Sexual Abuse, Law, and Censorship in China
“Rape is a crime committed by the whole society.”
This thought-provoking quote is an excerpt from Fang Si-Qi's First Love Paradise (房思琪的初戀樂園), a novel that tells the story of a girl being sexually abused by her tutor. The author of the book, Lin Yi-han, is a Taiwanese writer who committed suicide after years of battling post-traumatic stress disorder and depression - a result of suffering from the same ordeal as her protagonist. After her premature death in 2017, Lin’s story went viral on Weibo, the largest Chinese social media platform with over 500 million registered users, sparking Chinese people's awareness of sexual misconduct. For a short period, there was an outpouring of hundreds of thousands of posts detailing sexual assaults that had occurred in mainland China, akin to the #metoo movement in western countries. However, this window of free expression did not last long. As with other sensitive topics, hashtags related to sexual assaults are invariably erased by the administrators of social media platforms, stunting the progress of a concerted #metoo movement in China. Such posts are removed because they often pertain to people high up the “food chain” who have the power and fortune to cover up their scandals in a male-dominated society. Moreover, the Chinese government’s rule depends on social harmony and stability; the widespread exposing of Chinese magnates for sex crimes threatens to disrupt that.
Chinese netizens brought creativity to the #metoo movement before the hashtag was removed by censors
Power dynamics and hierarchy continue to encumber the feminist movement in China. These particular barriers to progress have perhaps been most evident in discussions of the now infamous case of Bao Yuming. The Economist’s China-dedicated ‘Chaguan’ column alluded to this case in an exposé concerning the age of consent in China, but excluded some key details (and names). On this occasion - only a matter of weeks ago - the silenced hashtag was “#SisIsComing (姐姐来了)”. This hashtag pooled together well-wishes and gratitude from victims of sexual assault and the general public alike towards Bao’s adopted daughter, 18-year-old Li Xingxing, who accused her stepfather, a Non-Executive Director of telecom giant ZTE and Vice President of oil company Jereh Group, of raping her since she was 14. Xingxing’s mother told the media that Bao approached her claiming to want a family with her, ended up raping his adopted daughter, and forbid her from seeing Xingxing after the abuse had begun. In order to expose her stepfather, Xingxing secretly recorded photos and videos of Bao at home, watching underrage pornography and committing sadistic acts towards her. She also provided evidence to the police of Bao’s browsing history, showing that he was frequently contacting QQ (a social media platform owned by China’s Facebook equivalent Tencent) accounts which trade young girls for adoption.
Although Bao has subsequently resigned from ZTE and his contract with Jereh Group has been terminated, he maintains that he and Xingxing are in a “romantic relationship”, saying he “will marry her when she grows up”, and castigated Xingxing for “biting the hands that feeds her”. Bao was heavily criticized on social media in China but was not investigated following the allegations made to the police by his daughter-in-law. In a distressing recent recording leaked from a call from Nanjing (the city Xingxing eventually fled to) police to Yantai police (Xingxing’s local police service that ignored her initial cries for help), the Yantai police refused to provide any details of the Xingxing’s case, asserting that the case was closed and Xingxing had been informed of the lack of evidence behind her claims. The most chilling moment of the call footage was when a Yantai police officer admitted telling Xingxing: “stop saying you were raped.”
As a man who is qualified to practice law in both the USA and China, Bao maintains “the law will reveal the truth”. Bao is a man of prestige, vast resources, and a network of connections within law enforcement. The victim, whose voice has little power in comparison, has entered an arena in China which is grounded in historical female subordination to male authority. Bao’s declaration of his relationship with Xingxing makes this case more complicated, as in China having sex with a woman who is over 14 years old with her alleged consent is not recognized as rape by law. Defenders of Bao have even claimed that the whole story is an attempt by Xingxing to blackmail her father-in-law for money. In spite of these stigmatizations faced by Xingxing, an army netizens in China has been calling for Bao to be investigated and brought to trial. There have also been appeals to anyone who has access to the state bar of California, where Bao passed his bar exam, to file an attorney misconduct complaint, as well as to sign a petition to disbar Bao. The Chinese justice system may have initially failed Xingxing, but her voice and the many voices of impassioned Chinese women’s rights activists will - hopefully - now be heard further afield.
These voices, however, are battling against a catalogue of recent, similar accusations against men of high-standing that have been brushed aside. Liu Qiangdong, the CEO of e-commerce behemoth JD.com, has been at the center of a rape allegation reported by a 21-year-old Chinese undergraduate student at Minnesota University for two years and yet still retains the control of his company. A discussion on Chinese social media over Liu’s tenability as CEO whilst under investigation had no sooner gone viral than the related hashtag was removed and blocked at the request of JD’s public relations team. Last year, Chinese property tycoon Wang Zhenhua, was actually charged with child sexual abuse in Shanghai. The case hasn’t been called to trial yet but Wang Zhenhua’s son, Wang Xiaosong, has already taken the place of the former chairman of Zhenhua’s firm Future Land Development. These are just a couple in a series of high profile examples that demonstrate how people of wealth and power can maintain their influence after being accused of committing sex crimes and how the Chinese censorship system shelters them from exposure to public criticism.
Liu Qiandong and his wife Zhang Zetian
Such privilege is not restricted to those who hold the power, but their next of kin too. Bao Li, a Peking University (one of China's top two schools) student who suffered from psychological abuse from her boyfriend, was confirmed dead on April 11. Her boyfriend, Mou Linhan, is believed to be a “Pick-up Artist” (PUA)”. In China, PUAs often have the twisted sexual goal of coercing their ”possesions” into committing suicide as a sign of affection. According to their chat history, Mou asked Bao Li to get pregnant and then abort the baby to show her love. Mou's degradation of her character eventually took its toll on Bao Li and she was sent into the intensive care unit soon after attempting to kill herself. The last message she sent Mou was: “You’re dazzling whereas I am just a piece of trash.” Bao Li’s mother filed a report to the Beijing police in October after her daughter overdosed on pills used to treat motion sickness, however, Mou wasn’t investigated at all and has continued his study at Peking. His father is the president of the Shandong Branch of the Export-Import Bank of China, which reports to the National State Council.
These messages show Mou Linhan demanding nude pictures from girlfriend Bao Li. Messages on the right translate as: "Remember, all of you is mine. You are not allowed to say no to me."
Uncertainty remains over the prosecution of sex crimes in China, to what extent Chinese law can protect women, and whether public opinion can force changes to legislation. The nonfeasance of police and an incomplete law system make the roar of the crowd seem sterile in many cases. Furthermore, social media is manipulated by the state as a key component of the authoritarian regime, exacerbating the dire situation for women haunted by sexual abuse. The silver lining now is the growing desire of women to be heard. The central government has finally caved under the weight of public outcry and decided to investigate the police’s handling of Bao Yuming’s case. Guo Jianmei, a Nobel Peace Prize-nominated female Chinese public attorney, has taken on the case and is now trying her best to bring Bao to justice. She has served 120,000 women in more than 4,000 cases for over 24 years and powerfully stated: “there are 140,000 lawyers in China, which means there’s only one lawyer for an average of 10,000 people. Yet 90% of lawyers exclusively serve the 10% population.”
Whether the courage and effort displayed by Guo and other like-minded women striving for change will pay off depends on whether legislation and social attitudes towards women’s rights in China can catch up with its rapid progression in other sectors. Rape is a crime committed by the whole society, and it is up to governing forces and citizens alike to eradicate the widespread misogyny that isn't befitting of a world leader.