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Two women lie on the ground after being assaulted by a group of men outside a restaurant in the northeastern Chinese city of Tangshan, on June 10, in this screen grab taken from surveillance footage.VIDEO OBTAINED BY REUTERS/Reuters

The brutal beating of four women at a restaurant in northern China sparked widespread outrage over the weekend, leading to the swift arrest of nine people and calls for severe punishments.

For many Chinese women, however, the incident has served as a painful reminder of the ever-present danger of gendered violence. And the official reaction to this and similar incidents has often felt dismissive and sexist, reflecting a rise in anti-feminist rhetoric both online and from state media.

“This incident scares me,” said Nichole Gao, a 26-year-old e-commerce worker in Shanghai. “But above all, I can’t help thinking about the scale of misogyny we face in today’s China.”

Late last week, three women were dining at a hotpot restaurant in Tangshan, a city in eastern Hebei province, near Beijing. Surveillance footage shows a man, identified by police as Chen Jizhi, approaching one of the women and leaning in to touch her. When she brushes his hand away, he hits her in the face and pulls her to the floor.

Mr. Chen, joined by several other men, then begins beating the woman and her two friends. One is dragged outside, where another woman attempts to intervene but is knocked to the ground. The men continue to kick and punch the women for several minutes as numerous bystanders watch.

According to police, four women were injured in the incident, two of them hospitalized. By Sunday, nine people had been arrested in connection with the attack, including Mr. Chen.

Discussion of the attack has dominated Chinese media in recent days, with many demanding tough punishments for the men involved. In a commentary published Saturday, the official All-China Women’s Federation (ACWF) said “there can only, and must only, be zero tolerance for such vicious cases of serious violations of women’s rights and interests.”

Initial reports played down the incident, however, with one widely criticized post from the state-run Beijing Youth Daily describing Mr. Chen as “having a conversation” with the women before his friends “joined the battle to fight against them.” Other coverage focused on the fact the men were drunk or that one of the women had declined Mr. Chen’s advances.

Even as outrage grew, much of the reaction from male commentators was “very patronizing,” said Chenchen Zhang, a lecturer in politics and international relations at Queen’s University Belfast. Some men advised women to dress less provocatively or carry pepper spray, while others focused on the need for men to protect “weak females.”

Ms. Gao said she felt this showed a “kind of contempt for women. They keep telling you that you are weak, so please don’t wear a tight dress because you can’t fight the man who hits on you.”

In the past day or so, state media have reframed the attack as part of a wider problem of violent crime in Tangshan. On Sunday, the local government promised to “severely crack down on organized crime and evil activities and improve public order.”

Ms. Zhang said the official reaction was “reflective of the general attitudes of authorities toward gendered violence.”

“There are concerns about violence against women,” she said, but the government does not want to respond “in a way that would encourage feminist mobilization.”

China ranked 107th out of 156 countries in the World Economic Forum’s most recent Global Gender Gap report, which noted that despite improvements in overall economic participation, the number of Chinese women in senior roles remains tiny, as does female participation in politics. As of 2021, only 3.2 per cent of ministers were women, and no woman has ever served on the powerful Politburo Standing Committee.

Intimate partner violence remains a massive issue, experienced by at least 30 per cent of women. According to the ACWF, “every 7.4 seconds a woman is beaten by her husband,” a situation that has almost certainly gotten worse amid pandemic lockdowns.

While the Chinese constitution states that women “enjoy equal rights with men in all spheres of life,” those who attempt to ensure that is the case often face fierce resistance.

In 2015, dozens of feminists were arrested and five charged over demonstrations against sexual harassment on public transport. Since then, many feminist organizations and publications have faced regular harassment, and several have been forced to close, while some prominent activists have moved overseas.

Alexandra Li contributed to this report.

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