China has strengthened its legal system in recent decades, but it has done relatively little to challenge traditional gender roles and ideas of rape.
Chairman Mao proclaimed that “women hold up half the sky” and the Party-led state claims to have liberated women. Nonetheless women still generally face a double standard when it comes to rape.
Statistics for rape cases are hard to quantify worldwide, and China is no exception. The U.S. Department of State reported 31,833 rapes in China in 2007, though the Chinese government has not released official statistics for that year. In 2005, the last year for which official Chinese statistics are available, the official number was merely 15,000.
“Only one out of ten cases happened is likely to be reported,” said Luo Tsun-yin, a social psychologist at Shih Hsin University in Taiwan, and some estimate that the ratio is even greater. Even if a case is reported, the woman may be pressured by the authorities, her family or the attacker himself to recant.
The majority of these crimes are committed by someone the victim knows. “In the idea of the ‘rape myth,’ the victim and rapist are said to be strangers, but what we saw from real-life cases were mostly acquaintances,” said Zhang Qi, whose graduate research at the Chinese Academy of the Social Sciences centered on media reports of rape. Her MA thesis looked at hundreds of Chinese legal newspaper reports of rape cases in 2004, finding the following data, below.*
Traditional Chinese culture often holds that the woman bears responsibility for an act of rape. This can be seen in many areas of the world which share China’s cultural tradition.
“We don’t see a lot of research in this field in mainland China,” Luo said. “In this aspect, we need to compare all the research from different regions, including mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and even Singapore, which are all Chinese communities… Although we have different political and economic systems, the cultural views are similar.”
While the topic is troubling worldwide, it is particularly taboo within Chinese culture. An old saying notes that “to die of hunger is a small matter, but to lose your chastity is a huge matter,” and still resonates in contemporary culture. Traditional gender stereotypes see males as possessing a sexual drive that the desire-free women must resist. In this view, if a woman is raped, she must have brought it upon herself.
“A woman may be viewed that she should be responsible for being raped because she aspired to date or go to a man’s premises; or that she took the risk of being raped as she went out alone late at night or drank alcohol; or that she enticed others to rape her with her behavior or dressing,” said Linda Wong, Executive Director of the Association Concerning Sexual Violence Against Women in Hong Kong.
The perception that a raped woman is dirty or ruined further compounds the stigma, even within a woman’s own family. Luo studied one case in which after a girl was raped, “her family wouldn’t put her clothes together into the washing machine when they washed the clothes. They divided them from the other family members, because they thought she was dirty.”
Wong believes that these attitudes point to a larger inequality in Chinese culture. “Violence against women is rooted in patriarchal gender relations where women are assigned roles based not on their capacity but norms and values that perpetuate male dominance and superiority,” she said. “The gender inequality is embedded in all levels of the society such as employment, education and social status.”
The lack of well-rounded sex education doesn’t help matters. On the Chinese mainland as well as on Taiwan, sex education is largely cursory and focused on the biological aspects as opposed to the social. “Taiwan does not have much sex education,” Luo said. “So students turn to pornographic material. They implant a lot of wrong information in them, such as ‘no means yes’ and ‘all girls want sex.'”
The laws pertaining to rape, while not blind to the crime, largely follow cultural perceptions. For example, the definition of “rape” is quite narrow. “Only women can be victims in China—males cannot be counted as victims,” Zhang said.
These laws haven’t seen change in a decade or so. “The Criminal Law in China was issued in 1979, and revised in 1997… to combine the crime of fornication with an underage girl into the crime of rape,” Zhang said. “Some judicial interpretations took place during 2003 and 2004. No news was heard from modification of laws since then.” Sentences for rape range from three years in prison to a death sentence, though there are loopholes to the latter.
“The punishment can be a death penalty with a two-year reprieve and forced labor, which in Chinese law means a sentence can be adjusted depending on the performance of the criminal during the two-year period,” Zhang said. “In recent years, there has been a decline in the use of the death penalty, so rapists are mostly given a death penalty with a two-year reprieve and forced labor.”
But there is evidence that things are changing. Several domestic and international groups, including government-sponsored ones such as the All-China Women’s Federation, are pushing for societal and legal change.
“There have been a number of government initiatives, and there is a very strong movement from the [All-China] Women’s Federation to try and press for more resources for women who are the victims of sexual assault or rape,” said Sara Davis, the executive director of AsiaCatalyst, a nonprofit organization that assists NGO startups in Asia.
There are several centers where women can receive emergency care and support as well. Many major cities have crisis hotlines, and crisis centers provide counseling and resources to assist victims. Other organizations, including the Federation mentioned above, seek to address a variety of women’s issues in China.
The outrage surrounding high-profile cases may also lead to growing awareness of the issue. Early last April, a case involving five “girl hunters,” men who waited outside schools for potential victims, went to trial and awaits a verdict. Four government officials, a school teacher, and a taxi driver were charged with raping several young girls and forcing them into prostitution gangs. Last year, riots protested a cover-up by Guizhou police when they declared a girl’s death a suicide when in fact she had been raped and murdered.
But despite the legal changes and the growing number of resources available to victims, many agree that social change is most needed.
“The progress in culture and society may not have caught up with the progress in legislation,” Luo said.
Wong agreed. “The support services such as psychological counseling, medical, health and legal services are indeed necessary, but these address practical rather than strategic gender needs. They will not put women in greater control of themselves in their own context. They will not change attitudes, behaviors and power structures,” she said.
But all remain hopeful for the future.
“We’re seeing a lot of changes in China right now, in terms of growing awareness of human rights and rule of law… it’s true that it’s a very patriarchal society and that women’s rights are not taken very seriously, but that can also change pretty quickly,” Davis said. “Cultures are very powerful but they are not immutable. Cultures change all the time.”
Paxcely Marquez is an undergraduate at California State University, Long Beach.
Xiangzhen Lu and Xuelu Qin contributed to this article.
*Further information on Zhang Qi’s research on this subject, including that found in the charts, can be found in Zhang Qi, (2007).”Content Analysis on Rape Crime News in Chinese Legal Newspapers”,Wang Jinling eds. Report on Women Development in China:Women and Media, no.2(2007),Beijing:Social Sciences Academic Press,pp.103-150