BEIJING » One morning in May, government officials assembled the 700 students of Ashi township’s middle school, in the southeastern Chinese province of Guizhou, for a lesson on the importance of abiding by the law. Rule No.1, they said, was simple: If you break the law, you will be punished.
But as one teacher tells it, their actions that afternoon taught a different lesson: The rule does not apply to government officials.
A few hours after the speechifying, the teacher later said, the chief of Ashi’s land bureau, who had attended the school session, raped her. When she tried to bring charges the next day, she said, a police commander told her, “If he wore a condom, it isn’t rape.” Other officials pressured her to keep silent and urged her boyfriend to abandon her so she would lose courage, she said.
Only two months later, after the teacher posted an eloquent plea online and a newspaper reported her accusations, did officials take action. Heads have rolled. The accused has been arrested.
The teacher’s case illustrates an axiom of the Chinese justice system: Rape victims face extremely long odds if they accuse officials or others of special social status. Guo Jianmei, the director of the Women’s Legal Consultancy Center in Beijing, said even seemingly airtight cases with physical evidence and sympathetic victims could fail.
“There is still a huge possibility that the rapist would not be put behind bars,” Guo said.
But the case also suggests that victims are no longer quite so alone. “We see more and more victims getting help from the Internet,” she said. “We are really happy to see that public opinion in this country is playing a role in restoring justice.”
Victims get little help elsewhere. Rape crisis centers and hot lines remain extremely rare in China. Beijing, with more than 20 million people, has one sexual assault hot line that supposedly operates four evenings a week. One recent week, the phone went unanswered on two of those nights.
Guo says her center is the only private group in China that offers legal aid specifically to rape victims. But the center is fighting for its life. Because of government pressure, it lost its standing as a nongovernmental group and was forced to relinquish about half of its financing. Further restrictions may be in store.
As in many countries, in China only a small fraction of rape victims ever charge their attackers. In a country of 1.3 billion, fewer than 32,000 sex crimes were reported in 2007, the latest year for which government statistics are available. By contrast, the number of rapes reported in the U.S. that year was more than 12 times as high.
“Let me give you an example,” said Li Ying, the vice director of Guo’s center. “A few years ago there was a case where one man in a village raped more than 100 women. Not one of them spoke up.”
The teacher’s case is a glaring example of how “officials in remote places cover for each other and protect each other,” said Li Yinhe, a sociologist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
In a mineral-rich region of China, Wang Zhonggui, the head of Ashi’s land and resource bureau, was particularly powerful. So when the middle school held a legal-awareness program on May 17, Wang, 28, was among a group of authorities, including the school’s principal, public security officials and Communist Party leaders, who were invited to a postlecture lunch at the local government building.
Teachers ate in the canteen, including the woman who said she was later raped. Her account of what followed has appeared in the local news media and on the Internet. Local government officials did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
According to the teacher, the principal urged her to toast the officials in their dining room, and she felt compelled to comply, toasting each official in turn with a shot of baijiu, China’s fiery, clear liquor. After 14 or 15 shots, she said, she was drunk.
Feeling sick, she accepted a ride home with Wang and the school’s vice principal. But instead, she said, they took her to Wang’s suite. After the school official left, she staggered to the bathroom, threw up and tried to hold the door shut while Wang pounded on it.
Then, she said, Wang climbed through the bathroom window and dragged her to a bedroom adjoining his office. She woke up several hours later, almost naked, in an empty room. On the floor was a used condom, she said.
After agonizing all night, she went with her mother to the police station, where Zhong Xiancong, a police official who had attended the luncheon, heard her report of rape.
“To protect your reputation, you should forget about the whole thing,” she said Zhong told her. “You should tell your boyfriend Wang just hugged you.” He also said there was no need for the police to secure the crime scene, she said.
The police detained Wang three days after the episode, but released him two weeks later, citing a lack of evidence, according to Chinese news media reports.
Meanwhile, the teacher said, a township Communist Party committee member told her boyfriend’s uncle: “Tell her boyfriend not to stay with her. He can get other girls.” Without support, the party representative said, the teacher would not have the courage to press criminal charges.
On July 5, the teacher posted a detailed account of the attack online. “I am appealing from the bottom of my heart: leaders, please punish this criminal; please make these public servants that I’ve mentioned above take responsibility for their actions; please seek justice on my behalf,” she wrote.
A week later, The Qianzhong Morning Post, a local daily newspaper, published her accusations. Wang was quickly arrested.
Zhong, the police official who had turned the teacher away, was removed from his post. So was a public security official from the city that governs Ashi, who had defended Zhong for drinking on duty while at the luncheon, saying the government’s own prohibition against it was illegal. The principal was suspended.
Wang’s trial is expected to take place this month. But local and regional propaganda authorities are still trying to keep the matter quiet.
Late last month, the teacher cut off contact with the news media, saying officials had threatened her safety and that of her family if she continued to speak out.