Tangshan Assault Case: Good Samaritans in China Fear That The Law Is Not on Their Side

The brutal beating of four young women, after one of the women rejected unwelcome advances from a drunken male diner at a hotpot restaurant in Tangshan, Hebei province, continued to spark outrage on Chinese social media. Tangshan police announced that nine perpetrators—some of whom have criminal records—have since been arrested, but online discussions about gender-based violence, as well as gang activity and police corruption, have continued despite intense censorship.

On Tuesday, Hebei’s provincial public security department released an update stating that the four victims suffered minor injuries. The report largely failed to quell public anger or check the spread of online rumors as netizens shared graphic photos of the women in hospital beds and decried the lack of independent reporting by the press. 

In the wake of accusations about the slow pace of the investigation, lack of public information, and possible collusion or foot-dragging by local law enforcement, Hebei’s provincial discipline commission announced that five local officials in Tangshan are being investigated for “seriously violating discipline and law” in their handling of the attack.  

In addition to fury against the abusers and the Tangshan authorities, some internet users also directed their ire at the bystanders who failed to intervene in the attack. Others cautioned against pointing fingers at regular citizens, given the fact that the law is often not on their side.

In a now-deleted essay archived by CDT, prominent author and social critic Li Chengpeng outlined a series of cases in which citizens attempting to be “good Samaritans” were hit with fines or otherwise punished by the law. The following is a chronological summary of some of the cases that corresponded with contemporaneous press reports:

In 2014, Xiaotu (pseudonym), a resident of Shenzhen, witnessed a sexual assault in progress in a public park and intervened by tackling the rapist, resulting in injuries to the attacker. Xiaotu was detained for 14 days, although the case against him was later dropped by prosecutors.

In the same year, Wu Weiqing, a resident of Guangdong province, aided an elderly man who appeared to have been knocked down in the street. The man then claimed that it was Wu who knocked him over, and demanded that Wu pay his hospital fees. Wu later commited suicide as police were set to investigate him, and the elderly man subsequently recanted his accusation. 

In 2015, a young man surnamed Guo, then a student at a martial arts school in Sichuan, witnessed a sexual assault on a bus and intervened. During the physical altercation that followed, Guo kicked the attacker in the head, resulting in an injury to the man’s brain. Guo was sentenced to two and a half years in prison and ordered to pay over 150,000 yuan (approximately $23,000 U.S. dollars) in damages.

In 2018, Zhao Yu, a 21-year-old man living in Fujian, got into physical altercation with a man outside his apartment building after he heard a woman shouting that she was being raped. Zhao injured the attacker and was detained for 14 days on assault charges, but the case against him was later dropped. He eventually received an award of 30,000 yuan (approximately $4,600 U.S. dollars) from the government for his heroism. 

In 2019, a 17-year-old Henan man, surnamed Wang, got into a fight with another man who was molesting a female friend of his, and broke the molester’s nose. Wang was arrested on assault charges and reportedly expelled from school. The result of the case against him is unclear. 

In 2020, a high-school senior surnamed Hu tackled a man who was molesting his female friend in a shopping mall in Hunan, injuring the molester. Hu was detained on assault charges. The case was later dropped.

The same year, Su Lei, a manager at a supermarket in Yunnan, was detained by police after he apprehended and injured an alleged shoplifter. Su later apologized to the man and paid 66,000 yuan in damages (approximately $9,800 U.S. dollars), a condition set by the police for his release. [Chinese]

Better known to the Chinese public is the controversial 2007 case of a man named Peng Yu. Peng, a resident of Nanjing in Jiangsu province, assisted a fallen elderly woman (Xu Shoulan) by taking her to the hospital. Xu later accused Peng of causing her to fall, and demanded compensation. A judge of the Nanjing District Court, arguing that Peng coming to the woman’s assistance constituted “unreasonable” behavior, ruled in Xu’s favor and ordered Peng to pay her partial damages. The case was later settled through mediation. According to public records, as part of the mediation, Peng admitted to having caused the woman to fall.

More contentious than the details of the case was the court’s reasoning. The court judgment stated that under normal circumstances, no reasonable person would take a stranger to the hospital or pay for their medical bills unless that person were somehow responsible for the injury, a statement that shocked the Chinese public

An essay on the WeChat blog 基本常识 (Jiben changshi, Weixin ID: GetCommonSense) also cautioned against blaming bystanders for not intervening:

The real problem is not that no one was willing to step up, but that no one dared to.

In a country as vast as China, it’s likely that the bullying and abuse of women, or fights such as the one in the Tangshan hotpot restaurant, are taking place on a nightly basis, but very few become the focus of public opinion. And in these cases unknown to the public, it stands to reason that there are many bystanders who stepped forward to put a stop to the violence, and may have brought trouble upon themselves or paid the price for it. We know this from years of observation and personal experience living in this society. [Chinese]

A 29-year-old man who claimed to be at the scene when the beating took place recounted his experience in a viral essay published on the WeChat blog 真实故事计划 (zhenshi gushi jihua, Weixin ID: zhenshigushi1). The man admitted to feeling guilty as social media bombarded bystanders for not stepping up to help the victims. However, he stated that after further reflection, he had come to the conclusion that there was little he and other patrons could have done to stop the thugs:

Even as a 29-year-old man in his prime, even assuming that I could summon all the young people at the scene for help, and assuming that they lacked fighting experience, I wouldn’t stand a chance against a group of thugs. Later, I saw many people on the internet accusing us of failing to help or intervene. 

[…] I have to admit that what I could have done was very limited. In the face of extreme violence, anyone would have felt frightened and powerless. [Chinese]

A now-deleted Weibo comment archived by CDT echoed similar sentiments about the potential consequences of intervening as a good Samaritan:

If you were in the Tangshan BBQ restaurant, would you have stepped forward and intervened? The answer is: No. We all have been living in China for so long, let’s not pretend to be [naive] foreign tourists. Stepping forward would have inevitably resulted in a physical altercation with those drunken thugs. As an individual, you wouldn’t stand a chance against a mob of people, much less a mob of violent criminals. You would have ended up in a hospital, or even a morgue. But let’s suppose you’re a great fighter, and that you were somehow able to knock them all out. You would have been arrested by the cops who rushed to the scene, because in their eyes, a brawl is a brawl. You would have ended up paying damages or even going to jail. You may think you’re being a good Samaritan, but in the eyes of the cops, you’re just a troublemaker. [Chinese]

A Beijing-based law firm published an article on the judicial dilemma of how to define the fine line between protecting good Samaritans and indulging vigilantism. The article called for a more liberal interpretation of the “necessity” requirement in determining whether use of violence is justified in a given case. From WeChat blog 北京和昶律师事务所 (Weixin ID: Trusmaticlawfirm):

In order to guard against unrestrained behavior that could lead to the proliferation of vigilantism, which would pose a potential danger to everyone, the law requires that good Samaritans meet the requirement that their intervention was undertaken out of “necessity.” 

In judicial practice, “necessity” is defined very narrowly, and only applies in certain strict circumstances. This leads to situations in which “whoever was killed or injured is in the right” or “whoever makes the biggest fuss is in the right,” thus threatening laypeople’s simple conception of justice.

[…] We urge [the judiciary] to relax the “necessity” requirement in cases of justified defense or self-defense, lest the tragedy of Tangshan be repeated.  [Chinese]

With additional translation by Cindy Carter.

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