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It’s been ten days since a vicious attack on four female diners at a barbecue restaurant in China appalled and angered the country, but an information vacuum around the victims has kept the Chinese internet asking: “What really happened to those women?”
The women were brutally assaulted by nine men in the northern city of Tangshan after one of them objected to being sexually harassed.
The attack – captured on surveillance camera – has sent shock waves across China, sparking outrage from women who have long faced harassment and gender-based violence.
But the ensuing silence from the victims and their families has unsettled many who fear the worst for the women, underscoring the lack of public trust in a governing system that routinely covers up unwelcome news – a propensity that has only been further enabled by a raft of stringent restrictions under the country’s zero-Covid policy.
Many expressed fears for the women after watching the harrowing surveillance footage. The men dragged one woman outdoors by her hair, hit her with bottles and chairs and repeatedly kicked her in the head. A woman who tried to help her was pushed away, landing heavily on the back of her head on the stairs.
Hours after the attack, a photo showed one of the victims lying on a hospital gurney covered in blood, with her head bandaged up. The next day, Tangshan police said two women were hospitalized with “non-life-threatening injuries” and were in “stable condition” – but there has been no update on their situation since.
Throughout last week, rumors that some of the victims were in far worse condition than authorities claimed spread persistently online, despite repeated denials from the police, hospital officials and the local branch of the All-China Women’s Federation, a state-backed women’s group.
Some alleged the surveillance video captured only part of the attack, and the violence continued off camera in a nearby alleyway – claims that CNN cannot independently verify. Another video circulating online shows residents laying down bouquets of flowers in the alleyway.
Speculation went into overdrive on Thursday, when more videos – the authenticity of which cannot be confirmed – emerged online.
On Weibo, China’s Twitter-like platform, the hashtag “Tangshan beaten girls follow-up” had been viewed more than 200 million times by Friday, generating more than 220,000 comments – with many demanding to know what happened to the women.
In a statement Friday, Weibo said it had shut down 320 accounts for “spreading rumors” about the Tangshan attack. A widely circulated article on messaging app WeChat alluding to the rumors was also censored.
The persistent speculation was fueled by a black hole of information surrounding the victims. None of them – or their friends and family – have spoken out since the attack, and no official details have been released regarding their injuries. State media reports have largely focused on the swift police action in arresting the suspects, and the two-week “thunderstorm” campaign announced by Tangshan authorities to crack down on organized crime.
A few media outlets known for their hard-hitting reporting, such as China News Weekly, quoted hospital officials denying any of the women had died, but that failed to convince the public.
“You authorities are denying rumors everyday. Where is your evidence?” a Weibo user asked.
“Why are rumors flying everywhere? Because we can’t find a single sentence of truth anywhere,” said another.
The local police station told CNN the case was still under investigation and refused to share any extra information. The hospital where the women were treated did not respond to CNN’s request for comment. The local branch of the All-China Women’s Federation hung up the phone.
Even state-media journalists have been obstructed from reporting on the aftermath by local authorities, who tightened Tangshan’s Covid travel restrictions following the attack.
Anyone arriving in the city by train is required to provide a detailed address of where they are staying and sign a note promising not to go out; travelers who plan to stay in hotels are required to register 48 hours in advance; those who are allowed to leave the train station are sent to their accommodation on buses arranged by the government, the state-run Jinan Times reported.
A journalist with the government-run Guizhou Radio Television Station said in a video on Weibo that when he arrived at the Tangshan train station on June 11, a day after the attack, he was not allowed to leave the station because he “had not reported to the local residential community beforehand.” This was despite having tested negative for the coronavirus on the same day, being in possession of a “green health code” on his Covid app, and having traveled from a city with no recently reported virus cases.
“Is this really a normal epidemic-prevention measure, or (are the authorities) trying to use Covid as an excuse to stop journalists from entering Tangshan?” he asked in the since-deleted video.
This would not be the first time that local authorities in China have used Covid restrictions for political control. In the city of Zhengzhou, Henan province, authorities have been accused of tampering with the digital health code system to thwart a planned protest.
“Tangshan and Henan are really the most terrifying comparison: for eight days, you don’t know anything about the Tangshan girls, but (Henan authorities) know all your data in a second – where you are, which train ticket you booked, and what you want to do,” Li Chengpeng, a prominent writer and social critic, wrote on social media Saturday.
“What you know is what (authorities) allow you to know, what you don’t know will never be known.”
Like many other posts criticizing the lack of transparency in the government’s handling of the incident, Li’s article has since been censored.
CNN’s Shawn Deng contributed to reporting.