A Chinese graduate student has become a social media sensation in China after attempting to sue police for dismissing her rape report, giving the country’s fledgling #MeToo movement a new cause.
Renee Ren, 26, said her legal action was inspired by “photos of women’s marches around the world”.
“I thought, those women are so brave,” she told AFP.
In what is thought to be the first case of its kind by a rape victim, Ren has sued police over their “inaction” after she reported her assault.
The court that initially accepted her case dismissed it on a technicality last week, saying that as a member of the public she was not entitled to bring a criminal prosecution.
But the fact she was able to file at all was a significant victory in a country where citizens have few avenues to challenge authorities.
Ren filed an appeal on Friday, countering that her action should be considered a civil suit not a criminal one.
She says she is not seeking compensation, but wants the court to discipline officials at the Changjiang police station for the humiliation she suffered after reporting her assault.
At the time, a female officer admonished her, saying “not every sexual experience is good”, Ren says.
It is “common” for authorities not to pursue rape cases, said Lu Xiaoquan, a prominent lawyer who has provided pro-bono advice to Ren.
“It is mainly difficult to collect evidence,” he said. “There must be physical evidence, and the difficulty of determining whether (the sex act) violated the wishes of the infringed is relatively high.”
‘Scared, shamed and hopeless’
Ren said in her lawsuit she was raped in a university dormitory garage last July by someone she knew.
“I struggled and screamed…. I was scared, shamed, and hopeless,” she told AFP.
Officers took photographs of her injuries but did not obtain surveillance video or make contact with her alleged attacker, Ren said.
With police refusing to investigate her case, she gave up — until the #MeToo movement ignited in China earlier this year.
It was this public outpouring that prompted Ren to file her lawsuit — despite pressure from university administrators to drop the case.
“They called my parents and said to them I might not graduate or find a job,” Ren said.
Neither the university nor the police responded to questions from AFP.
Ren’s blog posts on the popular Weibo platform have been viewed over 20 million times, with comments supportive of a new public face for a movement that has largely been concentrated in university campuses in China.
Unlike in the West, where #MeToo has forced resignations and sparked widespread public debate, authorities in China have sought to control the discussion, sometimes allowing and at other times censoring social media commentary.
There is no legal definition of sexual harassment in China and no national regulations on how to handle sexual assault cases in schools and workplaces.
In a 2017 survey of over 6,500 Chinese students, conducted by the Guangzhou Gender and Sexuality Education Centre, 70 percent reported having been sexually harassed and over 40 percent said the cases took place in public areas on campus.
Only four percent of women and even fewer men reported campus sexual abuse cases to police, according to a 2015 Sina.com survey.
“The combination of a ‘blame the victim’ mentality, the lack of institutional or legal recourse, and an imbalanced and gendered power structure without appropriate constraints, discourage reporting such cases,” said 2018 research from the China Policy Institute.
China’s criminal law says the police should accept complaints that are within their “jurisdiction”, but the wording leaves room for officers not to pursue cases for legitimate reasons — such as lack of evidence.
Suing the government
The number of Chinese citizens suing government bodies has crept up since reforms in 2015 obliged courts to hear all cases that fulfill certain basic standards.
Occasionally, they are successful. But, says Margaret Lewis, a specialist in Chinese law at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, this one might not be.
“The chances are slim that this case will result in the courts finding against the police, especially because the police are such a powerful entity,” she said.
“But the significance of this case should not be judged by whether there is a formal court verdict in the student’s favour. A court case combined with pressure through news reports and social media can shine a spotlight on wrongs and, sometimes, prompt government action.”