As MeToo unnerves China, a student fights to tell her story
The sight of five burly guards blocking her way out of her dorm filled Ren Liping with rage.
It was 03:00 on a recent Saturday (August 4) and the thin, bespectacled 26-year-old Chinese graduate student was exhausted. Her mind raced back to earlier in the day when she had tried once again to publicly protest her alleged rape. Again, the police had stopped her and held her at a station for hours. Again, she was escorted back to campus.
She pounded on the glass door with her fist, but the men ignored her. "This is illegal!" she shouted, to no response. She felt nauseous. Her face was numb. She picked up a bicycle pump in the corner and smashed it against the glass.
The door shattered.
"Whoever tries to suppress my case will end up like this door," Ren said to the men.
More than a year after she accused an ex-boyfriend of raping her on the China University of Petroleum campus in the coastal city of Qingdao, this had become Ren's life: A series of attempts to protest the university and authorities' mishandling of the case.
At every turn, Ren has been stymied by the school's guards or the police, who say there's no evidence of a crime. She was even detained in a hotel for six days at one point.
Her efforts highlight at once the challenges of reporting sexual assault in China and the determination of a new generation of Chinese women pushing the country into its own #MeToo moment despite attempts to silence them.
The movement has gathered considerable steam in China, with dozens of men, including prominent media personalities, non-profit advocates and even a top monk, publicly accused of sexual assault or sexual misconduct in recent months.
But like any social campaign, #MeToo poses a challenge to Chinese President Xi Jinping's administration, which has waged an unprecedented crackdown on civil society groups and activism that the ruling Communist Party deems as threats to its rule.
Ren accuses Liang Shengyu, her ex-boyfriend, of raping her on campus last summer. Liang denies the allegation. They are suing each other for defamation.
In what legal experts say is unprecedented, Ren is also suing the police – for what she's described as a mishandling of the investigation and the use of force against her.
"She is a representative for the #MeToo movement," said Lyu Xiaoquan, a Beijing lawyer who helped Ren prepare her initial complaints.
Stunned and terrified
Ren and Liang met in 2013 when they were undergraduates at the university's geosciences department. Liang says he was attracted to Ren's strength and independence. They dated for two years, experiencing for the first time the freedom of a romance far from their parents' scrutiny.
After a bitter breakup, Liang and Ren rarely spoke. But last summer they got back in touch, and on the evening of July 28, 2017, agreed to walk back to their dorms together after Liang completed an assignment in the lab.
Their accounts of the rest of the night diverge.
Ren said Liang asked her if they could get back together, but that she said no because she liked someone else. Liang then cornered her in a bicycle parking lot, she said, pinned her against a concrete wall and put his hand inside her denim shorts.
Stunned and terrified, Ren tried to choke him but wasn't strong enough.
"You're dirty," she told him.
"You've been with me before," he said, according to Ren. "You didn't think I was dirty then," she alleges he said.
Ren said Liang ignored her protests, pulled down her shorts and raped her. She was sobbing in pain, she said.
"Do you want to destroy me?" she cried at the time.
That's when he stopped, picked his cap up off the ground, and walked away, Ren said.
According to Liang, however, Ren had been pestering him for weeks because she thought he had a new girlfriend.
Liang said Ren tried to convince him to break up with this woman and that all they did that night was argue.
"We did not have any physical contact whatsoever that night," he said. "And there was no so-called rape or sexual assault or behavior of that kind."
At first, Ren did not plan on reporting her alleged rape.
"I didn't know what people would think of me," she said.
Abuses of power
When it continued to haunt her five days later, she told the school, but administrators encouraged her to keep quiet. Then she went to the local police station, where a female officer told her to drop her claim, saying that not all sexual experiences are pleasurable, according to Ren.
Frustrated, Ren filed lawsuits against the police and started holding protests.
But the authorities' resolve to silence her only grew with her efforts. In June, after she shouted in the middle of a campus square about being raped, Ren said security detained her inside a hotel room in Qingdao for six days while the city hosted a major summit.
Her parents were also ordered to stay in the hotel with her. Her mother, a wheat farmer from rural Henan, said university officials dangled vague job offers and study abroad opportunities to get Ren to drop her case. Their promises to investigate Liang's conduct never materialised, according to her mother, who requested that she only be identified by her surname, Zhang.
"Everyone lied to us," Zhang said. "It's because our family has no money or power – if we did, things wouldn't have reached this stage."
School officials declined repeated requests to comment. Police in a district in Qingdao that oversees the campus said investigators examined the case closely, interviewing Ren and Liang, their family members, teachers and classmates, and concluded that no crime had taken place. In a statement faxed to The Associated Press, the district police bureau said investigators asked Ren about the alleged rape multiple times but found inconsistencies in her description of the circumstances.
In July, Ren took a four-hour train ride to Beijing, joining the legions of petitioners who flock to the capital to seek help from the central government for what they believe are abuses of power by local officials that lead to personal losses such as home seizures or being laid off.
Ren submitted her documents to three petition offices. A security officer at one of the places remarked that she seemed too young to be among the more than 1 000 petitioners who come to the office every day. Two months later they would return to repeat the same cycle: line up, submit papers, wait, he said.
"Just like that, I was hit with a splash of cold water," Ren wrote on her online blog that night. "Hope has pretty much been extinguished."
The authorities have continued to monitor Ren's movements, she said, more than a year after she first went to the police. On a recent trip to a neighbouring city, one man whom she says was trailing her dragged her into a black car when she tried to depart for a third city where she planned to meet with a lawyer.
But Ren remains determined to hold the police, the university and Liang to account.
On the eve of the August 3 protest that would end up being thwarted, Ren posted somber photos of herself wearing a black sun hat and sunglasses, holding up a sign with "#METOO#" scrawled on it.
Ren correctly predicted she would face punishment for her actions. Quoting a Chinese proverb, she declared: "I'd rather be a shattered jade than an unbroken piece of pottery."
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