The alleged sexual assault of a teenager by a prominent lawyer and oil executive in China has sparked calls for the government to do more to address the sexual abuse of children and women, including raising the age of consent from 14.
Bao Yuming has been accused of repeatedly sexually assaulting a teenage girl, now 18 and given the pseudonym Xingxing, in 2016.
Bao was fired as the vice-president of a Chinese oil company and resigned from his role advising the tech giant ZTE after the allegations and an interview with the victim were published in Chinese media this week.
Xingxing said the abuse began shortly after she turned 14, the legal age of consent in China.
“If the law sets the age of consent at 14, it tacitly grants sexual autonomy to minors over 14 and implies that they can freely decide to engage in sexual activity,” Zhu Guangxing, an assistant professor of criminal law at China University of Political Science and Law, wrote in Sixth Tone.
“In too many cases, however, this only creates an opportunity for offenders to prey upon young, sexually ignorant minors, knowing they can later claim it was consensual to sidestep any legal repercussions.”
A Weibo account run by the Chinese #MeToo activist Zhou Xiaoxuan and her friends published a statement on Wednesday saying minors were much more easily abused in a system that ascribed the power of consent at such a young age, when “they have very few ways to protect themselves in the first place”.
“Most of the time they don’t know how to retain the evidence and must report the case in the first place,” it said. “Secondly, girls who are underage, they do not understand the definition of sexual assault itself.
According to the New York Times, Bao has acknowledged a “close relationship” with Xingxing, but he has denied any wrongdoing and accused Xingxing of fabricating her story.
According to Chinese media, Xingxing reported the allegations to police in April 2019, but the investigation was closed before the month was out.
Last week Yantai police said they had reopened their investigation into the allegations against Bao in October.
Chinese media have also reported that Xingxing was informally adopted by Bao from Xingxing’s mother.
Bao’s “illegal adoption” was an unavoidable issue, said Zhou in her statement.
Xingxing allegedly first raised the alarm more than a year after Chinese courts formalised guidelines on dealing with the abuse of minors by guardians.
Zhou’s statement said that on their reading of the guidelines, Xingxing’s parents did not completely abandon her, “but they did not pay attention to her at all”. It accused them of avoiding their obligations.
Xingxing’s account said she provided forensic and video evidence to police. She also alleged that a police officer put his hand on her neck to recreate one of her allegations against Bao during questioning, and that officers allowed Bao to be in the same room as her.
Her story prompted countless women and girls to share stories of their own abuse and the failure of authorities to respond appropriately, and to question the lack of sex education for young people in the country.
“Do you know why sexual assault of minors occurs again and again? They [alleged abusers] are exposed time and again but vanish each time … without severe punishment,” said a high-profile Chinese actor, Zhang Ziyi, on Weibo.
Amnesty International said it was aware of Xingxing’s case, and called for the Chinese government to work with civil society groups to combat abuse, instead of shutting them out of the spaces where they operate.
“This only hinders the progress of reducing sexual harassment in the country. The government should work with anti-harassment activists instead of silencing them,” said the researcher Doriane Lau.
“In general, we have seen the government taking steps to tackle the prevalence of sexual harassment in China, such as including sexual harassment protections in the amended Civil Code,” Lau said.
“However, civil society groups and actors doing anti-sexual harassment activism continued to face severe persecution from the authorities.”
In its 2019 country report, Human Rights Watch said the Chinese government “remains hostile to women’s rights activism”.