A video of an attack on a woman shook China last week after it started circulating on social media. The footage showed a lone woman walking at night in the northeastern city of Dalian before getting brutally beaten, stripped and then dragged off camera by her hair by an unknown assailant.

The incident sparked an immediate online backlash, with calls to arrest the attacker. Some commenters, though, were ready to churn out demeaning comments about the victim. This is why popular Quora-like platform Zhihu was widely praised for its decision to permanently ban these commenters. The story was even picked up by local media.

However, some believe that Zhihu's move may have more to do with the intricacies of China’s closely monitored cyberspace than concern for rude comments. (Zhihu did not respond to requests for comment.)

The attack in Dalian sparked an online search to identify the location in the video. (Picture: The Paper)

Chinese social media platforms don’t have a great history when it comes to supporting victims of harassment. In 2017, a woman decided to complain online about a neighbor who had been molesting her for years. Her post was followed by a deluge of nasty comments. Instead of deleting them, WeChat deleted the post.

China’s #MeToo moment has also run into censorship, with accounts belonging to women speaking up about abuse vanishing from platforms like Weibo. (Abacus has reached out to Weibo for comment and will update if we receive a reply.)

Even outside these incidents, platforms have hosted plenty of sexists and insulting comments, Zhihu included. As is also the case on many Western online platforms, female users have complained about harassing messages and occasional dick pics. This might be why Zhihu’s decision to kick out some bad actors seemed unusual.

“Most social media platforms do not actively punish people for attacking women with insults on their own initiative,” said Yaya Chen, a women’s rights scholar.

Just like everywhere else in the world, online harassment is not uncommon in China and it’s disproportionately targeted at women. One 2016 poll conducted by women-focused media platform Jianjiao showed that almost 88% of female internet users in China experienced some kind of abuse. And some of that abuse is incredibly serious, including threats of rape and abuse, doxing or sharing intimate pictures.

Anna (not her real name) met her cyber-stalker on Weibo, China's microblogging platform. After some innocent chit-chat, the man’s messages turned sexually explicit and then aggressive. A nine-month-long stalking saga over several platforms eventually prompted her to visit the police. Although they were sympathetic, there wasn't that much they could do.

“It did affect how I use my account. I don't put up identifying information, and I try to leave my face off the accounts, as well,“ she said, noting that she eventually stopped using Weibo, but not because of her harasser.

Weibo announced last year that it plans to ban users from commenting for three days if they have been blocked by another user over harassment. (Picture: Shutterstock)

China does not have laws for online sexual harassment, but it does punish people for sending obscene, insulting and intimidating material with a fine and a maximum of 10 days in prison. However, it’s not clear how often offenders really get punished. 

While platforms like Twitter, Facebook and others face similar issues in handling online harassments, China’s strict cyberspace rules make things even trickier for platforms there. Social media companies know they are at the mercy of the whims of regulators. This could be why platforms like Zhihu tread carefully with high-profile cases like the Dalian attack. 

“It is difficult to say if social media platforms can do more since censorship and control of speech is very strong,” said Lu Pin, founding editor of online platform Feminist Voices. “Social media platforms themselves have no credibility or autonomy to deal with user comments.”

Lu’s platform Feminist Voices, which had a significant following on Weibo, was scrubbed from the platform after it promoted an anti-sexual harassment campaign.

Advocates like Chen believe that social platforms do have the ability to do more against online harassment but little awareness. And people trying to call out harassment against women outside official channels have been facing difficult times in China. 

In recent months, government-connected Weibo accounts have accused feminists of being extremists and disturbing public order.