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Crime and Prejudice

Though “honor killing” video was a hoax, lack of marriage prospects and aggressive nationalism are an explosive combination for street violence

China’s expat circles were horrified this weekend over news of a Pakistani student purportedly being brutally killed in the middle of a zebra crossing in China. According to journalist Ali Arif, who posted video on Twitter of what seemed a brutal assault, the victim was a Pakistani studying at Shenyang University.

Rumors soon spread that the student’s Chinese girlfriend’s father and brother saw the relationship as a disgrace, and had taken matters into their own hands.

As outrage grew, Arif took down the video after Pakistan’s Foreign Office on Monday stated that the student he had named in the tweet had committed suicide the previous week. According to the police department of Shishi, Fujian province, the video actually depicted a tussle between a Chinese man and the brother and father of his wife, who also appears in the video, trying to stop the assault. (Detailed explanation, via Shanghaiist, here)

Whatever the explanation, the attack brushes against a real issue within Chinese society: An aggressive masculinity, fed on a diet of nationalism and poor social prospects, that create resentment of marriages across international borders in some quarters.

Though some disapproved of Arif’s self-congratulatory tone, many found the scenario he described plausible, given the numerous reports about the outbursts of extreme violence that occur in China.

“We try to stay away from the Uniqlo Plaza when we go out at night,” said Xie Qin, a Beijing-based rapper, referring to a popular store in central Beijing. When Xie began to date her American husband, they would frequently walk past the Japanese department store, which is near the nightclubs in Beijing’s Sanlitun neighborhood. But in 2015, a Chinese woman walking with her French husband was killed in broad daylight in the plaza by a man with a sword—“It was an anti-foreigner attack. He approached them and began yelling at them that he hated Americans,” said one witness.

The shocking incident that occurred just months after a flurry of reports came out about a Chinese “gang” targeting foreigners, especially those with Chinese girlfriends, in the neighborhood. There have been a steady trickle of such incidents over the last few years, many involving women, and most often in popular tourists haunts like Sanlitun and Wudaokou, with arrests reported in some cases, but in others, private mediation. (Murders are fairly infrequent, at least those that actually make the news, but, as elsewhere, rape is a particularly underreported concern, whether it involves a foreigner and a Chinese or not)

In July, CCTV footage of a Pakistani student, accompanied by a Chinese woman, being stabbed to death after a roadside dispute sparked discussion among netizens, which likely inspired Arif’s interpretation of the attack in Shishi. Apparently, the attacker took offense at seeing the student with a Chinese girlfriend.

The perpetrators of these attacks are usually single men, often with poor job prospects; some may even suffer from a mental illness of some kind, or may simply have been easily allured by a toxic jingoism that encourages some to see outsiders of all kinds as rivals or enemies. These “bare-branches” (光棍儿), single men without partners or prospects, been a concern for successive Chinese governments since at least the days of the Qing.

But even without the xenophobia element, the incident in Shishi still presents a murky set of issues. On the one hand, the motivations behind the public beating are disputed, with claims that the husband had “lost face” (面子) by being made to “wearing a green hat” (戴绿帽子, to be made a cuckold). China certainly has skyrocketing infidelity rates, but married men contribute to much of that.

“Killing someone over infidelity is something from a bygone age,” states Wang Shuyan, a 40 year-old Han-Chinese woman who grew up in a People Liberation’s Army commune in Yili Kazahk Autonomous Prefecture, Xinjiang. She remembers that, during the early 1980s, there were “honor killings” in her community for offenses much less serious than adultery. “My middle brother was close to committing an honor killing,” Wang recalls. “I had to chase after him after he went out with a pitchfork to find a group of men who had bullied my eldest brother’s wife.”

Chinese media often associates “honor killings” (荣誉处决) with majority-Muslim countries like Pakistan. The high-profile honor killing in 2016 of Qandeel Baloch, Pakistan’s “Kim Kardashian”, was widely reported in China, with some  using the incident as fuel to drive home arguments on the danger Islam poses to the stability of Chinese society. This might explain Ali Arif’s initial response, and his refusal to concede or apology over his mistake.

In remote places, beyond the effective reach of the law, “honor killings” are another manifestation of vigilante justice. But when these incidents happen in Chinese cities, in the public eye, or to foreigners living and working in the country, it briefly unsettles residents, reminding them that their communities are not immune to acts of brutal violence.

“I like Beijing because it’s much safer than anywhere else in China,” says Wang, who has lived in Beijing for 20 years. “But with so many random killings reported on TV, I wouldn’t dare to let down my guard whenever I’m out with my son.”

No matter the truth of the Shishi video, understandings of China, particularly its affluent urban communities, as being safe, especially for women, or otherwise crime-free, can lack proper examination. Crime statistics are simply not reliable, and much of the mainstream reporting that helps form these perceptions is lacking in credibility here—which is why news on social media is so readily quickly believed, even when so much is fake or exaggerated. One thread on Quora lists a range of incidents involving foreigners that most might recognize, from the everyday (punched at a bar for dancing with a girl) to the extraordinary (an alleged murder of an unassuming Turkish student by a quartet of drunk fuerdai outside a nightclub in Beijing).

As even the Global Times reported, back in 2012, “some areas are either not as closely monitored or there is less the police can do…the streets are not as safe as before.” Whether it’s issues of face, family feuds, street assaults or road rage, readers should be as vigilant about the risks of violent crime as they are about false rumors.


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