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International approaches to rape$

Nicole Westmarland and Geetanjali Gangoli

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9781847426208

Published to Policy Press Scholarship Online: March 2012

DOI: 10.1332/policypress/9781847426208.001.0001

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Introduction to the issue of rape in China as a developing country

Introduction to the issue of rape in China as a developing country

(p.57) Four Introduction to the issue of rape in China as a developing country
International approaches to rape

Qihua Ye

Policy Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter discusses how rape is one of the most serious crimes in Chinese criminal law. Rape is classed as the sex crime of raping women, but also of forcing young girls to work as prostitutes, licentiousness, prostitution, incest, spreading pornographic videos and photos, and spreading sexually transmitted infections. Rape is considered a serious crime as it affects victims' health in both body and mind, as mentioned above. It can also lead to pregnancy of victims and to sexually transmitted infections.

Keywords:   serious crime, Chinese criminal law, prostitutes, licentiousness, incest, pornographic videos, pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections


Rape, as a social issue, is an integral part of human history (Roberts, 1989; Wang, 2005; Jiang, 2007; Tang, 2007). In the development of humankind, rape has been used as a weapon both in mass conflicts, for example the rapes inflicted by Japanese soldiers on Chinese women during the Second World War, and in everyday battles. Within this context, pain is inflicted on women's bodies; their identity is attacked and they are deprived of their sexual rights. Rape is thus regarded by many as a gendered issue in society, as it is mostly perpetrated by men against women.

As proposed in the Declaration of Sexual Rights (1999), the right to sexual freedom encompasses freedom from all forms of sexual coercion, exploitation and abuse at any time and situation in life. Indeed, people should be free to enjoy equal sexual rights without being attacked or forced to engage in sexual activity. Likewise, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) states that ‘all human beings are born free and equal with regard to dignity and rights’; being endowed with reason and conscience, people must treat each others as equals. However, in reality, women do not enjoy equal rights with men, which is most apparent in incidents of rape. Rape severely infringes on these fundamental sexual and human rights, as offenders violate the personal rights of their victims. Rape is a crime because it disturbs social order and affects people's – especially women's – mental and physical health (Jiang, 2007). Rape infringes on personal rights; considered by many to be the worst crime (Wang, 2005), acting as a social pollutant throughout the world (Chan, 2009; Yu, 2007). It has been reported that the rate of occurrences of rape is four times that of other criminal cases in China (Wang, 2005).

(p.58) Within the context of the past 30 years of economic reforms, China's economic development has been extremely rapid. Since the 1980s, the number of rape incidents has increased in tandem with this development (Jiang, 2007). During the period 1981–86, the numbers of the rape cases put on file for investigation and prosecution were 30,808 in 1981, 35,361 in 1982, 37,712 in 1985 and 39,121 in 1986 (Wang, 2005), indicating that the number of reported incidents of rape has steadily increased. Furthermore, according to the China Law Yearbook, between 1991 and 2003, the numbers of the rape cases in China were respectively 50,331; 49,829; 47,033; 44,118; 41,823; 42,820; 40,699; 40,967; 39,435; 35,819; 40,600; 38,209; and 40,088. These figures show that the total number of rape cases during these 13 years was 551,771, with an average of more than 40,000 rapes reported in China every year. However, this figure may not be representative of the true number of incidents, because some cases may not be reported by the victims. As a rough estimate, if half the true number of rape cases were reported, the actual number of incidents would be 1,103,542 (Chen, 2006). Thus, it can be estimated that an average of more than 80,000 cases occur in China each year. In recent years, rape cases have represented about 15% of all criminal cases, which is testament to the serious impact that rape has on the stability of society and also on people's sense of security (Jiang, 2007).

Worldwide, rape is a social issue of increasing public concern. As a result, anti-rape campaigns, driven by the feminist movement, began in the late 1960s and early 1970s, particularly in the West (Roberts, 1989). A notable result of these campaigns was the establishment of Rape Crisis Centre, the first such centre being launched in the US in 1970, and the first in the UK six years later. However, no such organisations exist in China:

Only some governmental organisations such as the All-China Women's Federation, [and] the Public Security Bureau, provide support to rape victims. Recently in China, a small number of non-governmental groups have been formed which aim to engage people with this social issue and to care for survivors of rape. (Alliance Regulations against Rape in China, 2006)

Cheng Yang, aged 28, received assistance from a non-governmental support group after she was raped while working in her office on 13 February 2005. She claimed damages on the grounds that she had suffered injury on the job (Xiang and Fu, 2006). Although her claim (p.59) failed twice during the judicial procedure (Xi, 2006), the offender was eventually sentenced to six years in prison. Throughout the process, the group provided her with legal, psychological, social and emotional support.

As far as the legal situation is concerned, most countries have passed a series of laws against rape. In the UK, rape is judged in terms of sex crime law (Lu, 2007), while in China, rape crime is judged in terms of criminal law (Zhang, 1999; Li, 2007). These laws are intended to protect victims and punish offenders. A review of the literature on rape, however, shows that China has a number of weaknesses in its handling of the issue, for example in attitudes towards rape, and in terms of policy, legal and practical research approaches. Indeed, the deeper the assessment of the current situation, the more apparent the need for urgent work and study. This chapter will therefore introduce and discuss the following questions with respect to China: How does rape happen in China? How are laws in relation to rape crime stipulated? Are there weaknesses in the laws regarding rape? How is research on rape crime conducted? The analysis of these topics should highlight the key issues surrounding rape in China, which may aid further exploration of this crime.

Characteristics of rape in China

In China, rape is usually conceptualised as a male forcing a female to have sexual activity with him against her will, whether that be through the use of violence, threats or other means (Li, 2002; Sang, 2003; Yu, 2007). According to this definition, it is clear that rape infringes on women's sexual rights, while emphasising the paradigm of men as perpetrators of rape against women. Bearing these definitions in mind, it is vital to research and analyse the factors related to rape in China, as accumulating knowledge on these factors will affect a number of areas, from aiding the prevention of this crime in society to improving the law, with greater protection for rape victims and more appropriate punishments for perpetrators. There are many factors involved in the issue of rape, such as age, marital status, and professional and educational levels, which will therefore be considered below.


People (mainly women) may be raped at any age (Yu, 2007). However, the number of female victims of rape does seem to vary somewhat between age groups. Guo's research (1997) showed that 48% of female (p.60) victims of rape were between 18 and 25 years old. Twenty-six percent of those who had been raped were under 18, while 20% were aged between 26 and 35, and 6% were over 36 years old. Looking at these figures, it could be assumed that younger women are more likely to be raped (18–25 years old; 48%) than older women aged 26 and above (26%).

Male offenders may commit rape at any age. However, in line with the age of the victims, it is also more likely to be perpetrated by younger men. For example, Zhang (2005) analysed 36 rape cases by 38 offenders. At the time of committing the offence, 47.4% of offenders (18 of the 38) were between the ages of 18 to 25 years old, and 31.6% (12) were between the ages of 26 and 35 years old. In comparison, only 21% of perpetrators (eight) were aged between 36 and 60 years old. It can be inferred from these figures that rape can take place at any stage of a women's life, though young women are more likely than old women to be raped (Shang, 2003), and young men are more likely to be perpetrators (Zhang, 2001). This may be because young people prefer social activities and go out more frequently than old people. As a result, both young women and men may be in more situations where they could be a victim or perpetrator of rape. Yu (2007) suggests that this may because the former lack experience and awareness of selfprotection when they enjoy social association with men, while the latter may neglect concepts of morality and duty for society when they come into contact with women in such situations. Thus, these increased levels of social activity may account for why rape incidents are more likely to occur between young men and women. However, this explanation is only partly valid, as rapes can take place in any situation, not only when young women and men are in the public arena. Moreover, rape is an issue of gendered power over women, and women should not be regarded as being responsible for the violation they experience.

Marital status

In China, marital status is usually divided into two categories: unmarried and married. The latter includes widows/widowers and divorced men and women. The likelihood of being a victim of rape may differ according to a woman's marital status. According to Guo's investigation (1997), nearly 80% of victims are unmarried women, while 22% of victims are married women (19% are married; 3% are widowed or divorced. These figures appear to show that young unmarried women may be more likely to experience rape than married women. Indeed, according to Guo's (1997) data, the majority of rape victims are (p.61) unmarried (young) women. Furthermore, this data is paralleled by the aforementioned findings that young women (aged 18–25) are the most likely to be victims of rape. (Guo, 1997; Shang, 2003) It has been suggested that unmarried women are most likely to be raped because they lack self-protection and life experience, and may be vulnerable to being cheated or led by men into unwanted sexual experiences (Shang, 2003; Yu, 2007). However, it is important to note that this view comes close to holding young women responsible for rape, yet, as previously discussed, gendered abuse of power by men is the major cause of rape.

Professional and educational background

Today, a person's profession may be seen as a tool to distinguish his or her status in society. In rape studies, professional status may be a key issue because the number of reported rapes appears to differ depending on the profession of the victims. According to Guo's research (1997), the percentage of rape victims who worked as farmers was 34.4%, while the percentage of victims who were members of the urban working class was 21.9%; 19.8% of victims were students, while 8.3% were unemployed; 7.3% were office workers; 4.2% were retired; and 2% were self-employed. These figures suggest that most victims were farmers and working-class women. Moreover, students accounted for almost a fifth of all victims.

In terms of the professions of perpetrators, Zhang's study (2005) showed that offenders were also mainly farmers. The percentage of peasant/farmer perpetrators was 52.6% (20 out of 38). This rate was the highest among the groups assessed. Of the rape offenders assessed, those who were unemployed accounted for the second largest percentage (five; 13.2%). The rate of other occupations, first including workers1 and taxi drivers was 18.4% (seven), and second including officers, teachers and students, was 15.8% (six).

Looking at all these figures, it appears that the peasants/farmers represent the occupational group most likely to be victims or offenders compared with other occupations. This may be because peasants/farmers make up the main body of society and form the highest proportion of the population in China. Moreover, within the context of the Chinese reforms, there is increased migration of both female and male peasants (mainly young peasants/farmers) to the cities. This may mean that male migrants are no longer regulated by family or local norms of sexual behaviour, and equally young female migrants may lack familial protection.

(p.62) It may also be necessary to consider what impact educational levels have on the situation of rape victims and perpetrators. Guo's study (1997) reported that women with no or lower levels of education are most likely to be raped (48.9%). That study also found that 26.7% of victims had a primary level of education, while women with higher levels of education were less likely to suffer rape (14.4%). Zhang's study (2005) showed that the percentage of offenders with education at the junior level was 42.9% (nine out of 21) and those with primary level education was 23.8% (five). The rate of offenders with graduatelevel education was 14.3% (three), whereas the rate of offenders with postgraduate qualifications was 9.5% (two). In addition, the rate of offenders who were illiterate was 14.3% (three). The figures relating to the educational levels of victims and offenders therefore show that people with low levels of education are more likely to be raped or to rape women.

Relationship between victims and offenders

For a long time, it was thought that offenders and victims in rape cases generally did not know each other, and that offenders usually suffer from erotomania (Yu, 2007). However, this is rarely the case, as 73.6% of offenders know and are known to their victims, often in the capacity of neighbours (44.2%) or friends (21.5%). Yu (2007) studied a group of convicted rape offenders and found that in 38% of 140 rape cases, the relationship between rapist and victim was that of neighbour; and in 31% of cases, the relationship was that of teacher and student. A small proportion of rape offenders (10%) were friends with their victim, while 3% were related to their victim. Only 28% of the victims and offenders were unknown to one another. Similarly, Zhang's (2005) study of 36 rape cases found that that most cases (26; 73.2%) occurred between victims and offenders who were familiar with one another. Only 27.8% cases (10) occurred between victims and offenders who did not know each other (Song, 2005).

Given these figures, it is important to examine why most rapes occur between parties already known to each other. Yu (2007) suggests that offenders rape people who are known to them because they are aware of the personal details of their victims, such as their habits, family and address, thus creating more opportunities to contact and to rape their victims. Furthermore, victims often trust and depend on offenders. In this context, victims may be silent and not report the rape, because they forgive offenders who are known to them. While these are interesting (p.63) theories, we need more research before we can conclude whether offenders choose victims for these reasons.

Time and space

Rape as a social phenomenon occurs in a certain time and space, and this may be related to the activities of victims. Studying these related factors may enable us to take and strengthen protection measures.

For the purpose of this analysis, we consider time in terms of season and time of day. With respect to season, Guo's study (1997) proposed that more rapes take place in summer (55.1%) than in spring (16.3%), in winter (15.3%) or in autumn (13.3%). These findings are in line with Jin's suggestion (2004) that rapes occurs most often in summer and spring. Shang (2003) and Yu (2007) suggest that rapes occur more in summer because of the short nights, meaning that women may go out for longer and associate more frequently with men in this season than in others. They also posit that women may be more likely to be raped by men in summer because they generally wear less at this time of year than in colder seasons. It is suggested that this tendency to blame the victim is almost universal in China, even without any more specific data. Finally, they address the possibility that in hot weather victims do not close their windows and doors, which provides a convenient chance for offenders who can easily enter victims' houses and sexually assault women. However, many of these theories would only apply to stranger rapes, and as we have seen, most rapes occur within relationships or where the perpetrator is known to the victim.

With respect to time of day, in Guo's investigation (1997), the most frequent time for a rape to occur was between 5 pm and midnight (44.2%), then between 8 am and 5 pm (38.9%) and finally between midnight and 8 am (16.8%). Accordingly, Yu (2007) suggests that most victims' activities take place in the daytime and early evening, while people are more likely to be at home in late evening. The rate of rapes in the evening (5 pm to midnight) may be the highest because offenders use the dark to avoid being seen or recognised by the victim, and because in the dark it is easier for offenders to leave the crime scene following the incident. In addition, the working day usually ends at 5 pm, and it is after this time that people are more likely to go out to socialise. Under these circumstances, women may be more likely to neglect self-protection and be targeted by rape offenders (Yu, 2007). However, these theories can also serve to blame women for their violation, and therefore need to be examined with care and caution.

(p.64) When considering where rapes take place, there are variations across China in terms of geographical location. For a few years, incidents of rape have been more frequent in the Heilongjiang and Liaoning Provinces, located in the north of China (Zhang, 2001; Song, 2005; Yu, 2007). Comparing rural with urban areas, Guo's study (1997) showed that rape is more likely to occur on the outskirts of rural areas (35.4%) than in the space between urban and rural areas (27.3%), or in urban areas or rural areas (24.2% and 13.1%) respectively. According to a study by Liu and colleagues (2004), the level of rapes in the countryside was the highest (41.6%). The rate was 28.2% in towns, 18.6% in cities and 8.1% in the area between urban and rural areas.

There were differences between Guo's (1997) and Liu et al's (2004) studies in terms of the number of rapes committed in the different areas, with subsequent shifts in the number of rape incidents over the seven years between the two studies. For example, Guo's (1997) data showed that, of all the areas, most rapes were committed in the outskirts (35.4%), while Liu et al's (2004) data suggested that the most rapes were committed in the countryside (41.6%). In 1997, a notable number of the rape crimes addressed occur in the area between the urban and the rural (27.3%), while in 2004, rape occurred less frequently in the area between the urban and the rural (8.1%). While rape crimes occurred in all areas in both studies, the likelihood of a rape being committed in a particular area differed depending on the study, and therefore it may be difficult to reach a conclusion about location and the incidence of rape.

The differences between these two studies demonstrate how difficult it is to ascertain whether the number of rapes in urban areas is higher than in rural areas or vice versa. Nevertheless, it would appear to be possible to identify the physical spaces where rape is likely to take place. Such a place is often the home of the victim and or the offender, a field or a deserted area. Rape occurs most often in the homes of victims (30.3%), then in the homes of offenders (25.3%) and then in fields (14.1%) (Guo, 1997). These figures suggest that most rape cases are likely to occur in an environment familiar to the victim, which does not conform to the idea that rape is more likely to occur in a hidden, unfamiliar place, or in a public place. Within this context of familiarity, victims may be more likely to be careless and to relax their vigilance with offenders (Zhou, 2005), especially when they know the offender. Some researchers such as Yu (2007) and Zhou (2005) suggest that women should be vigilant, even if they stay in familiar places, and that they need to have some way of protecting themselves that will reduce their chances of being raped. However, we need to be careful (p.65) not to put the responsibility on women to protect themselves from rape, but rather to lay blame on the perpetrator.

Criminal law in China

Since ancient times, rape has been defined as criminal behaviour that seriously endangers social public order. Rape is one of the most serious crimes in Chinese criminal law (Zhang, 2007). In 1979 for the first time, the criminal law, rape, was specifically listed in Chapter Four, Subprovisions, Part II: Infringement upon personal rights and democratic rights is defined as a crime (Wang, 2005; Jiang, 2007). Notably, this law was revised seven times between 1979 and 2009 (Chinese Criminal Law, 2009).

Rape is classed as a sex crime (Hu, 2004), which includes not only crimes of raping women, but also of forcing young girls to work as prostitutes, licentiousness, prostitution, incest, spreading pornographic videos and photos, and spreading sexually transmitted infections. Rape is considered a serious crime as it affects victims' health in both body and mind, as mentioned above. It can also lead to pregnancy of victims and to sexually transmitted infections.

Articles of Chinese criminal law that deal with sex crimes

In Chinese criminal law, rape constitutes a forced sexual act with a woman by violence, coercion and or any other means, as well as against her will. Notably, there is no explicit definition in Chinese criminal law in relation to specific standards of justice about what constitutes rape (Zhang, 1999; Wang, 2005). In other words, the law does not stipulate what types of forced sexual action (for example, vaginal penetration by penis, penetration of the anus, without consent and so on) constitute ‘rape’. The articles described addressed below outline the provision for sex crimes within the Chinese criminal law.

First, the 236th article states that a person who rapes a woman by force, threat or any other means will be sentenced to a fixed-term imprisonment of no less than three years and no more than 10 years. This article particularly stipulates that the behaviour will be seen as a rape crime and offenders will be punished severely if they have sexual relations with the girls under 14 years of age. This article also states that offenders who rape women or young girls in any of the following circumstances will be sentenced to no less than 10 years' fixed-term or life imprisonment or death:

  • (p.66) raping a woman or having sexual relations with a young girl with flagrant circumstances;

  • raping several women or sexual relations with several young girls;

  • raping a woman in a public place;

  • rape of the same woman in succession by two or more offenders;

  • rape leading to serious bodily injury, death or any other serious consequence to the victim.

Second, the 237th article is related to obscenity and insult against women. It states that offenders who use obscenity against women will be sentenced to fixed-term imprisonment of not more than five years or to criminal detention. If offenders sexually insult or behave obscenely towards women in public, they will be sentenced to fixed-term imprisonment of not less than five years. If an offender acts indecently towards a child, they will be sentenced more heavily. Moreover, if offenders rape women who are abducted and trafficked, they will be sentenced more heavily (for example, fixed-term imprisonment of not less than 10 years or life imprisonment and concurrently to a fine or confiscation of property and so on) as the 240th article stipulates.

Finally, there are nine articles in the law that deal with other sex crimes. These articles stipulate how to punish offenders who spread a serious venereal disease by prostitution or forcing young girls (under 14 years of age) into prostitution. The articles also stipulate how to punish offenders who gather a crowd to engage in sex crimes and to make, copy, publish and sell pornography, including newspapers, magazines, books and videos.

From an examination of these articles, it is apparent that the law stipulates that certain kinds of sexual behaviour will be defined as crimes and awarded different degrees of punishment. In particular, the law indicates that rape directly and mainly affects women. The most serious punishments for perpetrators of rape are life imprisonment and the death penalty.

Chinese criminal law stipulates a series of specific items to punish offenders who violate sexually assault women. This aims to protect all women equally, with no additional conditions referring to victims who are ‘pure’ or who have a good reputation. Chinese criminal law shows that sexual behaviour by offenders will be defined as a crime as long as they force any women to engage in sexual activity against her will, perhaps via the use of violence or threats. This reflects respect towards women; the protection of women, and their sexual rights, are seen as human rights.

(p.67) The 236th article and the protection of male victims

There is an issue in relation to lack of protection for male victims in the law on rape (Li, 2005; Feng, 2007; Li, 2007; Liu, 2007) because there is a difference between men and women in terms of the protection of their sexual rights (Ruan, 2003). In the matter of rape, Chinese criminal law focuses on male offenders and female victims (He and Gong, 2003), which could be seen as narrow and absolute.

This gendered distinction arises because historically, women have been seen as a vulnerable group, with men as the primary main breadwinners; women had to depend on men, while men both controlled and protected them. Women were thus regarded as subordinate to men. In terms of sexual rights, women were also seen as subordinate to men (Gu, 2001; Gao, 2005). Accordingly, legislators naturally focused on the legal protection of women's sexual rights (Gao, 2005; Li, 2005).

It has been suggested that as society has developed, particularly with reference to feminism, the relative status of men and women within society has gradually changed, and women can now contribute and partake in many of the activities that were previously thought of as male territory. Women's ideas and behaviours have changed, and their awareness of independence is increasing. People have begun to acknowledge the ways in which women play a role in initiating sexual behaviour, including coercive sexual behaviour (Kang, 2007; Zhou, 2007). It is therefore possible that a rape offender could be female (Gu, 2001; Li, 2006). However, Chinese criminal law only alludes to men, including young men from the age of 14, as perpetrators of rape bearing criminal responsibility in accordance with article 17 (Li, 2006).

Some Chinese academics have therefore started to address the fact that rape perpetrators can be male or female. They also suggest that rape by women is a genuine problem. For example, women may attract young men for the purpose of sexual activity, or to instigate or help someone commit rape (Gu, 2001; Li, 2006; Kang, 2007). Studies have concluded that anybody could be a victim or perpetrator of rape, regardless of their gender or sexuality (He and Gong, 2003; Ruan, 2003; Li, 2005; Li, 2007; Liu, 2007).

Yet, currently there is only anecdotal evidence to suggest that some women are perpetrators of rape (Bai, 2007; Li, 2007), meaning that precise figures are difficult to find. An (2002) describes the case of a male soldier being kept in captivity by five unmarried females working at an inn where the man had been staying. They reportedly wanted the man to have sex with them, and the soldier refused them. Both parties (p.68) involved would not relent for the duration of the whole morning. By the afternoon, the five females had a discussion and decided to take matters further into their own hands. As a result, one of the females entered the man's room naked and threatened that she would claim that he had raped her unless he agreed to have sex with all the five women. The man felt helpless and, feeling compelled to submit to their demands, was raped by the women.

Another anecdotal example tells the story of a female mayor in her forties who attempted to use her position of power to maintain a longterm sexual relationship with a young man. For the first few years, the young man felt that he had to obey the woman. Finally, however, he reported her because he could not tolerate her behaviour and did not want to remain in an abusive relationship. The case went to court, but despite it attracting much attention, the woman received no sentence (Feng, 2007).

Thus, Chinese criminal law does not protect male victims or punish female perpetrators of rape. Other groups that need protection are gay and lesbian people, who may suffer rape from someone of their own sex (Li, 2007; Liu, 2007). More research needs to be done on the issue of male rape, and to measure the extent of the problem in Chinese society.

The 236th article and marital rape

Another feature of Chinese criminal law is that it does not deal adequately with marital rape, which is a real issue in China. For example, the Institute of Population, China Academy of Social Science (CASS) conducted an investigation among 9,033 couples aged between 20 and 54 in six cities and provinces (Xiong, 1994). Among these respondents, 19.84% of the urban husbands and 27.39% of the rural husbands believed that a wife cannot refuse to have sex with her husband when he wants it, and this viewpoint was also held by 18.66% of urban wives and 33.59% of rural wives. These figures suggest that there was virtually no difference in the prevalence of this attitude between urban husbands (19.84%) and wives (18.66%). The former figure is only 1.18 percentage points higher than the latter. But there was a difference in the prevalence of this attitude between rural husbands (27.39%) and wives (33.59%), the latter figure being 6.2 percentage points higher than the former. It should also be noted that there was a difference in the prevalence of this attitude between urban and rural husbands and wives. The rate of prevalence in rural husbands is 6.55 percentage points higher than that in urban husbands, with rural wives scoring 14.93 percentage points higher than urban wives. Comparatively, then, (p.69) rural wives are more likely to have an attitude of subordination to their husbands in a sexual context.

In China, it is difficult to punish an offender for marital rape because the law does not define this behaviour as a crime; instead, it defines it as deliberate harm, insult and abuse, or even as guiltlessness (Bai, 2007). Some scholars suggest that marital rape should be defined as rape crime because husbands rape their wives, whereas some scholars think that it is not appropriate for the Chinese context to define marital rape as a crime because couples have a marital contract (Wang, 2005; Bai, 2007). In China, many people do not consider marital rape to be a crime. Due to this combination of traditional contexts and patriarchal views, there are no explicit articles in Chinese law that relate to marital rape (Bai, 2007).

Li (2006) argues that such weaknesses in Chinese criminal law should be addressed by adding a relevant article in relation to marital rape. Both husbands and wives should have the same sexual rights. In particular, wives should not be deprived of their sexual rights; they should be allowed to govern their bodies freely within marriage (Bai, 2007). If this right is violated, the victims should be protected by the law, yet such protection is difficult to obtain in China. The central government of China should consider revising the law not only to fit in with recent social development, but also to protect the rights of marital rape victims (Ruan, 2003; Li, 2005; Bai, 2007; Li, 2007; Liu, 2007).

Issues raised in recent Chinese studies

In China, rape has been a social issue since the communist years, unlike domestic violence, which has only recently begun to be discussed as a social problem (Han, 2004; Ye, 2008). The government has tried to combat rape crime through different means such as criminal law, education and media campaigns.

Researchers and practitioners are engaged in this topic and provide the government with research results. In particular, research into rape has begun to have some influence in combating the traditional research viewpoint that rape can only be committed by men on women, and has also begun to include homosexual as well as heterosexual rape. Researchers of rape are dealing with a variety of other topics, not only from a legal angle but also in an international context. In terms of the legal aspect, research tends to focus on the weaknesses of Chinese criminal law and ways in which it can be improved.

Chinese research thus covers three key areas: ‘traditional’ research about women victims; investigation of less stereotypical victim– (p.70) perpetrator dynamics, such as male victim–female perpetrator; and the study of the law in terms of its weaknesses and possible improvements. These studies focus mainly on exploring features of rape occurring in daily life, describing rape incidents and focusing on victims, and thus may not adequately address the causes and impact of rape. They also tend to use a quantitative rather than a qualitative approach, which leads to learning what but not why. Such studies therefore run the risk of failing to provide any novel findings or conclusions.

Moreover, Chinese researchers rarely use gender-based theories to analyse rape. While their findings have often reflected women's vulnerability within society, alongside their increased likelihood of being raped, researchers have frequently neglected to discuss the gender-based issues that lie behind such findings. Gendered approaches may be important in studies of rape because of the gender inequality inherent in rape cases involving men and women, and the different experiences of rape for women and men. However, this is rarely discussed in Chinese studies.

Victim blaming is another feature of some Chinese studies of rape. Some researchers believe that women tempt men to behave wrongly because they dress in revealing or sexy clothes (Shang, 2003; Liu and Zhang, 2009). This raises two important questions: first, why should women's wearing sexy clothes be related to rape?; and second, why should men's wearing sexy clothes be less likely to affect women's sexual behaviour? Women should have the same rights as men in their clothing choices. Rape cannot be blamed on the apparently ‘sexy’ clothes of the victim. Instead, we need to look at how men push or force women to have sex. Developing an understanding of why offenders hurt their victims via sexual assault is a key issue for exploration.

There are other attitudes towards rape crime that may have influenced recent studies. It is often difficult to investigate incidents of rape in China because some police officers, lawyers, members of the public and offenders hold victim-blaming attitudes towards rape crimes. They may also see the economy or money as an all-powerful force that plays an important role in rape. For the purposes of this research, the author informally interviewed a few professionals, including police officers, lawyers and teachers, between August and November 2009, to get their views on rape. Some were confused about why I wanted to explore the matter because they thought that rape was not an important issue. Some believed that paying for sexual services would lead to a decrease in the number of rape crimes. Some questioned how it was possible for rape to occur nowadays. Others thought that it was difficult to explore the issue because there are no publicly released official crime (p.71) records in relation to rape (Chan, 2009). A common view of those interviewed was that there are normally two main ways to settle a rape incident: to report it publicly (to public security authorities or to court, for example) or to settle it privately (through negotiation or maintaining silence). Most victims choose the latter, so the handling of rape incidents is often kept quiet (Li, 2008). This is why, as discussed earlier in the chapter, it is difficult to ascertain accurate numbers of rape crimes in China.

One of the lawyers interviewed cited a case where a woman was raped by her colleague and subsequently reported the incident to the authorities. As part of the legal process, she was told that she could choose either monetary compensation or the sentencing of the offender. She chose to protect her human rights under the law and the offender was sentenced to seven years' imprisonment. However, she was unhappy, because, although the outcome was warranted, she was blamed for being unkind. People said that she should have taken the money as compensation from the offender so that he would not have had to go to prison. She came to regret her decision because she had lost her good reputation and the chance of monetary compensation.

Money often plays a key role in the response to rape incidents, most likely as a result of the economic reforms as China increasingly embraces consumerism and commoditisation. For example, on an evening in September 2000, 16-year-old Liu Yan went to an internet bar with two female friends, and while chatting, was dragged into a car, taken to a cornfield and raped by four men, Wang Bing, Wang Weimin, Jing Yongfeng and Wang Lei. According to the investigation report, the police caught the men in May 2001 after they admitted to the rape crime against Liu Yan. After a month, in accordance with approval from the People's Procuratorate of Jinshui, located in Zhengzhou, they were arrested. However, the evidence in the case suddenly changed when the four men were due to be sentenced. Two of the offenders (Wang Bing and Wang Weimin) denied that they had raped the girl, and claimed that she was a prostitute. Initially, the other two men (Jing Yongfeng and Wang Lei) admitted to raping the girl, but later also denied their crime. The victim, Liu Yan, also denied that Wang Bing and Wang Weimin had raped her, stating that she had voluntarily agreed to have sex with them. However, she stuck by her claim that she had been raped by Jing Yongfeng and Wang Lei.

At this stage, it was unclear why two offenders had withdrawn their confessions and, furthermore, why Lui Yan had withdrawn her accusation. Subsequent further careful investigation by the police established that the two offenders' fathers had asked Liu Zhi'an, the policeman handling the case, to help them, and had bribed both (p.72) him and Liu Yan with money. As a result, on 2 December 2003, the judgement passed in the case resulted in Liu Zhi'an being sentenced to six years' imprisonment for manipulating the law to help the two offenders. The two offenders' fathers were sentenced to probation for bribery and for harm to a witness in a law court. Liu Yan was also punished and sentenced to probation for harbouring offenders. Wang Weimin escaped prosecution, but Wang Bing, Jing Yongfeng and Wang Lei were sentenced to a fixed-term imprisonment of 11, 12 and eight years respectively for raping Liu Yan (Wu and Li, 2004).

This case shows that financial inducements can lead to miscarriages of justice. Those involved rejected the law in favour of financial reward. Both the rape victim, Liu Yan, and the policeman in the case, Liu Zhi'an, accepted bribes. From their behaviour, it can be inferred that their attitude towards rape was determined by an external factor, in this case, financial benefit. A positive outcome, nevertheless, was that the offenders (with the exception Wang Weimin) were eventually punished by the law, indicating that the law can play its rightful role in exercising its power to seek justice and treat people equally.

Finally, although recent studies have revealed weaknesses in certain articles of Chinese criminal law, as discussed above, the author would suggest that academics' suggestions to improve the law may not reflect reality because they lack experience of practical investigation techniques and because they do not discuss or explain differing attitudes towards rape, including those of victims, offenders and the general public. For example, Wang (2005) argues that marital rape perpetrated by husbands cannot be seen as a crime at all because of the Chinese legal context and societal opinion. Wang's view on marital rape sticks to convention and, sadly, his view may be representative of certain sections of Chinese society. Those that hold this view may not understand the experiences of victims of marital rape. There are also very few reliable statistics about rapes where the perpetrator is female and the victim is male (Gu, 2001; Li, 2006; Kang, 2007; Zhou, 2007). This again reflects the lack of comprehensive research on rape in China and may influence the creation of sound law (Shang, 2003).


This chapter has introduced the issue of rape in contemporary China, and discussed the characteristics of rape crime as described in the literature, the legal situation and recent studies. From this analysis, it appears, first, that the prevalence of rape crime is relatively high in China, with an average of more than 80,000 cases occurring annually (p.73) (Jiang, 2007). A general assessment of factors associated with rape in China shows that age, marital status, profession and level of education are likely to be linked to the likelihood of becoming a victim or a perpetrator of rape. According to Guo's (1997) and Zhang's (2005) studies, 48% of rape victims are young women (between 18 and 25 years old), while 47.4% of rape perpetrators are young men (between 18 and 25 years old). It has also been observed that rape often occurs between victims and offenders who know each other (Yu, 2007). Early parts of the chapter described the time and place of rape incidents in terms of season, time of day and area. Rape is most likely to occur in summer (55.1%), between the hours of 5 pm and midnight (44.2%) (Guo, 1997).

Second, in relation to the law pertaining to sex crimes, it appears that the 263rd article, referring to rape crime in Chinese criminal law, contains a series of specific clauses designed to punish offenders who sexually assault women and young girls. It implies that women and young girls are protected equally by the law regardless of social status or wealth. Nevertheless, there are weaknesses in the law, including the fact that male victims are not protected and that marital rape is not defined as a crime. Accordingly, some scholars and researchers are appealing for improvements to the law to bring it in line with recent social developments.

Finally, it is evident that research into rape is being carried out both in the Chinese and the international context. For example, Chinese researchers have started to break through the traditional viewpoint that rape perpetrators are always male, and to explore the reality that perpetrators and victims can be of either sex, and that rape can happen in the context of same-sex and heterosexual relationships (Gu, 2001; Li, 2005; Zhou, 2007). Although research into rape is not a new phenomenon in China, it is possible that it may have stagnated during the ten-year Cultural Revolution (1966–76). Current studies may also lack depth, because they use more quantitative than qualitative data. In the other words, current studies may describe the prevalence of rape but not the experiences of victims and offenders. They describe and explain ‘what’ but not so much ‘how’ and ‘why’.

In particular, current studies on rape in China do not fully address the following issues and questions:

  • How many men have been victims of rape?

  • What is the difference in experiences of rape for woman and men?

  • What can offenders and victims tell us about rape?

  • What attitudes do people have towards rape?

  • What impact does rape have on victims?

(p.74) In addition, these studies may only reflect the researchers' opinions about the reasons for rape rather than the actual reasons as reported by victims and offenders. Currently, there is a lack of more specific studies of rape, especially in relation to victims' experiences and the impact that rape has on them, to offenders' behaviour, and to people's attitudes towards rape. Research should focus not only on description but also on interpretation. This will allow researchers to provide useful suggestions to central government, which will in turn be able to make better laws and policies, and will help to raise people's awareness of rape.

The fact that recent studies are more likely to take a quantitative rather than a qualitative approach may have affected their findings as well as subsequent discussion. These studies show ‘what’ (the frequency of rape, when it occurs and so on), but do not tend to show ‘how’ or ‘why’ (for example, why offenders rape, and the impact of rape on victims). As Reinharz (1992) and Skinner and colleagues (2005) suggest, methods of social research should be plural. This methodological paradigm should be of general concern for Chinese researchers, as plural research methods allow researchers to explore rape further and in greater depth. Furthermore, a variety of methods will help researchers to obtain high-quality data, which will benefit investigations.

Of key importance is the attitude of central government and the Chinese people. They should increase their awareness of the issues surrounding rape and their concern for rape victims, but should not directly or indirectly blame victims. In particular, the government should be aware that rape should invoke the same concern as other social and economic development issues, because it destroys social stability and safety, specifically marriage, family and health. Economic reform cannot be successful without the backdrop of a peaceful environment. At the same time, the government should take positive measures to crack down on rape and other sexual crimes, specifically improving law and policy and providing financial aid for the establishment of organisations that support victims of rape. In this regard, China may lag behind other developed countries such as the US and the UK. Through the actions and efforts of both the government and the Chinese people, it is hoped that rape crime will be reduced and, ultimately, be eliminated in China.

Through this primary exploration of rape, it is the author's future aim to obtain more specific information in relation to professionals' and the general public's attitudes to rape, as well as victims' experiences and the effects of rape. It is hoped that the answers to the questions raised in this research will have useful and significant results for Chinese society.

Further reading

Bibliography references:

Guo, J. (1997) Victimology of Crime, Beijing: Beijing University Press.

Wang, W. (2005) Cases Study on Rape, Beijing: The People's Court Press.

Zhang, G. (2005) On Criminal Cases in Relation to Raping, Abducting and Selling Women, Beijing: China Procurator Press.


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(1) In China the term ‘workers’ refers to people who stay in the towns and cities and gain their income directly through their work. The term is used to differentiate between ‘workers’ and ‘farmers’, the latter group who gain their income indirectly after selling their produce.