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How China keeps its streets safe for women

This article first appeared in CNBC TV-18 on December 10, 2019 and can be accessed here.

China is notoriously safe – for everyone. It has some of the lowest crime rates in the world. Its homicide rate is 0.62 per million population, and violent crime has apparently fallen by 42% between the years 2012 and 2016. There’s a lot to be said about the underreporting both by the people and by the government. But, even if you don’t believe the numbers provided by the Chinese government, it definitely feels safe. In fact, it’s so safe that in July 2019 the Chinese government actually issued a travel advisory to its citizens in the United States to remain safe against the backdrop of “shootings, robberies and thefts [that] have occurred frequently in the United States.”

China is keen to assure both its citizens and the outside world that law and order has prevailed over instability. One way this has been done is through surveillance, which has particularly stepped up over the last two years. In a ranking based on the number of CCTV cameras per 1000 people, eight out of the ten most surveilled cities are in China. Facial recognition, social credit, biometrics and social media also play a huge part in the surveillance regime.

China has consistently ranked low in violent crime. This could be partly attributed to fear – of retribution, of the government and of neighborhood informers. I think about this often, particularly because as an Indian woman, I am constantly conditioned to look over my shoulder, to get home early and to feel safer if a man I know is around. I think of the last week in India where one woman was gangraped and then set on fire in Hyderabad to hide evidence while another was set on fire while on her way to court to carry a case out against her rapists. I am a little thankful to have the privilege to live in a safer country.

But how much of this privilege is that of being a foreign woman? Common conceptions of public safety do not include sexual harassment. According to a 2015 survey by China Youth Daily, 53.5% of the respondents reported that they or women they knew had been harassed on public transit. Didi’s carpooling service, Hitch, was suspended last year when two Chinese women were raped and murdered by the drivers. When the app relaunched in November 2019, it stepped up its security measures by imposing an 8pm curfew for women – a move that received huge backlash that led to the app reinstating the same cut-off time for everybody.

In October this year, a man was sentenced to six months of prison for groping two women on the Shanghai subway. This may seem insignificant but is a breakthrough for public safety of Chinese women. Earlier, sentences for harassment were typically ten or fifteen days of detention without any real consequence. This can be coupled with other awareness campaigns and policy measure against harassment. But these small changes have come after huge battles. In 2018, five women were detained for 37 days for planning to distribute stickers on awareness of harassment on International Women’s Day.

China has come a long way since Mao Zedong proclaimed that “Women Hold Up the Sky” but Chinese women still face discrimination in personal and public spaces – constrained by the society and the government alike. While violent crime is not a feature of Chinese streets, women have to fight against everything that comes with “straight man cancer or male chauvinism. This column hasn’t even touched upon the problems in dealing with rape and domestic violence in China. Many of the battles that women face in China have shifted to private spaces, in homes and offices. And all of these battles are difficult and pressing. It reminds me that being a woman is not necessarily easier in one place or another and it’s all the more reason for us to extend our solidarity.

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