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Society

AN AGE-OLD PROBLEM

A high-profile case involving a teenage girl, her guardian and accusations of rape has forced a nationwide conversation about the sexual abuse of minors, China’s age of consent and protective laws

By NewsChina Updated Jul.1

An ongoing case involving a teenager who claimed her foster father, 48-year-old lawyer and former oil company executive Bao Yuming, had raped her for years has triggered an emotional debate on social media, not only about justice for victims of child sexual abuse, but also issues surrounding China’s legal definition of consensual sex.  

According to initial reports, the alleged victim, Xingxing (pseudonym), had previously filed police reports in Beijing and Yantai, Shandong Province against Bao, but was ultimately turned away for lack of evidence. In despair, she attempted suicide several times.  

But online outrage boiled over on April 12 following a Caixin report on Xingxing’s plight. Critics slammed the Chinese news outlet for victim-shaming and biased reportage, namely Bao’s claims of a romantic relationship - based on online chat records he provided - without presenting Xingxing’s position or comments from her lawyer. 

The Caixin reporter further caught flak on social media for suggesting on her WeChat account that Xingxing took Bao as her “sugar daddy” and went to the press to extort him.  

Caixin took down the article from its website the same day and issued an apology on April 13, calling the article “biased” and “insufficiently sourced.” 

According to police reports, Xingxing, now 18, said Bao began abusing her soon after she turned 14. Bao is licensed to practice law in China and the US, which raised speculation online that he deliberately waited to begin his alleged abuse until Xingxing reached 14, the minimum age for consensual sex.  

China considers a legal adult to be 18.  

Lu Xiaoquan, Xingxing’s attorney, said the case particularly spotlights controversy surrounding China’s age of consent. “It is at the root of Xingxing’s case,” Lu told NewsChina. “And the verdict depends on how we define and understand ‘consensual.’”��

The Exposé 
Xingxing’s mother was introduced to Bao through an online friend in 2015 as a romantic partner, according to Nanfengchuang, the Beijing-based news magazine that first reported on the case in early April. Bao declined the magazine’s request for an interview.  

The article read that Xingxing’s mother was reluctant to enter into a relationship with Bao because of his age but was touched by Bao’s care for her and Xingxing. Considering his success, Xingxing’s mother said she had believed that Bao could provide her daughter with a better life and education.  

She eventually allowed Bao to foster Xing -xing, who moved into his Beijing home when she was 13. The guardianship was informal, as Chinese law says an unmarried man must be at least 40 years older than the female minor he is adopting. Bao is 30 years older than Xingxing.  

Xingxing told Nanfengchuang that Bao raped her on New Year’s Eve 2015, beginning years of sexual abuse. Xingxing claimed Bao had forced her to have sex, pose naked for photos and watch child pornography.  

In 2016, Bao and Xingxing moved to Yantai, Shandong Province, where Bao served as vice president of Chinese energy company Jereh Group. He would later become an adviser for telecom giant ZTE. 

Following the Nanfengchuang report, Jereh Group ended its contract with Bao. ZTE claimed that Bao had stepped down from their board voluntarily.  

Soon after, Bao talked with Nanfengchuang through a spokesperson. He denied the accusations, claiming that he never intended to marry Xingxing’s mother, who had pleaded with him to foster Xingxing.  

He also said Xingxing was already over 14 when they first met and Xingxing’s mother consented to their marriage once she reached the legal age, which is 20.  

Bao maintained that he and Xingxing were in a consensual, romantic relationship, and Xingxing only reported him to police because he had refused her “excessive demands,” without clarifying further.  

Nowhere to Turn
According to China’s Criminal Law, sexual intercourse with a girl under 14 is considered child sexual abuse, regardless of circumstances. As Xingxing was over the age of consent police treated her report as a rape case.  

According to Nanfengchuang, Xingxing first turned to Beijing police for help in 2016 after she consulted with an online doctor about “pain in her private parts,” who told her that she might have been raped. According to police reports, an initial search of Bao’s residence in Beijing revealed no evidence of rape, and the case was closed. 

In April 2019, Xingxing turned to the police in Yantai following a suicide attempt. This time, she presented evidence including tissues containing her blood and Bao’s semen, several photos and chat records that showed Bao’s control over her. Police refused to take on her case, saying there was not enough evidence to press rape charges. 

Xingxing again attempted suicide by jumping into a river. She was then sent to hospital where she was diagnosed with severe anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In October 2019, Yantai police reopened the case under pressure from Xingxing’s first lawyer.  

But Xingxing’s current attorney Lu said their case still hinges on evidence proving that the sexual relationship was against Xingxing’s will.  

“I noticed that the case has led many people to blame the police for being indifferent and neglecting their duties. I have no idea whether there is some corruption involved [as some netizens claim], but in my experience collecting evidence in a rape case is truly difficult, especially when the victim did not report it immediately afterward,” a former police officer in Shaanxi Province told NewsChina on condition of anonymity.  

“For example, it takes a lot of money and resources to verify chat records with online platforms,” he said. “But if a 13-year-old was raped, settling such a case would be much easier,” he added.  

Media reports said that Xingxing once told police in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province, where she and her mother lived, that she was younger than her ID shows. Nanjing officers ordered Xingxing to undergo a bone ossification test to determine her age and visited her mother’s midwife at her hometown, which verified her ID.  

China’s legal age of consent derives from a previous version of the Criminal Law on the rape of girls aged 14 and younger. In March 2002, China's Supreme People’s Court and Supreme People’s Procuratorate issued a supplementary rule that defined sex with a girl under 14 as rape no matter whether the sex was consensual or not.  

In her blog in 2012, Chinese sexologist Li Yinhe commented on a case involving a 16-year-old boy who was sentenced to one year and three months in prison for having sex with his 13-year-old girlfriend. Li appealed for the courts to consider whether the sex was consensual instead of judging it based on age. She even suggested canceling the age of consent. 

“Compared to other countries, China’s age of consent is low. It seems that China values children’s rights as a sexual subject rather than merely regarding them as potential victims,” she wrote. “We should feel proud that we are more advanced than Western countries in the legislation.”  

Xingxing’s case, however, has reopened debate about adolescent sexuality.  

Shao Mingyan, an associate professor of law at Beijing Union University, told NewsChina that in his view, given China’s laggard sex education and the later physical maturity of Asians compared to Westerners, 14 is not old enough for minors to have legal sexual autonomy. 

In a commentary for news portal The Paper, contributor Zhu Guangxing wrote China’s age of consent was “too low” for Chinese society. “The age of consent should match the sexual maturity and knowledge of the defined group... While in China, lack of sex education has made many minors ignorant of sex and its consequences,” he wrote.  

Jiemian, a news portal based in Shanghai, cited a study from the Sociology and Sex Education Research Center, Chengdu University of Technology that says in some cases minors between 13 and 17 have trouble clearly refusing sex or even unknowingly consent to it because of lack of awareness or sex education. For similar reasons, Yuan Ningning, an associate professor at the Chinese University of Political Science and Law and expert on juvenile law, told Jiemian he supports raising the age of consent to 16.  

More Than A Number  
Yet others believe that age is not the actual issue. “The age of consent was defined based on a wide range of cases, not a few individual cases. Given the rapid social development and changing attitudes toward sex, the age of consent should be lowered rather than raised even though there is need of revision,” Wang Xiaoming, a retired law professor from Beijing Union University, told NewsChina. 

Hou Zhiming, deputy director of the Maple Women’s Psychological Consulting Center, a Beijing-based NGO that helps female victims of abuse, agrees. An experienced counselor in sexual abuse cases, Hou said the ability of law enforcement to check and prove consent is key. Xingxing’s repeated pleas to police for help are evidence she did not consent to a sexual relationship with Bao, she said. 

“I admire Xingxing very much for her courage to speak out and report the sexual abuse,” Hou said. “You know, this will end her affluent life with Bao, which I think proves that Xingxing hated her relationship with Bao and shows that age was not the issue here,” Hou added.  

Li Yinhe agreed. She recently told Legal Weekly, a newspaper under the Committee of Political and Legal Affairs of the CPC Central Committee, that age of consent was not the issue in Xingxing’s case, since she has expressed her “unwillingness” to engage in sexual relations by going to the police.  

“Many victims of sexual abuse did not have a strong reaction to the sexual abuse at first, but that does not mean that they consented to sex and were not hurt,” Hou said.  

She cited a former case involving a 17-year-old girl who was raped by a local government official after they had met on the internet. “The girl was very quiet following the rape and she even waved goodbye to the official... but her mother noticed later that day that she spent much time taking a bath and crying in her own room,” she said. “Suspects often use a victim’s delayed reaction as a defense, so police have to be more discerning at collecting evidence,” she said. 
 
“So far, there has been no evidence that proves Xingxing consented to the sexual relationship, and even it was consensual, we have to check if it was true or merely seemed like consent,” Lu told NewsChina.  

“We have to take many things into consideration, including her age, sexual awareness and physical condition… and how they got along with each other,” she added. 

According to Lu, a Supreme People’s Court interpretation from 2013 should specifically protect Xingxing. It states a guardian who has sex with his ward aged 14 or older by taking advantage of his superior status, the minor’s isolation or helplessness, would be charged with rape. 

Although Bao claims he and Xingxing were consensual lovers and did not have a foster father-daughter relationship, Lu said submitted evidence could prove a de facto guardianship between Bao and Xingxing.  

Lack of Protection
However, critics argue this interpretation is weaker than a formal law and burdens the victim with proving coercion. 

In 2015, Chinese law expert Zhao Hejun wrote a commentary on isixiang.com, an idea-sharing website, criticizing Chinese laws regarding sexual abuse of minors as “too simple.” 

According to Zhao, age of consent laws in many countries have hierarchical protections, or specific laws depending on age and situation, such as statutory rape. 

However, China only has one interpretation, which according to experts is seldom enforced in court.  

Interestingly, Bao agreed with Zhao. In a 2011 entry on his blog about sexual abuse, Bao concluded that China’s judicial system did not provide minor females with enough protection from sexual abuse.  

Bao is now on bail and presenting his side on social media. On May 1, Bao posted on Sina Weibo “10 questions to Xingxing,” where he denied all of Xingxing’s claims again and accused her of filing false police reports. The next day, Bao posted a much harsher criticism of Xingxing, saying she is trying to frame him, blacken the name of law enforcement and divide netizen opinion.  

While Bao’s posts have enraged many, they seem to have convinced a small minority online that now accuses Xingxing of playing for public sympathy to help sway her case and some doubted if she was plotting with her mother to extort a large settlement from Bao.  

“[Society] is very harsh on girls. People often ignore the fact that Xingxing was a minor when Bao had sex with her. We can’t demand that victims fit the law perfectly,” Hou said.  

“We should always adhere to the ‘children first’ principle [according to the UN’s Convention on the Rights of the Child] when dealing with such cases, but few do,” she added.  

Xingxing and her family have refused media interviews to prevent disturbance and secondary hurt. On April 30, a netizen who identified as Xingxing’s sister posted chat records from Xingxing that read she was cooperating with the investigation every day and on the brink of a nervous breakdown.  

"I’ve submitted so much evidence to prove it was rape and the only thing I have left to prove myself is death,” the record read.  

Li Ying, a lawyer who had previously served as counsel to Xingxing, told NewsChina that the police had ignored Xingxing’s severe anxiety and trauma during their investigation. Officers repeatedly asked Xingxing to recall the sexual abuse while offering little to no guarantee of protection. While taking her statement, a policeman in Yantai even grabbed Xingxing by the neck as she claimed Bao had done. According to Nanfengchuang, Xingxing also hit her own head to force herself to continue with her statement.  

“There should have been a gentler approach... and they at least should have had a policewoman take the statement,” Li said.  

“If we do not have awareness and cannot provide an environment that values protecting and supporting minors, raising the age of consent to even 17 or 18 years old is meaningless,” Hou said.  

Shao argued that changing the age of consent should hinge on having effective laws in place and prevailing societal attitudes. “[Age of consent] is a protective law, not a ‘prospective’ one. I mean, you can’t keep it low when so many other things are lagging,” he said.

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