Nine men have been arrested over a vicious attack on a group of women at a restaurant in northern China, in a case that prompted outrage over predatory sexual behavior and violence against women.

CCTV footage of the incident widely circulated online shows a man placing his hand on a woman’s back as she shares a meal with two companions at a barbecue restaurant in the city of Tangshan in Hebei province in the early hours of Friday.

After the woman pushes him away, the man strikes her before others drag her outside and deal a barrage of blows as she lies on the ground. Another woman is also knocked to the floor.

The video quickly went viral on China’s internet and renewed a debate about sexual harassment and gender-based violence in a country where the conversation around women’s rights has grown in recent years despite pressure from a patriarchal society, internet censorship and patchy legal support.

Last year, a man threw hot liquid at Xiao Meili, a well-known Chinese feminist, at a restaurant after she asked him to stop smoking. Despite being on the receiving end of the violence, Xiao said she was then repeatedly trolled on China’s internet, where many blamed her for causing trouble.

Internet censors blocked keywords linked to the MeToo movement after a wave of women accused university professors of sexual harassment in 2018. Campaigners also say domestic abuse remains pervasive and under-reported.

Tangshan police said on Saturday that all nine of the men involved in the latest violent incident had been arrested. Responding to the national outrage, the Communist party chief in the city, Wu Weidong, was quoted by local media as saying the men would be punished according to the law and that the authorities should launch a campaign to eradicate “gangsters and evil forces”.

Two women treated at the hospital following the incident were “in stable conditions and not in mortal danger”, while two others sustained minor injuries, authorities said on Friday.

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The attack has shocked China and prompted many to ask why this has happened. “The reason these men felt they could freely assault the woman for rejecting their harassment is because so many men in the past have gone unpunished by the authorities for doing the same,” said Yaqiu Wang, a senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch.

On the social media site Weibo, the related hashtag has generated more than half a billion views and tens of thousands of comments on Saturday, where many users, particularly women, urged the authorities to crack down on gender-based violence.

“All of this could happen to me, could happen to any of us,” said one commenter in a post liked more than 100,000 times.

“How is this sort of thing still happening in 2022?” wrote another. “Please give them criminal sentences, and don’t let any of them get away.”

China Women’s News, published by the All-China Women’s Federation, said in a commentary on Saturday that “there can only, and must only, be zero tolerance for such vicious cases of serious violations of women’s rights and interests”.

Early this year, a video clip that showed a woman with a chain and heavy lock around her neck prompted China’s premier, Li Keqiang, to vow to crack down hard on the trafficking of women and children.

Last year, a Chinese man was sentenced to death for murdering his ex-wife as she livestreamed on social media in a case that shocked the nation.

Agence France-Presse and Reuters contributed to this report

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