“I was scared to death, but my sister always told me this is normal around the New Year,” says Jessica, a young woman in Guangzhou, who was recently stalked by a strange man on the subway.
Jessica, who requested that we only use her first name, was riding the metro home alone from work around 11.30pm when she noticed a man slowly moving towards her – staring at her. Despite waiting till the last second to depart the train in an effort to ditch him, the man, appearing in his mid-30s, had followed her into the station.
Fortunately, the station was still fairly busy and she was able to stay close to a large group of people before breaking into a run – the man abandoned his pursuit.
The unsettling story takes a bizarre turn when Jessica brushes it off by saying, “It’s that time of year.”
She says that in the weeks before and during Spring Festival, incidents like this are very common. Her older sister had warned her years before when she moved to Guangzhou for university.
Within that same week, Chen Lu, a young woman living in Guangdong’s capital city, had a similar incident occur. In her case, a man followed Chen off the train and repeatedly asked her to stop and exchange WeChats. She tried to ignore him as he followed her for several minutes until she got on the phone and told her boyfriend to come quickly and meet her.
Chen too dismissed it as being a common occurrence during the lead-up to the holiday. Both girls suggested, somewhat innocently, that it was just because these men wanted to steal from them.
On January 7, popular cosmetics brand Purcotton released an ad that made light of these encounters. The video featured a young woman walking alone on a dark street with a masked man trailing her. She appears visibly distressed and, as the man approaches, she reaches into her purse and removes something. The assailant lays a hand on her shoulder and she turns around, now replaced with a male actor – suggesting that women could avoid this situation if they removed their makeup.
Chinese netizens were quick to condemn the victim-blaming message that the ad conveyed and the video was removed and replaced with an apology from the parent company by the following evening.
Watch the controversial advertisement below (VPN off):
One netizen commented, “What is the meaning of this advertisement? The brand believes that being tailed is related to [a woman’s] appearance, so it is the victim’s fault rather than the abnormality of the pervert tailing them?”
The timing of the ad, released during the same period when these incidents are more frequent, suggests that this is a systemic problem that is common knowledge and yet seemingly not taken as seriously.
We reached out to a Guangzhou government representative who confirmed that these incidents do occur more often around the Spring Festival and that police were aware of the situation. His rationale was that many companies hold their end of year parties and, as a result, there are more drunk men wandering the streets late at night.
He acknowledged that women were the victims of this behavior and said police launch initiatives to inform young women at universities. When asked if there were any statistics that he could share, he said that nobody was doing this kind of research and data was not available.
We followed up with a professor at South China Normal University to learn if these initiatives were, in fact, being carried out on campuses. In turn, he asked his students and one girl had this to say, “…Because of the large flow of people [before and] during the Spring Festival, the overall situation is chaotic and many people want to take advantage of the chaos [for] theft. We have been taught to be vigilant in this [time] since childhood. The school has not done a good job in this respect and there are no posters.”
Rather than put up posters, the university issues safety bulletins via WeChat reminding students to be more vigilant around the holidays. The bulletins do not, however, mention any specifics about what situations to be mindful of.
On Chinese social media, it’s common to see PSAs (public service announcements) about pocket thieves, car burglars and shoplifters this time of year. Unfortunately, stalking and harassment appears to be downplayed.
A local court’s official Weibo account warning shop owners about shoplifters around Spring Festival. Screengrab via @亞布力人民檢察/Weibo
In the US, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BSJ) releases annual crime data and surveys victims from a wide cross-section of American society. It’s speculated that there is an increase in theft and household burglaries around Christmas, potentially due to the added financial pressure of the holidays.
China’s Spring Festival brings on many of the same pressures – possibly even more so with everyone encouraged to bring special New Year’s gifts (年貨) back to their families.
Regardless of what the real motives are behind the increase in these incidents, more needs to be done to understand and prevent them from occurring as well as protect victims.
[Cover image via That’s]