A cartoon in response to the incident. weibo

A case of suspected child rape involving two men, an elementary school principal and a public servant, and six sixth-grade girls is causing outrage in China. The incident spurred a new round of debate regarding China’s controversial “prostitution with a girl under 14” law, which many believe lets rapists and pedophiles off easy, according to QQ News.

Six girls from an elementary school in Wanning city, in the southern island province of Hainan, went missing at the same time last Tuesday. Local police found four of the girls on Wednesday, the other two not until Thursday morning, when it was discovered they had been taken to hotel rooms by two men, one of them the principal at their elementary school, the other a public official.

The press initially reported that the girls had many bruises on their bodies, including vaginal trauma. Later, the press unanimously changed its stories to report the men only took the girls to hotel rooms and did not have sexual relations with them. The stories avoided the word “rape.” The principal has been fired by the school, and the girls are undergoing one-on-one therapy to help them cope with the incident.

A cartoon in response to the incident. weibo

This is the latest of many scandals involving public servants and underage girls in China, where the age of consent is set at 14. From 2007 to 2008, more than 10 elementary school pupils, many under the age of 14, were forced to prostitute themselves to public officials. Similarly in 2008, nine girls were reportedly forced into prostitution, all of them under 14. In 2009, a high-ranking official in a provincial judicial bureau in Yunnan province slept with underage girls, according to QQ News.

What is most interesting and saddening is that in these cases, perpetrators are not always punished, owing to a loophole in the law. Having sex with anyone under the age of 14 was considered rape in China, consent or not, but the law was changed in 1997. Under this new law, with consent, even if a girl is under 14, the perpetrator may be allowed to go free as long as he claims not to know the girl is under 14. If, in addition, money is involved in the transaction, the perpetrator is usually prosecuted for “patronizing a prostitute,” which usually carries a sentence of five to 15 years in jail, instead of the far more serious crime of rape.

Only when a girl does not consent to sex is the perpetrator considered a rapist, a crime punishable by death in China. This is in sharp contrast with laws in most countries, where sex with someone under the age of consent is considered rape with or without consent, with the understanding that before that age, a child is not capable of legally giving consent.

It will be interesting to see how this case will be addressed, since the girls are clearly under 14, but with mainstream media aligned in denying sexual relations in this particular incident and avoiding the word “rape” altogether, netizens are as usual taking to Weibo, their only outlet, to express outrage and disbelief. They are calling for the repeal of the 1997 law. According to Zhang Lirong, an assistant professor at China Women’s University, the law, by relaxing the application of the death penalty associated with such cases, has encouraged an increase in sex with girls under the age of 14.

“Rape is rape, why call it ‘taking elementary school girls to a hotel’? Our media is so forgiving!” Weibo user 小鱼的褪色裤子 wrote. “If the editor-in-chief of a newspaper had a daughter in elementary school who came back after a whole night with vaginal trauma, would he simply say, someone took my daughter to a hotel room?”

“I called it when I saw newspapers kept saying, ‘a principal took students to a hotel room’. Hotel room was all over the media,” user 于立生 wrote. “They are leaving themselves wiggle room. Then I read the Xinhua [state-owned news agency] story and as expected, they are calling it ‘indecency with children’.”

“I believe they didn’t have sex with the kids,” 作家-天佑 wrote sarcastically. “They must have been using their spare time to tutor the students and help with their homework. The rest of us should learn from their selfless dedication.”