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Rape Trial Casts Attention on Offspring of China’s Elite

By CHRIS BUCKLEY, HONG KONG (NY Times): A gang-rape trial that opened in Beijing on Wednesday accompanied by a blaze of local media attention has become China’s latest legal spectacle to cast attention on the lifestyles, and alleged misdeeds, of the political elite.

One of the five defendants is Li Tianyi, a 17-year-old whose privileged background and past misdeeds have made him the focus of a media and Internet uproar about what many see as the sordid ways of the offspring of the political elite. Mr. Li is the son of celebrity singers for the People’s Liberation Army and ran into legal trouble before the rape charges.

The prosecutors allege that the defendants — Mr. Li, three other minors and a 23-year-old man — took a young woman they had met in a bar in February to a hotel room in Beijing, beat her, forced her to strip and sexually assaulted her, according to a report on the Web site of the People’s Daily newspaper.

Like the recent trial of Bo Xilai, the fallen former politician, the case has become an intensely watched and debated parable about the privileges and limited accountability of the Communist Party’s highborn. And accusations against the woman who says she was raped have stirred discussion about how the Chinese media and courts deal with victims of sexual assault and minors accused of crimes.

“The factor behind why the media and everyone is so interested in this case is that it’s about the so-called ugly officials and ugly rich,” said Lu Pin, who helps run the Media Monitor for Women Network, an advocacy group in Beijing.

“Everyone wants to see them exposed in disgrace, because in the majority of cases nothing is ever revealed,” Ms. Lu said in a telephone interview. “But in fact, opinion can also easily be turned so that this becomes a trial of the victim.”

Chinese news Web sites have devoted special subsites to the case, and they showed pictures of journalists jammed behind police cordons outside the courthouse on Wednesday, although the trial is closed to the public. The defendants, including Mr. Li, answered questions in court about the charges, the official news agency, Xinhua, reported. Mr. Li denied that he had beaten or had had sex with the woman, according to the Web site of The Beijing News. But he also said he was too drunk to know anything, the report said. The trial will continue on Thursday; Chinese courts usually give verdicts about two weeks after a trial ends.

But for Mr. Li’s high profile, the case probably would never have ignited the uproar. His father, Li Shuangjiang, is a highly ranked People’s Liberation Army singer — sometimes, mistakenly, called a general in Chinese news reports — famed for his rousing odes to the party, patriotism and military virtues. The suspect’s mother, Meng Ge, is also a well-known military singer.

The cherub-faced Mr. Li was also dabbling with a musical career, but he won notoriety in 2011, when a BMW he was driving hit another car. He and another teenager stepped out and beat and threatened the couple in the other car. The police later sent him to a labor camp for juvenile offenders, and since then his struggles have been chronicled in the Chinese media much as American entertainment news outlets track the wayward children of Hollywood stars.

“This case caters to the Chinese people’s hatred of officials, the wealthy, and celebrities,” Chen Youxi, a prominent Chinese lawyer, said in an interview with Phoenix television, a broadcaster based in Hong Kong. “Any incident that involves a famous person, a wealthy person or a princeling, public opinion will be naturally inclined to hate them, to attack them.”

China’s courts are run by the Communist Party, but both sides in the case have sought to recruit public opinion to shore up their cases. Ms. Meng accused the manager of the bar where her son met the woman of running a prostitution ring and trying to blackmail her family. A law professor in Beijing suggested that the victim was a prostitute, asserting that she had endured less harm than a “chaste” woman. News reports have said the victim worked as a secretary.

The professor later withdrew the comments and apologized. Ms. Lu, the women’s rights advocate, said the notion that a sex worker was entitled to less protection showed the pressures that women encounter when they file sex assault charges.

“Behind this is the fact that views about sex in China are particularly unfair to women,” Ms. Lu said. “If you’re a victim and you want to use public opinion to defend your rights, you pay the price through having your moral reputation being torn apart.”

Amy Qin contributed reporting from Beijing, and Mia Li contributed research from Beijing.

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