Li Tianyi, son of a famous Chinese general, is currently being tried in a case of alleged gang rape along with four of his friends. Referring to this ongoing case, Yi Yanyou, a law professor at Tsinghua University, declared on his microblog account last week: “Even if it was rape, the harm of raping a bar hostess is less than raping a woman from a good family.”
After widespread criticism in the media and on the Internet, Yi deleted the statement and openly apologized for his words.
BEIJING - When I first read Yi’s “raping rhetoric,” I knew right away that he would be subject to severe criticism for three very different but related reasons. First, his statement was contrary to the basic spirit that “everybody is equal before the law." Second, it risks irritating the public who already have an appalling impression of this notorious princeling, Li Tianyi, who a year ago was caught driving a BMW without a license and assaulted a couple in a dispute over a traffic incident. Third, from the perspective of a law professor, such an expression fails to comply with basic academic standards.
However, I do not agree with some of the criticisms leveled at Yi, such as: he "lacks compassion for ordinary people" and "speaks only for his vested interests." Last year, I witnessed in person Yi's courage and professionalism when he provided aid to migrant workers defending their rights in Jiangsu Province. Besides, after realizing his own error he frankly apologized for causing the dismay and stressed that he in no way benefits from this affair.
In my view, it's most likely that Yi was instead clumsy in his discourse and tried to explain on the Internet in just 140 Chinese characters a criminal law issue that is quite complex. Alas, his loose language caused an uproar.
From reading his original text, what Yi may have meant was that compared with a typical rape by force, if the bar girl's behavior gave misleading messages, the criminal liability of the accused can be moderately reduced based on the victim's role. The fact that Yi replaced the concept of "extenuating circumstances" with the term "less harmful" is what triggered the controversy.
I oppose Yi's formulation, but I do not like the way his critics sought to decimate him and his character. Throughout this wave of polemic, a few dared to sympathize with Yi, but they too were roundly attacked.
Meanwhile the besiegers formed a strong and united front -- splendid in their moral superiority in spite of some disinformation. There is a huge gap between the two camps.
While Yi being forced to correct his improper expression was reassuring, the affair viewed in a much wider social context was not positive at all.
Let's be clear: every woman, bar hostess or otherwise, has basic rights that should not be infringed upon. Anyone with a bit of common sense knows this, a fortiori a law professor from a prestigious university.
Nevertheless, some see the affair as a question of defending Yi's rights to free speech and academic freedom in the face of mass cries to defend a victim's dignity.
Thus, there comes the divide and tension between the scholars and the public -- the freedom of academic speech, based on a superiority of knowledge vs. the public sentiment, based on a simple truth.
In a normal social context, a scholar's unusual opinion is there to attract attention and encourage the public to listen to his explanations. This is precisely what society needs in order to break with common prejudices and promote progress and civilization.
Unfortunately, in China, because far too often people hear falsehoods from scholars -- such as "melamine-tainted milk is harmless to humans..." -- they lose their credibility as independent voices. These days in China, titles such as professor or academic have become terms almost as derogatory as Xiao-jie (literally meaning young lady, but associated in practice with prostitutes in mainland China) or comrade (meaning a homosexual).
Facing such a social gap, we should not direct all the blame at the professor who speaks out, but look at it from a deeper social-political context. Because for too long Chinese society has faced political domination, scholars have been afraid or reluctant to speak independently. Even when they speak out, they are tied down by too many interests. Over time, this group of people, who should have originally been the social conscience of society, have become the least trusted of all people.
Thus, while we can agree that Yi's opinion on the rape case is indeed wrong, this endless lambasting and attempts to castigate him should have stopped after he deleted his post and apologized. Only when a society is capable of tolerating plurality of opinions, and even erroneous statements, can it offer its people hope.
In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.
SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.
What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?
But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.
An appetite for gentrification
I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.
In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.
This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.
Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.
Informal street vendors are casualties.
A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.
On paper, this all sounds great.
But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.
This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.
In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.
A call for food justice
Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.
Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.
It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.
In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.
Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.
Upending an existing foodscape
In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.
San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.
Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"
But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.
Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.
All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.
So what happens when new competitors come to town?
Starting at a disadvantage
As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.
My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"
San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.
When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.
Going up against the urban food machine
Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.
I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.
When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.
Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.
It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.
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