BEIJING -- It was, arguably, the trial of the year in China. No, not the showpiece event that last month sent Bo Xilai, the political princeling and challenger to the throne of Xi Jinping, China's president, to jail for life.
It was another trial in September, at which a court jailed another member of China's elite, Li Tianyi, the 17-year-old son of prominent entertainers in the military, to 10 years in prison for gang rape, with four others. An important detail in the court's ruling may improve the lives of millions of Chinese, feminist legal scholars say.
Essentially, the Haidian District Court in Beijing ruled that even if a woman is a sex worker, as Mr. Li alleged, that doesn't mean it's O.K. to rape her.
"The court didn't go along with a quite widespread attitude, and an argument of the defense, that women in this line of business, women who are not virgins, deserve what they get," said Zhang Rongli, a professor of law at the China Women's University.
"I feel the court's decision is a very good answer to that argument and to that prejudice that you can divide women into good and bad women," Ms. Zhang said. "That was really well done of the court."
Of course, this isn't to say the trial of Mr. Bo, a former Communist Party secretary of Chongqing and son of one of the most famous revolutionaries, Bo Yibo, was not very important. It was.
But ask any well-informed Chinese and they will tell you it was also politics as usual, the outcome of a bitter "palace struggle" for power by members of the ruling circle. The accusations of corruption and abuse of power, upheld by the court, are numbingly familiar to ordinary people as they go about the daily business of raising their families and getting by.
The case against Mr. Li and his friends, on the other hand, has set an important and highly visible legal precedent and highlighted the welfare of the women who work in China's illegal but widespread sex industry as well as the arrogance of China's well-connected, gilded youth, scholars said.
Here are the facts, according to a document on the court's Web site. (Ms. Zhang said the verdict has not yet been released in its entirety. The case was heard in a closed court since four of the five defendants are juveniles.)
In the early hours of Feb. 17, Mr. Li and his friends were drinking, singing and playing games with the victim, identified as Ms. Yang, and another person surnamed Xu, in a bar in the basement of the Dongyuan Building in Haidian district, the capital's university area, in a party arranged by a Ms. Zhang, who worked at the bar. According to local news reports, Ms. Yang worked at a company and was a part-time university student and a bar hostess.
Later, they left in a car with an intoxicated-appearing Ms. Yang who, realizing that she was alone with the men, asked to leave. They refused and, using violence, brought her to a hotel room in the Hubei Building, where they raped and assaulted her between 5:50 and 7:30 a.m., the court said. Mr. Li was the main perpetrator and showed no remorse, it said.
To provide some context: In a report released last month by four U.N. agencies, titled "Why do some men use violence against women and how can we prevent it?" 22.2 percent of 998 Chinese men reported that they had raped a woman, including a partner; 2.2 percent said they had taken part in a gang rape.
The survey, of more than 10,000 men in six Asian countries, put China's gang rape figure behind those of Papua New Guinea (14 percent) and Cambodia (5.2 percent), but ahead of Sri Lanka (1.6 percent) and Bangladesh (average 1.65 percent, urban and rural.)
Zhang Rongli, the law professor, said that about 30,000 rape cases are reported annually to the police in China but that the figure is presumed to be a small percentage of the actual crimes.
Across Asia, the U.N. report said, most men who commit rape go unpunished: "The study found that the vast majority of men who had perpetrated rape (72–97 percent in most sites) did not experience any legal consequences."
That makes the Beijing trial important by any measure, especially when seen together with the court's rejection of the argument by Mr. Li's lawyers and his mother, the glamorous singer Meng Ge, that the victim was to blame, for the "mistake" of being a bar hostess and a non-virgin.
Here's what the court said: "As for the assertion about whether the victim was or was not a 'bar hostess' or a virgin," that was a question of "individual privacy," which "has no influence on the determination of the facts of the case."
The ruling will carry weight, Ms. Zhang said.
"If the Haidian Court made this judgment, can you reach a different judgment in your province or district? Not really. The law must be applied across the nation uniformly," she said.
Also, she said, "It was decided in Beijing, and that has a disproportionate national influence."
While no exact figures are available for how many women work in the sex industry in China, many believe it is many millions -- and perhaps some tens of millions, when the entire range of services is taken into account including massage, hairdressing, bar hostessing and other often-ambiguous occupations, as well as outright prostitution.
China stands "at the beginning" of any awareness of gender and the law, said Ms. Zhang, making the ruling an especially important one.
Ms. Zhang, who is a co-editor of a recently published university textbook titled "Gender and Law" (she believes it's the first of its kind in China), says so far only three universities are using it in their law departments. Those are her own China Women's University, Wuhan University and China University of Political Science and Law.
"Gender is not part of the law school curriculum. It's only just started," she said.
"People think we already have equality, so it's not necessary," she said. "In fact inequality is a very politically sensitive issue here. But there are a few sprouts."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times. First Published October 8, 2013 2:01 PM