HONG KONG — A public outcry in China over the case of a woman arrested for stabbing to death a local official who assaulted her after she refused to provide sexual services reflects the widespread distrust of officials and sympathy for the underdog — even someone who may face murder charges.

The woman involved, 21-year-old Deng Yujiao, a waitress in the Xiongfeng Hotel in Badong county of Hubei province, apparently resisted when three officials demanded “special services.”

After some pushing and shoving, she lashed out with a knife, stabbing 44-year-old Deng Guida, who later died, as well as injuring Huang Dezhi, 41. A third official, Deng Zhongjia, 45, was also present. All three men worked for the business promotion office in the town of Yesanguan. The man who died was its director and the two others his deputies. The Dengs are not related.

The woman apparently called the police and turned herself in. Subsequently, it was reported that she was being detained on suspicion of murder. After the news broke, there was a strong public reaction.

Within a week, more than 50,000 people had posted comments on the case on Sina.com, a popular forum.

While the authorities in the beginning refused to comment, the public reaction caused the Badong police to issue news bulletins on the case, followed by the township government itself taking over and appointing a spokesman.

Strangely, the Badong government then announced that the woman’s mother, Zhang Shumei, had fired two Beijing lawyers who were handling the case. In China, it is not unusual for the government — or the police — to try to influence the choice of lawyers in a sensitive case or to put pressure on the lawyers directly.

The Deng Yujiao case has caught the public imagination. A group of university students in Beijing staged a public demonstration with one woman, wrapped in white cloth and wearing a face mask, bearing a sign: “Anyone may become Deng Yujiao.”

The public reaction is reminiscent of a case in Shanghai last year when a young man, Yang Jia, dashed into a police station and stabbed six policemen to death. It turned out that he had been previously abused by the police when they suspected him of being a bicycle thief. The case of Yang Jia became a cause celebre, with many people rooting for him even after he was convicted of murder. He was eventually executed.

The Deng Yujiao case sparked anger because it was seen as a case of a lone woman pitted against three rich and powerful men who were demanding sexual favors. One of the officials repeatedly slapped her on the head with a thick wad of cash.

There were also suspicions that the local government was initially trying to help the officials by depicting Deng, whom the public saw as the victim, as little more than a prostitute.

It is clear that many people in China do not have faith in the authorities, including the police and the court system. There is no rule of law as understood in the outside world. Until China develops such a system, a lot of people will continue to identify with individuals who dare to take on the authorities, cheering on those who have the courage to defy those in positions of power.

The widespread public support for Yang Jia did not help him escape capital punishment. It remains to be seen whether the support for Deng Yujiao will help her escape a charge of murder.

One positive sign is that the case has attracted attention in Beijing. On May 26, she was released on bail after having been held on suspicion of murder for more than two weeks.

Then, on June 1, the official Xinhua News Agency reported that both officials present when Deng Guida was stabbed have been fired.

Huang, who was injured in the incident, was also kicked out of the Communist Party because he had “pushed, shoved and verbally insulted a waitress who refused to accompany them to take a bath,” Xinhua reported. According to the news agency, his colleague was fired because the incident had caused a “bad social effect.”

If, in spite of everything, the police should decide to charge her with murder, there may well be protests across the country. Although a murder charge appears unlikely, Deng Yujiao is by no means out of the woods yet. Still, officials, aware of the public mood, may well want to proceed with caution. After all, she is now a national hero.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator (Frank.ching@gmail.com).

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