Chinese prosecutors said Monday they had launched criminal proceedings against 28 people suspected of assaulting a group of women in a viral incident that sparked outrage over gender-based violence in the country.

Footage of a group of men assaulting four women at a barbecue restaurant in Tangshan, east of the capital Beijing, was shared widely online, renewing debate about violence against women in China.

A screenshot of the security footage that captured the attack. Photo: Screenshot.

The men carried out the assault after the women rejected their advances, the footage showed.

Prosecutors in Hebei province said they would begin legal proceedings against the suspects — including seven directly involved in the assault — after they obtained “reliable and sufficient” evidence.

The statement, shared on China’s Twitter-like Weibo service, did not specify a criminal charge.

Police identified the prime suspect in the attack as “Chen”, saying he “recklessly used violence to commit evil”, according to state broadcaster CCTV.

Following the attack Tangshan authorities sacked the city’s deputy police chief and five other police officers, and also launched a crackdown against organised crime.

Discussion of feminism has grown in the country despite pressure from its patriarchal society, widespread censorship and patchy legal support for victims.

People outside Haidian People’s Court, Beijing in support of the #metoo movement. File photo.

But viral online essays slamming the attack as symbolic of the country’s larger problem of gender-based violence were censored.

Two women were hospitalised following the incident and two others sustained minor injuries, authorities said.

Women’s rights campaigners say domestic abuse remains pervasive and under-reported in China, while prominent feminists also face regular police harassment and detention.

Local journalists who travelled to Tangshan to seek information about the victims were harassed, intimidated and even detained, according to the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

In early August, a Tangshan man allegedly killed his girlfriend by repeatedly running her over with his car in broad daylight.

Surveillance footage of the incident sparked widespread outrage online before being censored.

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