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Violence on the home front

Recognizing and putting an end to domestic violence in China.


Violence on the home front

Recognizing and putting an end to domestic violence in China.


In November 2010, Li Yan flipped and began repeatedly smashing her husband in the head with the butt of an air rifle, ultimately killing him. Since almost the moment she had married, Li had been the victim of the very worst kinds of domestic abuse: part of her finger had been sliced off, multiple cigarette burns scarred her face, she had been locked outside on a balcony in the middle of a cold winter wearing nothing but underwear, and she had been mercilessly beaten numerous times, not to mention the sexual abuse. Despite complaints to the police and others about her husband’s relentless violence, nothing had been done. And so, in the middle of a fight, after he had threatened to shoot her, she beat him to death with an air rifle. Panicked at the consequences of what she had done, she attempted to dispose of the evidence by dismembering his body and boiling the pieces. In August 2011, Li was sentenced to death by the Sichuan High People’s Court, causing public outcry.

In her legal defense, she submitted evidence of domestic abuse, including statements from witnesses, police reports, hospital records, and evidence of complaints to various women’s institutions; all were rejected as insufficient proof of domestic abuse. Li appealed against the decision, but the Supreme People’s Court upheld the verdict. In January 2013, over 100 respected academics, lawyers, and NGO workers sent an open letter begging the court to change their decision. Amnesty International, lobbied strongly on Li’s behalf, arguing that if there had been an intervention by the appropriate authorities the situation would have been avoided. In June 2014, after intense pressure and several years of gridlock, in a decision lauded by women’s rights activists, the Supreme People’s Court overturned the verdict and ordered a retrial. Nobody knows how the retrial will go, but it is highly unlikely Li will be sentenced to death a second time. It is hoped that the landmark ruling will be a step to admitting that domestic violence in China is something that will no longer be tolerated—something the police, society at large, and the courts have ignored for far too long.

Pedestrians pass by a banner reading "Stop Domestic Violence" in Hainan Province

Pedestrians pass by a banner reading “Stop Domestic Violence” in Hainan Province

Domestic violence in China occurs on a frightening scale. The All China Women’s Federation (ACWF, 中华全国妇女联合会), a body with close ties to the Communist Party, conducted an extensive survey in 2007, which showed that one third of all Chinese households experienced domestic violence, with 85 percent of the victims being women. Further research by the ACWF showed that 25 percent of all Chinese women will suffer domestic abuse in their lifetime, be it in the form of marital rape, battery, verbal abuse, or the restriction of liberty. What’s worse, it is quite possible that this figure is on the low side. In 2013, Partners for Prevention, a UN program, surveyed 1,000 Chinese men and 52 percent confessed to domestic violence against women. The Chinese Supreme People’s Court claims that ten percent of all intentional homicides in the country involve domestic violence. In 2013, a Beijing court released data that showed only 20 percent of domestic violence cases brought to the courts were recognized as cases of genuine domestic violence. Such violence seems to be twice as common for those living in rural areas as for those in the cities. The abuse is rarely reported as it is widely believed that you “shouldn’t air your dirty linen in public,” and women are told not to reveal family ugliness, or 家丑不可外扬. And, in the rare cases that women do step forward and report it, the police generally write it off as a “family matter” and refuse to do anything about it (as happened with Li Yan). Unless the violence is particularly extreme in nature, quite simply, nothing will be done.

Nor is there a specific law in place to protect women against such abuse effectively. The term “domestic violence” first appeared in Chinese law as part of the Marriage Law of China in 2001 and is also mentioned in the Law on the Protection of the Rights and Interests of Women. But, these are broad laws and do not specifically focus on the issue of domestic violence or provide a definition, offering no guidance on litigation in this regard. Left so very vague, it is intensely difficult to verify in a legal sense. Put simply, China needs a strong domestic violence law, with clear punishments that are rigorously enforced. For now at least, it has none.

As Hong Fen, a psychological counselor and volunteer at the Maple Women’s Psychological Counseling Center (红枫妇女心理咨询中心) in Beijing, a small Chinese NGO set up to protect and fight for women, said in an interview with TWOC: “For now, an anti-domestic violence law has not come into being, so it’s difficult to use the law [to help] since there are no clear lines drawn. With the law, you’d need physical evidence, and perhaps even need to have permanent damage or been handicapped for the law to take effect, a few kicks won’t do.” Women’s groups such as the ACWF and China’s Anti-Domestic Violence Network have been pushing for a law for over 15 years, and both have lobbied and submitted proposals to China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) multiple times. However, as of yet, nothing. Many have blamed the slow progress on a lack of women in the senior levels of politics in Chinese society. The NCP is 73 percent men and no women have ever been on the Politburo’s Standing Committee.

Somewhat surprisingly, the most infamous case of domestic violence in China was committed by a Chinese man, but not against a Chinese woman. Kim Lee, an American citizen, was married to Li Yang, founder of Crazy English,  a highly-successful and somewhat wacky English learning company which taught English using a combination of shouting and fierce patriotism. Through Crazy English, Li became something of a celebrity in China and would teach/shout English to thousands of students at a time and became a multi-millionaire in the process. In September 2010, he found fame for a different reason when his wife Lee posted gruesome pictures of herself on Weibo covered in bruises and badly beaten. Days later she wrote, “You choked my neck with both hands and slammed my head into the floor. When I pried your hands from my neck, you grabbed my hair and slammed my head into the floor ten more times!” The nation was aghast at the injuries, and Li came in for much criticism across China. Li did not attempt to deny the accusations, but instead brought up the very explanation that prevents so many Chinese women from reporting domestic violence in the first place: “I hit her sometimes, but I never thought she would make it public, since it’s not Chinese tradition to expose family conflicts to outsiders.”

Lee went to the police several times, but, as is so common, they saw it as a family matter and urged her to try to reconcile with her husband. Eventually, despite many people telling her that she had no chance of winning, she decided to take the matter to court and file for divorce on grounds of domestic violence. Once again, attitudes toward domestic abuse were shocking, with Li’s lawyer, Shi Ziyue, seemingly under the impression that violence was legitimate in spats between husband and wife, publically stating: “Domestic violence is when a man hits and injures his wife frequently over a long time but has no reason, but my client did that because he had conflicts with his wife.” Eventually, Lee won the case and was awarded full custody of their three children, property worth 1.9 million USD, 50,000 RMB for mental anguish, and 100,000 RMB every year for each child until their 18th birthdays. Many claimed that Lee only won the case due to the fact that she was an American and because Li had such a high profile, suggesting a Chinese woman would have had no such chance. In some quarters, though, Lee was lauded as poster-girl for women who suffer domestic violence in China, and she received tens of thousands of messages in support, giving many others the courage to speak out against domestic violence.

Kim Lee, former wife of Crazy English founder Li Yang, got justice from a Chinese court due to her husband's abuse. Few Chinese women canexpect the same treatment.

Kim Lee, former wife of Crazy English founder Li Yang, got justice from a Chinese court due to her husband’s abuse. Few Chinese women can expect the same treatment.

When Lee was at her lowest ebb, one thing she did do was to contact the aforementioned Maple Women’s Psychological Counseling Center. The center was established in 1988 and in 1992 set up an anonymous hotline to reach out and give advice to women in difficulty. Hong Fen works for Maple and remembers counselling Lee; she is pleased with the wider affects her actions had: “She acted as a role model for abused women, encouraging them to speak out. After that, a lot of women came to find us. But [Lee] also only came for help after she had been beaten several times. She was even beaten during pregnancy. The time she came, she really felt that she couldn’t take it any more.”

For women in China, it often feels like they have little support when it comes to domestic violence, but many small organizations .offer a beacon of hope. Maple originally started the hotline in the early 1990s when the Chinese government restructured its state-run enterprises and millions were laid off, with women particularly being hurt by the lay-offs. Many went from working to suddenly being at home and accordingly experienced marriage difficulties. The hotline was aimed at providing them with an outlet to talk about difficult private problems, but today the vast majority of the calls are about domestic violence. Hong explains Maple’s philosophy: “First, our principle is to go from the woman’s perspective. We first console, because they are usually crying. Then, we ask for their basic information and how they responded to the violence—whether they’ve sought legal help. Then we ask them what they want to do to improve the situation, divorce, or whatever. A lot of women don’t want a divorce; then we suggest a meeting with both her and her  husband. Most of the time, volunteers just can’t do more over the hotline.”

Where possible, Maple encourage the victims to go to the police and report the violence, not so much because of the police response (which they claim has improved) but more to send a message to the husband, to tell him that the violence is unacceptable: “If it’s the first occurrence, volunteers encourage them to have ‘zero tolerance’, to not easily let this go, and, if possible, report it to the police station so they leave a file. It also serves as a warning for the husband. The first time is the most important,” says Hong. Maple is careful not to say anything to these women that would make them feel that they are somehow deserving victims: “We are forbidden from asking, ‘Why did he beat you?’ Because the underlying message from that is, ‘What did you do wrong that made him beat you?’ The first thing we do is make sure that she is safe.”

But Maple is more than just a hotline, and many women go to the center directly, as many of the cases they deal with are harrowing: “We had one woman, a foot masseuse, come in…She had been hit with clothes hangers, ones with iron hooks, and the marks were visible all over her body. She was still terrified and just carried a little bit of money, just enough to get here: no ID, no phone as it had been taken by her boyfriend. They had actually broken up but were  in contact because of their child. Her boyfriend would come to her place for money and beat her up when he wasn’t satisfied with the amount of money or with her attitude…She had no education.”

Another horrific aspect to domestic violence in China is the sexual aspect, more specifically, that of marital rape, which is not considered a crime in China. In October 2010, a man (also) surnamed Li was found not guilty of raping his wife, in a court in Foshan, Guangdong Province. The judge ruled that sexual life was a normal part of marriage and therefore it was not possible for a husband to receive a rape sentence. The judge even went on to claim that such a charge would go against “the country’s customs and habits” and claimed that only if a marriage was in an abnormal situation, such as in the midst of divorce proceedings, could a man be convicted of raping his wife.

Such attitudes are common; with sex being seen as part of married life, consequently, marital rape is all-too frequent, often occurring in tandem with regular domestic violence. Hong is all too familiar with such cases: “A lot of men, after committing physical violence, follow up with sexual violence, regardless of the circumstances. Sexual violence is pretty common. If they do not agree, they [the abuser] just do it anytime they want, even if she is on her period or just after having a baby. If [they] refuse, they are suspected of having an affair.”

With such limited scope for legal redress and outdated attitudes, particularly in rural areas, which see domestic violence as a “family matter”, it is difficult to know what can be done for women in China who suffer from such painful experiences. The old staples are, rightly, trotted out: enhanced education, raising public awareness, changing attitudes, and pushing for changes in the law. But, on a practical-level, there is little help out there, and organizations such as Maple are few and far between. In the West, one of the more practical approaches toward helping women who suffer from domestic abuse is the establishing of women’s shelters, centers where women can go and stay, for varying lengths of time, in a safe community. Such shelters are something that China has tried to embrace.

A local man shows his support by holding up apeanut that says, "A woman suffers from domesticviolence every 15 seconds" at an awarenesscampaign in Shanghai

A local man shows his support by holding up a peanut that says, “A woman suffers from domestic violence every 15 seconds” at an awareness campaign in Shanghai

China’s first such shelter, The New Sun Marriage Center, was set up in 1995, in Wuhan, central China. Since then, several hundred have opened up throughout the country. Sadly, though well-intentioned, they rarely stay open for long, and those that do stay open are nowhere near capacity—occupancy rates often hovering lower than 25 percent. A woman’s shelter needs stable, long-term premises, constant funding, social workers, security guards, and all manner of resources. These things are hard to maintain, and if a shelter remains unoccupied it is quickly put to other uses. One example is the Suzhou Domestic Violence Center that opened in 2003 with an investment of four million RMB. It covers 2,000 square meters, has up to 100 possible beds, and at the time of opening was the largest shelter in China. On average it shelters only six women per month.

The reasons for the low occupancy rates are unclear. Some shelters publish their whereabouts, which renders them near useless, and others have stringent criteria for entry. The women are asked for “proof ” of serious domestic violence, which can be difficult to provide and may be a route the abused may not want to go down. Some refuse entry to people who have relatives in the same city, which, surprisingly enough, covers vast swathes of people. With such strict criteria for entering the shelters, victims often just give up and become resigned to their fate. “There are some shelters [in Beijing], not really refuges, but they can only take you [women] in for a few days, so it’s only a temporary solution…Most of the time the victims aren’t very willing to go. I don’t know how much it helps. We don’t have partnerships with them. Only recently have government organizations come to accept us…There are shelters in other cities, but when we went, there was hardly anyone in them,” says Hong.

A tragic mix of defective (or no) legislation, entrenched thinking that domestic violence should be seen as a family matter, and an inadequate practical response to women’s needs
are all signs that women in China have a long battle to defeat the scourge that is domestic violence, but as grim as all this sounds, things are improving. Li Yan’s verdict was (eventually) overturned; Kim Lee won her divorce case on grounds of domestic violence, and women’s groups willing to fight for their cause are springing up all over China.

Back at Maple, we asked Hong why their small NGO used the maple leaf as their symbol: “It was in the beginning, when Hilary Clinton came to visit us, we were under an umbrella organization that didn’t want us anymore. It was in the autumn. Looking around, every other leaf had fallen from the trees, but the maple leaves hung on. So it was hoped that our organization, like the maple leaves in autumn, could hang on and live on.” And for women throughout China and the rest of the world who suffer from domestic violence, this is what they will continue to do, hang on and fight for brighter days.

This article first appeared in The World of Chinese 2014 Issue 6

Additional research by Weijing Zhu (祝伟婧)