Ed. note: This post was originally published on the Community site.
*Trigger warning: domestic violence and sexual assault*
The first rule of domestic violence in China is don’t talk about domestic violence in China. Victims face “fear and shame” when they speak out within”a culture that denies there is a problem,” as Kim Lee, an American advocate who was married to an abusive Chinese partner, told the New York Times. Abusers are almost never held to account. Confucian patriarchal norms blame women for domestic discords, inadequate law enforcement has little understanding of abusive relationship dynamics, and the public is largely apathetic. Though pending legislative changes may better situation, China is to date an ideal place for domestic violence perpetrators. If you are a victim of domestic violence in China and kill your abuser in self-defense, you face death penalty. But if you beat your partner to death, you only need to serve six years in prison. While people of all genders face intimate partner violence, Chinese women are disproportionately affected, and nearly 40% of Chinese women have experienced intimate violence. That number could be as high as 420 million.
Among the millions of Chinese women who suffer from domestic violence, two high-profile stories should be told conjointly.
In 2009, Dong Shanshan (董珊珊), a 26-year-old woman from Beijing, died at the hand of her husband. According to her mother, Dong called the police eight times asking for help before her death. The police refused to intervene, citing “unwillingness to interfere with domestic affairs” as the reason.
According to the China Central Television (CCTV), the official state broadcaster, Dong called the police early-on to report the abuses by her husband, Wang Guangyu. The abuses begun during their honeymoon. In April 2009, Dong returned to her parents’ home and filed for divorce. In the next four months, she tried to escape from her husband multiple times. In response, Wang repeatedly and forcibly abducted her, coercing her into dropping the divorce case and threatening to kill her parents. In August 2009, Dong escaped one last time to seek her parents’ help. At that point, Dong was bruised and suffering from retroperitoneal hemorrhage. On October 19, 2009, after 10 months of being married and brutally battered, Dong died from battery-induced internal bleeding and severe injuries.
Wang, Dong’s perpetrator, was sentenced to six and half years in prison. He is expected to be released by 2015 or 2016.
Meanwhile, Li Yan (李彦), a woman from Sichuan Province, found herself in similar situation as Dong: since marrying Tan Yong in 2009, Li had been repeatedly abused (“my husband used cigarettes to burn my face and genital”; “he cut off one of my fingers when I discovered his affair – I lost the finger permanently since he wouldn’t let me go to the hospital”; “severe battery occurred twice or three times a month”). She had sought police help repeatedly, to which the police responded that she should just put up with it. According to Li’s brother, “My sister wanted help… She wanted legal and other intervention to help save her marriage and help save her. She called the police many times; she went to the women’s federation, to the community committee. But nobody came to her rescue.” In November 2010, after months of abuses and “isolated, afraid and denied protection by the authorities,” Li Yan resorted to violence in self-defense: while being battered by Tan yet again, Li picked up Tan’s gun (a weapon with which he had threatened her) and beat Tan to death.
In August 2011, Li was sentenced to the death penalty, which thousands are subjected to in China annually. In June 2014, after much domestic advocacy and international pressure, the Supreme People’s Court of China (highest in the nation) overturned Li’s death sentence. Then, in April 2015, Li’s death sentence was “suspended” by the Sichuan Higher People’s Court: her murder conviction was upheld; but with two years of good behaviors, a “suspended death penalty” will most likely change into life imprisonment. Li is 44 years old at the moment.
The court’s 2015 decision was a landmark case for China, since it was the first case in which the defendant’s status as a domestic violence victim was taken into consideration. Domestic violence is now recognized as“a mitigating factor… for future cases.”
Just a few months earlier, the State Council posted China’s first Draft Anti-Domestic-Violence Law (中华人民共和国反家庭暴力法（征求意见稿)) for public comments. If passed, the law would formally define “domestic violence” for the first time in Chinese history and also mandate public security or courts to determine civil or criminal liabilities for the first time. Even though the draft version fails to include dating, cohabiting, same-sex and/or other intimate relationships since they are not marital relationships, the Draft Law would still constitute a key step forward. Even though the Draft Law does not address sentencing directly, the March 2015 Opinion on Handling Criminal Cases of Domestic Violence in Accordance with Law (关于依法办理家庭暴力犯罪案件的意见), national guidance to local courts and prosecutors, promotes uniform sentencing that does not treat domestic violence as a lesser crime than other forms of violence committed outside of the family (though leaving room for judicial discretion). Since the sentence of death and injury caused by domestic violence is currently significantly lower than that of similar harmsy committed against strangers, uniform sentences may deter abusers and send a powerful message that a relationship doesn’t excuse violence . The Draft Law is currently under revision and it is expected to be finalized and enacted by late 2015.
Moving forward, Chinese feminist activists and reformers have at least four tasks at hand:
1) Making sure that, once passed, the new Anti-Domestic-Violence Law will be adequately implemented: both the Chinese law enforcement and the Chinese judiciary can use some gender consciousness training, so that domestic violence is no longer dismissed as “private matters” by either the police or by courts. Recent surveys have shown that 60% or more of women inmates across many Chinese prisons were sentenced for “injuring or killing their husbands in retaliation for domestic violence.” If the new Law were not adequately enforced, victims would still find themselves between the same old options: suffer in silence (and possibly die), or take up self-defense and risk incarceration.
2) The key supplementary mechanism of temporary restraining orders (人身安全防护令) mentioned in the Draft Law should be proliferated throughout the country. Currently, there seems to be limited provincial or regional experiments for victims to access restraining orders during their divorce trials or domestic violence cases. Restraining orders should be available nationwide.
3) Fundamental shifts in societal attitudes towards domestic violence, as well as community and social support, needs to happen. In China, the stigma and shame has long been on the shoulders of the victims of domestic abuse. It is time that stigma and shame fall on the perpetrators.
Meanwhile, more civil society and community-level support should follow suit, including but not limited to access to shelters, psychological counseling, and legal assistance. For instance, in a country of 1.3 billion with housing inequality between the genders, the existing 400 shelters (many deserted or out of use) are abysmally far from sufficient.
4) Eventually, feminists and activists will have to address the role of the Chinese state. The ruling Chinese Communist Party is mostly concerned about holding onto power and “maintaining stability“. Since “family” is the basic unit of the larger social fabric, the government fears that disputes and instability within individual families may spill over and undermine the Party’s legitimacy and control. As a result, the state-sanctioned anti-domestic-violence discourse centers around maintaining “familial harmony” over justice or safety. From the patriarchal Party perspective, individual awareness of women’s rights and the potential organizing power of such awareness is even more threatening.
Thus, individual’s protection from domestic violence is often swept aside. The recent arrest of the Feminist Five — five young Chinese women who planned to rally against sexual harassment for International Women’s Day — should constantly remind us that the state could not care less about women’s rights. The key task for a generation of Chinese feminists awakened in the aftermath of the Feminist Five, is answering the question of power redistribution in China: where do women’s rights fit in under the CCP agenda? Could there be true gender justice under an authoritarian regime?
Dong Shanshan should not have died in vain at age 26. And it is insufficient that Li Yan’s death penalty was suspended: her sentence should be shortened. The tragedy that Li, a victim who took up self-defense, has to spend the rest of her life in prison, serves as reminder to all that the largest country in the world has a long, treacherous way ahead in battling against domestic violence.