Domestic abuse in China is as pervasive as it is hidden. A survey by the domestic All-China Womens Federation has estimated that more than 25% of all Chinese married women are subject to domestic abuse by their partner, with occurrences at least once a year. And while these numbers appear high, the organisation points to the cultural taboo of talking about domestic abuse in China implies underreporting, indicating that actual numbers may be even higher. Some estimations are that almost 65% of all married couples have instances of physical or mental abuse during their life together. According to All-China Womens Federation, almost all of these cases go unreported. Police and judges tend to see incidents of domestic violence as private matters, better resolved by community actions and by the couple themselves.
Last year news of how the famous founder of the world-wide English language school franchise Crazy English Li Yang had subjected his wife and daughter to years of verbal and physical abuse became a hot topic on Chinese discussion boards and micro-blogs. Li’s Wife, American citizen Kim Lee, had at one point been pinned down and had her head banged against the floor repeatedly by her husband while her daughter watched from the doorway.
Kim Lee managed to get away, fleeing with her daughters to America. She later posted pictures of her injuries on one of China’s largest social media sites, micro-blogging provider Sina Weibo (the Chinese version of Twitter). Surprisingly, among many of the comments of the “tweet” not a small number were in favour of Li Yang. “Netizens” expressed sympathies for what they deduced must have been a violent response provoked by the “hot-headed” and annoying antics of an American wife. The events provoked discussion on the subject of domestic violence on Chinese social media, bringing a cultural taboo into the national spotlight.
This cultural taboo is in fact the biggest threat to domestic peace, according to many women’s rights organisations in China. Violent behaviour by men is seen as natural and not exactly frowned upon. Many netizens sympathised with men who were under a lot of pressure to perform in a highly competitive society, stating that since the husband had to provide for the family the wife should treat him with more compassion. In the Chinese context, many people are uncertain of what actually constitutes domestic abuse, the definition of domestic violence being hazy.
Further, victims of abuse are often only prompted to talk about their problems when the neighbours are affected. One community’s women’s shelter in the outskirts of the Chinese capital reported that it had not had a single guest since it opened in 2004, and had now been converted to a storage area. This speaks volumes for the attitude against domestic violence of both the victim and the community.
In fact the lack of laws and regulations on the subject of domestic abuse in China may be a big part of the problem; China has no national law on domestic violence. Instead clauses in the Marriage Law and the Law on the Protection of the Rights and Interests of Women prohibit the violence against women. And while all provinces and autonomous regions have passed regulations for tackling the prevalence of domestic violence against women, statistics show that these measures are being implemented poorly. Furthermore, while sexual assault is covered in the Criminal Law, rape within a marriage is a grey field. In practice the law does not recognise sexual violence between married partners as a criminal act. NGO’s in the women’s rights field continue to advocate for a national law on domestic violence.
And what happened to Li Yang and his wife Kim Lee? Li Yang later posted an apology on his own Sina Weibo account, and shortly after his wife filed for divorce. The storm of discussion on Chinese online social media attracted the spotlight of traditional media, the subject of domestic violence becoming the subject of many TV commentaries and newspapers during the autumn and winter of last year.
However, when asked about his divorce, Li Yang later remarked that the exposure of his abuse online had destroyed his carefully crafted public image. For this, he wholeheartedly blamed his wife. This perhaps is the greatest insight into the mindset of many Chinese people on the subject of domestic violence: the exposure of abuse leads to a loss of face on the part of both partners. Since one’s image is so highly valued in Chinese society, women would rather suffer in silence than openly admit that their marriage is failing.