Last Sunday morning, braving the freezing weather, I joined a dozen activists outside Beijing’s Chaoyang district court for Kim Lee’s final divorce hearing. Lee, an American citizen married to Chinese multimillionaire Li Yang, filed for divorce after having had enough of her husband’s iron fists.
When the news came that Lee had won her case, including custody of their three children and 12 million yuan (Dh7.07 million) in compensation, the half-frozen crowd cheered wildly.
The victory served as a morale boost to women’s rights advocates who had been dismayed by the fate of Li Yan, a Sichuan woman who was convicted of killing her husband after he had subjected her to months of violent abuse.
She is facing the death penalty, with her execution likely to happen in the next few days. Last week, more than 100 lawyers and scholars petitioned to commute her death sentence.
Yan’s unfair treatment made my blood boil. Even though she had repeatedly sought help, turning to the neighbourhood branches of All China Women’s Federation, her complaints were brushed aside as “private family matters” — a common reaction in China.
When Yan turned to the police with pictures of her injuries and sustained cigarette burns, she was told this was not sufficient, because the pictures had been taken by family or friends.
Yan might have over-reacted when trying to defend herself as her husband flew into yet another fit of rage, an airgun in his hand. But she absolutely does not deserve to die. If the Chinese authorities are half as serious about combating domestic violence as they claim to be, how could they so cruelly punish a woman who was let down by a system supposedly in place to protect her?
These two high-profile domestic violence cases are far from isolated; in fact, they are part of an epidemic. Traditional wisdom in China is to deal with domestic violence as something “best kept inside the house”.
In September 2011, when Lee first broke the silence by posting the pictures of her battered face on the internet, her husband and like-minded male observers accused her of “airing the dirty laundry”.
He also argued that it was “no big deal” and that domestic abuse was part of Chinese culture. However, now Lee has become an unlikely hero for having the courage to speak out.
Lee’s victory is hard-won. There were four hearings before Sunday, but her case was undoubtedly helped by the fact that she was an American and because of her determination and intelligence.
More ordinary cases have to meet evidential standards before a court can even consider accepting it. When the case does go forward, punishment for the abuser tends to be light. A few years back, I interviewed a victim named Sun Xueqing, from Hangzhou.
Her husband Mo Wenhui received a six-month jail sentence for throwing her from a balcony. Her spine was broken.
Her lawyer explained: “My personal guess is that the court saw it as a family dispute. He wouldn’t have got away with it so easily if he had thrown a woman other than his wife from the second floor.”
The lack of comprehensive legislation is part of the problem. Plenty of laws, such as criminal law and marriage law, deal with domestic violence, but none of them tackle it specifically, which often results in irregularities.
The National People’s Congress, the country’s top legislator, has included an anti-domestic violence law in the panel’s preliminary revisions, but no timetable as been scheduled yet.
According to the official statistics released last month, one in four women claimed to have experienced domestic violence, although the charity, Anti-Domestic Violence Network, recently put it at one in three. The abuse is usually more serious in the countryside, where social views are more conservative and where women’s position in society is usually lower than men’s.
Wife-bashing is not regarded as wrong and is sometimes encouraged. However, feudal male chauvinism is nonetheless still deeply ingrained across all classes, which explains why a well-educated man such as Li Yang would feel free to beat up his wife.
Some argue that domestic violence appears to be on the rise in China only because more women are speaking out against it. Wu Changzhen from China University, professor of political science and law and a leading expert on women’s issues, believes otherwise.
She argues that the increasing economic pressure put on Chinese citizens, and the loosening of family ties, leave women more vulnerable to their husband’s violent impulses.
In the meantime, stronger legislation is vital. Only then can men be made aware that beating a woman behind closed doors is against the law and that there are consequences of such abuse.
Lee’s case successfully sent such a message to all Chinese husbands. Executing Yan, on the other hand, would be a disastrous step in the wrong direction.
Guardian News & Media Ltd