Two Years On: Is China's Domestic Violence Law Working?
Editor’s Note: China’s first Domestic Violence Law was enacted in March 2016 after two decades of campaigning by women’s rights advocates. It was a landmark success for activists like Lu Pin, but two years on, has the law delivered? Lu Pin writes about the reality on the ground and her 20-year journey.
By Lu Pin – Chinese Feminist Activist
For a long time, the women of China have been mobilizing to help each other. According to government statistics, one in four women has experienced domestic violence. And yet this silent epidemic has often been swept under the rug. Violence within families has traditionally been viewed as a private issue in China — one in which outsiders have no right to interfere. This is now changing.
Change in Public Opinion
This silence was first really broken when a popular soap opera -- Don’t Respond To Strangers – highlighting domestic abuse in a family aired on television. Although Don’t Respond To Strangers was a commercial production, it managed to incorporate a - number of suggestions from women’s rights groups into its plot, and the show broke barriers and ignited conversations about domestic violence in mainstream Chinese society.
Riding on the television show’s success, the network where I worked as the media liaison – Anti-Domestic Violence Network of the China Law Society – produced the first anti-domestic violence street advertisement in 2002. In the spring of 2003, we followed on with one of the most audacious attempts yet in China, where public participation is restricted: we tried to propose an Anti-Domestic Violence bill for the government to take up. I was tasked with introducing the proposed draft to the media, who had flocked to Beijing to report on the “Two Sessions”: the annual gathering of China’s legislative and government advisory bodies. Among the large stacks of background information on of domestic violence we gave out to reporters, was also the proposed draft bill—which was one of the first pieces of legislation drafted by Chinese civil society.
Although there was some interest, it didn’t quite create the stir we hoped for, and the bill was not incorporated into the government’s official legislative agenda. In 2003, the timing was not yet “ripe”, but society had already started to change. In 2005, there was another breakthrough in changing society’s perceptions of domestic violence when CCTV – the country’s state-run television network – aired a groundbreaking documentary on women who were jailed after killing their abusive husbands.
Mass media was playing an important role in turning the tide on domestic violence, but it was only made possible because of the persistent lobbying and campaigning conducted by dedicated activists and determined women’s rights groups. Many years on, the public opinion in China has drastically changed as a result of these campaigns.
Mass media was playing an important role in turning the tide on domestic violence, but it was only made possible because of the persistent lobbying and campaigning conducted by dedicated activists and determined women’s rights groups.
Kim Lee: The Celebrity Case
One of the best-known court cases involving domestic violence was that of Kim Lee. Kim was an American citizen living in Beijing who was at the time married to millionaire Li Yang. Li was a big celebrity in China due to his popular “Crazy English” teaching course, which saw students all across China overcoming their shyness by boldly shouting out English phrases in parks and campuses. In 2011, Kim Lee shocked the nation when she posted pictures of her battered and bruised body on social media. Her high-profile divorce dominated the news for over a year. Kim was awarded RMB 50,000 (around USD $8000) — the then highest ever amount of compensation in a divorce case brought on by abuse.
When Kim stepped out of the courtroom, she hugged the volunteers who were wearing “wedding gowns tainted with blood”—which was a piece of performance art and subversive protest designed to highlight the issue of domestic violence. Every such victory is difficult to come by, and activists are only allowed a moment of celebration.
Every such victory is difficult to come by, and activists are only allowed a moment of celebration.
Building on this momentum, the same group of volunteers issued a public petition. The petition demanded: “We don’t want a hollow, empty and only symbolic domestic violence law…we want a law with actual power……we hope to be informed of, take part in, and monitor the lawmaking process”. It received over 12,000 signatures, the biggest women’s rights action to date.
The Landmark Domestic Violence Law
Local legislation started to appear in 2000, with Hunan province first establishing an anti-domestic abuse act. A bill was incorporated into the central government’s agenda in 2010, with the national law coming into effect finally in March 2016.
This was seen by many as a momentous victory, but I had no inclination to celebrate yet because from our experience advocating for the legislation, we foresaw the difficulty ahead of us. The real battle – the battle for its implementation – had just begun.
For example, take the issue of custodial rights. Canadian citizen Sherrie Dai won her domestic abuse divorce case against husband Liu Jie, a famous stunt coordinator, but she lost the custody of her child. She questioned why an abuser could be given sole custody, but the courts sided with her ex-husband. By then, Sherrie had already not seen her child for two years.
The real battle – the battle for its implementation – had just begun.
The courts are supposed to take the child’s best interest in consideration when granting custodial rights, but there is no clear guidance how and whether domestic abuse perpetrated against a family member would weigh in to the decision. There is also a lack of accountability in dealing with parents who withhold children from the other parent, or deny them visitation.
Sherrie, together with nine other mothers started the “purple ribbon” campaign on this issue, and till this day, she continues to fight for custodial and visitation rights.
Has the Domestic Violence Law Delivered?
Last November, the women’s rights organization Equality released a progress monitoring report pointing out a major flaw of the law: the lack of support for victims fleeing abusive homes. According to the report, in 2016 only 149 persons were admitted to the 2,000 odd shelters set up for victims of domestic violence. This proves that the facilities are woefully inadequate. Eligibility requirements are harsh, while regulations at the centers are strict and services are inadequate.
These problems were widely reported by the media for years, but little has been done to improve the situation. Funding for NGOs doing such work is also hard to secure, as NGOs in China find it increasingly hard to even be officially registered and to secure funding.
...of the 142 abuse-related divorce cases in the city of Jinan, only 14 cases were allowed to get divorced
Domestic violence cases remain extremely hard to win in court. For example the Equality report noted, 10 months after the enactment of the law, of the 142 abuse-related divorce cases in the city of Jinan, only 14 cases were allowed to get divorced. The reason these 14 cases were successful were invariably the same: the accused admitted to abusing the victim. In the rest of the cases, failure was also invariably due to the same reason: the accused denied allegations of domestic violence, and judges deemed the cases to have insufficient proof.
Cases involving same-sex couples are even more complicated and difficult to navigate.
The fights against domestic violence and to secure women’s rights have to continue. So far, the road was built by women, victims and survivors, exchanging their reputations and physical bodies for each new policy and each new legislation in each province.
Their demand for change, till this day, have yet to garner a satisfactory answer from their government.