China’s first national law against domestic violence came into effect on 1 March 2016. The law marks a significant step forward from the country’s existing legislation by legally defining domestic violence and extending legal protection to victims. Yet a fundamental cure for the epidemic of domestic abuse — which disproportionately affects women — requires further efforts to change persisting misperceptions about women’s moral responsibilities and domestic violence itself.
The new law’s immediate effect was seen in a wave of media coverage spotlighting domestic violence cases, including the deaths of two women around the time it came into force. A consistent thread in these women’s stories was an inability to leave the abusive relationships or to disclose their suffering. A victim’s decision not to make a complaint to the police — willingly or unwillingly — can easily undermine the ability of the new law to uphold justice.
In China, domestic violence cases are processed under the principle of ‘no trial without complaint’. The new law allows close relatives to file a complaint on behalf of victims who may not be able to do so on their own. This would then allow police or women’s federations to request restraining orders from the courts.
Public education surrounding the law should equip citizens not only with the knowledge of how to help themselves, but also of how to assist domestic violence survivors around them to seek justice. But would citizens really stand up and provide this assistance, even if they were better educated about the law?
In China, defending marriage is typically considered a primary moral responsibility for women. The shame of failing to do so has confined many victims in abusive relationships and constrained people around them from offering appropriate help. Despite the rising divorce rate, Chinese women still face enormous pressure to get married and stay married. Many victims are told to bear the pain of domestic violence, which is often confused with lovers’ quarrels and normalised by the claim that ‘most women have endured it’. Victims are usually advised not to divorce for the sake of the family’s reputation and their children’s wellbeing, due to the pervasive belief that children need to grow up in a ‘complete’ family.
Two months before her death, 25-year-old Li Hongxia posted on social media that she felt her life was in danger from her husband. Most of her friends, and her own mother, discouraged her from seeking a divorce. She was soon hospitalised after another abusive attack and was then strangled to death by her husband at the hospital.
Common misperceptions about the nature of domestic violence also creates challenges for effective intervention. Violence is often ascribed to women’s misbehaviour or rebellion from their ‘proper’ gendered roles. The reality is that domestic violence is about unequal power relations between partners and the abuser’s control over the victim, rather than any wrongdoing on the victim’s part. Yet this goes generally unrecognised in China.
Unequal power dynamics between the abuser and the abused is not always determined by relative financial security. Perhaps more fundamentally, these power dynamics are often based on gender norms. Contrary to the popular myth that victims of domestic violence are usually less educated or financially dependent, many women who are university-educated and even providers for their households are also victims of domestic violence.
Violence can occur when traditional masculine authority is challenged. Zhang Xiaoyan, a 34-year-old female doctor, was abused for years and died of poisoning in March, allegedly murdered by her former husband. Zhang owned a clinic and a pharmacy, and was the only breadwinner for the family. Even after they divorced, her ex-husband continued to control her, preventing her from moving out by threatening her daughter and her parents.
It would surprise many modern and independent Chinese women how deeply rooted regressive perceptions on domestic violence are in certain segments of Chinese society. Zhang Xiaoyan’s neighbours and co-workers didn’t intervene when they saw her with bruises or a broken leg, or even when they witnessed the abuse happening. The same media that publicises the new anti-domestic-violence law also offers tips to women on changing themselves in order to ‘win back’ their husbands, and romanticises the ‘love’ between self-centred, dictatorial men and their ‘princesses’.
The importance of family integrity is further reinforced by modern political discourse in China, which defines social stability as the foundation of governance and development. The family, which is based on a marriage contract between a man and a woman as defined by Chinese law, is seen as the fundamental institution of society. It’s no surprise, then, that preventative measures and other responses to domestic violence, in all but the most extreme cases, are generally constructed for the ultimate goal of fixing the marital relationship, rather than defending the rights of the abused. Mediation is still the primary method used to resolve domestic violence cases.
The new law — a result of almost two decades of campaigning driven by China’s civil society groups — is a manifestation of the state’s commitment to addressing domestic violence. But it will take a more insightful public education campaign, and a firm commitment to upholding human rights, to transform the underlying mindset that currently constrains further progress. Until then, the path to ending domestic violence will be a long one for China, as elsewhere.
Chen Tingting is The Asia Foundation’s program officer for women’s empowerment in China.