JIANGSU, East China — An hour or two before dawn, a light kick to Chen Baonan’s leg awakened him from his slumber. The 33-year-old believed his wife had deliberately disturbed him. They’d been quarreling for years, and Chen had reacted violently many times. Feeling provoked, he sprang into action.
“I paused for five seconds, then pounded my fists at her head like rainfall,” he recalls. The woman tried to fight back, but Chen overpowered her, and she groaned in pain. “It sounded like she felt the fear a person feels when facing death,” says Chen, whose name has been changed to protect his ex-wife’s privacy.
It was April 21, 2014 — a date now burned into Chen’s memory. Days later, his wife of four years filed for divorce.
Chen knew he needed help, so a few weeks later, he contacted the only hotline in China dedicated to counseling perpetrators of domestic violence. Set up in 2010 by gender studies researcher Fang Gang, the hotline now falls under the China branch of the international White Ribbon Campaign: an advocacy organization to end men’s violence against women.
The global campaign has spread to around 60 countries since its founding in 1991. Millions of men have pledged their support, donning the organization’s symbolic white ribbon and promising to never commit, condone, or remain silent about violence against women. But the Chinese response has been relatively limited, with the China White Ribbon Volunteers Network (CWRVN) signing 2,300 pledges online and at offline events as of October. By comparison, over 25,000 pledges have been signed in the U.K.
Established in 2013, the CWRVN counts more than a dozen certified counselors among its over 500 dedicated volunteers, who run workshops and offer support to abuse perpetrators and survivors via the hotline and offices in 36 cities. Half of the volunteers are men.
“We cannot treat the abusers as incurable enemies,” says Fang, who has over 20 years of experience in the field of masculinity studies. “Their violent behavior doesn’t represent their whole personalities, and these people are still living in our society.”
Chen is something of a poster child, volunteering at CWRVN awareness events and speaking openly about his journey. He called the hotline regularly for two or three months before switching to in-person counseling at a private clinic, which he says costs him a significant portion of his salary. By his own account, he wants desperately to change and holds out hope that he and his ex-wife will reconcile.
Chen Baonan views a statue of a Buddhist nun at a temple in Jiangsu province, Sept. 16, 2017. Wang Lianzhang/Sixth Tone
“All those years, I treated her as an accessory, an item that belonged to me. I wanted to control her,” Chen tells Sixth Tone in his messy living room, surrounded by books and his kindergarten-age son’s toys piled on the sofa. Father and son moved into the apartment around two years ago; Chen’s ex-wife, who now lives with her parents, has never set foot in the place.
During their marriage, Chen couldn’t bear to have his authority challenged. Especially after the birth of their son, the couple argued about practically everything: who should manage the family’s finances, who should be responsible for babysitting, where to keep medicine in the house. Once, they fought viciously over whether the new mother could eat shrimp, after Chen’s mother complained that it would affect breast-feeding.
As their quarreling mounted, Chen began resorting to physical violence, drawing on his size and strength to suppress his then-wife. “All I did was shut her up,” he says. Now, Chen hopes to set a positive example for his son and prove that he is getting better.
But his ex-wife takes a different view. Chen has always been a smooth talker, she says, and has been able to convince relatives and friends of his innocence in the past. She characterizes him as stingy and controlling, saying they frequently fought over money. “Though he said he has changed, he’s just a hypocrite,” she tells Sixth Tone. “He’s very well-spoken, but he sounds insincere to me.” She didn’t fight Chen for custody of their son, hoping to leave the entire ordeal behind.
The CWRVN believes working with abusers is key to eradicating the nation’s deeply rooted domestic violence problem. Figures from 2011 showed that nearly a quarter of married women in China had suffered some form of violence in their relationships. This means the nation’s 430 million households could harbor some 100 million abusive spouses — not counting unmarried couples and often-unreported cases of husbands abused by wives.
Yet without a legal mechanism for requiring abuse perpetrators to receive counseling, organizations like the CWRVN can only reach those who seek help on their own.
China implemented its first national anti-domestic violence law last year, introducing sweeping measures to prevent abuse, support survivors, and punish perpetrators. A key provision allows courts across the country to issue protection orders against abusive family members; 680 orders had been issued nationwide by the end of 2016. But these orders often require airtight evidence, and relatively mild punishments for violation — including fines of up to 1,000 yuan ($150) or 15 days’ detention — may do little to deter repeat offenders.
A volunteer attaches a white ribbon, a symbol of anti-domestic violence efforts, to a man’s wrist in Haikou, Hainan province, Nov. 25, 2008. Peng Tong/IC
“Without changing the abusers, anti-domestic violence efforts are one-sided,” says Li Hongtao, a professor at China Women’s University with decades of experience working to end family violence. “There’s a long way to go.”
For one, court-mandated counseling for abuse perpetrators is absent from the landmark legislation. Fang and other experts proposed such a measure in response to a draft of the law, but their recommendation was not included in the final version. The main concern, speculates psychological consultant Zhang Zhihui — who runs the CWRVN hotline — could be the lack of qualified counselors.
The city of 1.3 million where Chen lives has just a few dozen psychiatrists certified at the highest level by the central government, according to an official from the municipal disease control and prevention center. The number of counselors qualified to handle domestic violence cases, estimates the official, might not be more than a handful.
The very concept of an organization dedicated to perpetrators of domestic violence faces criticism, especially as efforts to support abuse survivors in China are still lacking. “There’s a conflict in that victims still need help, but at the same time you offer services to abusers,” says Zhang. “Some people may think we are conspiring with the abusers.”
According to a 2010 survey of female abuse survivors, just under 35 percent hoped their husbands’ behavior could be rectified. But Zhang says the network has to try: Without help, even if a couple divorces, the abuser is likely to harm future partners. Continued harassment and violence from exes is also a serious concern.
Though Chen’s then-wife repeatedly claimed she would report the abuse to the local women’s federation or the court, Chen never took her threats seriously. “The strongest trait of abusive people is that they know how to choose their targets,” Chen says. “You feel that you won’t be punished — family members won’t report to the police, and [the abuse victim] isn’t likely to leave you.”
Despite the recent legal progress, stigmas surrounding domestic violence persist, making it difficult for abuse victims to seek help or leave a violent home. Partner abuse is often referred to as a “family affair” — a term that normalizes and downplays domestic violence among perpetrators and survivors alike. Meanwhile, relatives often fail to take accusations seriously or believe it’s shameful for a couple to “air their dirty laundry.” Neighbors and even police prefer to avoid interfering in other families’ disputes: As an old Chinese saying goes, “Separating a married couple is even worse than tearing down 10 temples.”
As in many countries, the cycle of violence can span generations, buoyed by a traditional culture of dominant husbands and obedient wives. “From a gender perspective, women are more likely to become victims of violence because of the patriarchal society,” says Zhang.
Chen Baonan talks to a volunteer counselor over the phone at his home in Jiangsu province, Sept. 16, 2017. Wang Lianzhang/Sixth Tone
In her work with abuse perpetrators in rural communities of Beijing a decade ago, professor Li asked abusers what they had gained from their violent behavior and received answers like “I was finally able to control her” and “It proves I’m the head of the family.” But she says she was encouraged by their recognition of the consequences: When asked what they had lost, they wrote nearly 20 responses, including “She hates me,” “Our child is frightened,” and “Our family is broken.”
Chen doesn’t recall any of his relatives ever questioning the intergenerational violence in his family. Chen’s grandfather — known as one of the best fighters in his village — beat up his wife and children frequently, says Chen. Meanwhile, Chen’s father was verbally abusive to his mother. When Chen himself waved his fist in his mother’s face at age 18, his father did not reproach him.
“He copied that family pattern in his own marriage,” says Chen’s counselor, who specializes in family relationships.
CWRVN volunteers have their work cut out for them in breaking these cycles of violence. While psychological counseling typically aims to take a neutral and nonjudgmental stance toward patients’ behavior, this is not the case when working with abuse perpetrators, says Zhang. “We have to empower the abused parties and help them realize they are being mistreated. As for the abusive people, we must break down their societal privilege and make them realize the harm that their sovereignty has caused to both the other party and themselves,” Zhang explains. CWRVN hotline volunteers participate in intensive training based on materials that Zhang prepared himself.
But there is only so much that remote therapy can do. The network’s plans to start free face-to-face group counseling have been postponed since last year due to a lack of financial resources. The organization receives little funding from the Chinese government, relying primarily on the U.N. and foreign consulates for support.
Though it aims to focus on abuse perpetrators, the hotline currently receives more calls from domestic violence survivors. Only one-fifth of the calls are from abusers, and many callers don’t continue to seek help in the long term.
Zhang remembers one couple from Shanghai who phoned the hotline to report that the husband had beat the wife during an argument. At first, their progress was promising: They called frequently, and the man — with his wife’s encouragement — took an active role in treatment, keeping a diary to record his behavior. But several months later, the couple had another quarrel, the man threw a basin of dirty bathwater at the woman, and that was the last the CWRVN ever heard from them.
With limited resources and no court mandate, says Zhang, there’s little more the network can do in cases like these. “If abusers decide they don’t want to change anymore,” he says, “they will never call us again.”
Editor: Jessica Levine.
(Header image: Maurizio Gambarini/IC)