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Apr 03, 2016

There is one question survivors of domestic violence are always asked: Why didn’t you leave?

Chen Wan did leave. If there is one thing that characterizes her 30-year relationship with her abusive husband, it’s her leaving, again and again. Somehow she always ended up back in the same situation, knowing that her marriage was unbearable, yet unable to find a way out.

Now serving a 15-year jail term, Chen still isn’t free. She recounts the events that led to this moment from the prison reading room, sunlight illuminating her silver-tinged bob. She hasn’t been able to dye her hair since she was jailed, but her permanent brow and eyeliner tattoos bring color to a weathered face that reveals all the hardship of her 59 years.

Chen was only 21 when she started dating her husband in 1978. Even then, she remembers two instances where he got into brawls with other men. The first time, they had been in a department store, and two men sidled up to her, nudging and teasing her, “choose something, we’ll buy it for you.” Scared, she hurried out of the store. Her boyfriend chased the men out and beat them both up. In the second incident, Chen’s fiancé invited his family down for a meal to meet her. At the restaurant, the diners at the next table were drunk, and Chen’s fiancé took offense. In the resulting fight, he beat a man so badly that he was taken to the police station for questioning. The warning signs were obvious to Chen’s mother, who advised her against marrying a man so prone to violence. But at the time Chen was young and naïve. “I felt it was a kind of love,” she says.

Soon after their 1981 wedding, Chen realized she’d joined a household fueled by domination. Her mother-in-law held the feudal view that after marriage, Chen belonged to her husband’s household. But Chen persisted in visiting her parents each week. Every time she returned, her mother-in-law flew into a rage, accusing Chen of treating her marital household as a hotel. On the occasions when her husband joined her, he would lie to his mother and say he was working overtime, making sure they arrived home separately to uphold the lie.

The couple argued over it often. It gnawed away on Chen’s conscience — the more her husband told her to keep quiet about their visits home, the more she wanted to say something. One day, eight months into the marriage, Chen’s husband ended their argument by slapping her across the face. He grabbed her hand and pinched the skin between her thumb and forefinger so tightly that Chen screamed out in pain. Chen was six months pregnant.

Chen Wan describes her experience of domestic violence at the hands of her husband.

A new law

It is estimated that a quarter of married women in China have experienced some form of partner violence, according to the All-China Women’s Federation’s 2011 survey of over 100,000 respondents. Based on figures from the latest national population census in 2010, that could potentially mean over 90 million survivors nationwide, without counting violence towards children and the elderly, or between unmarried partners. A traditional belief that family matters should be resolved privately has long been an obstacle for victims of domestic violence, who have typically found police to be unresponsive. Whether and how police should intervene became a subject of national debate in 2009, however, when Dong Shanshan, a young Beijing woman, was beaten to death by her husband. She had reported abuse to Beijing police eight times. 

On March 1, 2016, China’s first ever national law on domestic violence, known in China as “family violence,” came into effect. The law is surprisingly wide in scope. It covers physical and psychological violence against spouses, children and the elderly. It even covers unmarried partners — a big step in a country where having a live-in partner is still considered taboo. Same-sex couples aren’t mentioned, but LGBT organizations are advocating for an inclusive judicial interpretation. Though many provinces previously had domestic violence laws of their own, the national law unifies them and makes domestic violence a national talking point.

A cornerstone of the new law is restraining orders, or “personal safety protection orders” as they are known in China. Though these were already in use by some local governments, the new law marks the first time they have been adopted nationally. A protection order can prohibit someone from contact with a victim and their close relatives, and order them to move out of a shared residence. Once an order is applied for through the People’s Court, it will be accepted or rejected within 72 hours, or 24 hours in emergencies. By removing someone from harm’s way, protection orders could save lives. Relatives and welfare organizations can also apply on behalf of victims, an important provision for those who are silenced through intimidation.

Desperate measures

Chen left the very first time her husband physically assaulted her. She ran to her sister’s house, scared to disappoint her parents who had warned her against the marriage. When her husband arrived, her sister and brother-in-law chastised him. “In our family we never even curse and she’s the treasured youngest daughter, what if our parents find out?” Chen recalls her sister saying. Her husband took Chen home, but following that night, he grew more violent. After the incident, Chen’s husband resented Chen’s sister so much that she became afraid of confiding in her family in case they also became targets of his rage.

Two years later, and following multiple beatings, Chen was at her wit’s end. She ran away with her son and rented a flat in another part of Shanghai. Again her husband found her and beat her, so loudly that the neighbors intervened. She escaped with her son to a colleague’s home, and there applied for divorce — a rare occurrence in 1985 when the national divorce rate was 0.44 percent. Her father-in-law took the news badly. Soon after he had a cerebral hemorrhage, and fell into a coma. His colleague visited Chen at work and urged her to withdraw her divorce application, citing the old man’s health. She dutifully obliged, returning to the marital household to take care of him. After two months, he awoke from the coma.

Chen enjoyed a brief respite from violence following her father-in-law’s recovery, but soon it started again. Chen’s husband would grab hold of her hair, and slam her face against the walls of their small flat. Every time, he would sink to his knees in apology, weeping and begging her forgiveness. Fear, shame and sometimes optimism kept Chen trapped. Once, her husband sharpened a knife while threatening to kill Chen and her parents if she tried to divorce him. “It’s worth my life to kill the three of you,” he said, and lay the gleaming knife on the kitchen table. She believed he meant it.

Most perpetrators of violence are cowards. Once there’s a threat of legal consequences, they back down.

Chen hoped her husband would mellow as he matured. Chen also worried that divorce would disgrace her family. But now she had a singular wish — to live free from violence. By 1993 she was terrified and desperate, and attempted suicide. Eventually, her parents and son came to recognize that the violence was doing more damage than divorce ever could, and supported her leaving the marriage.

But it seemed that no one could help her. Though the family survived from Chen’s income, and their flat was in her name, she had nowhere to go. Whenever she escaped, her husband would harass her relatives until she relented. On several occasions, she reported the violence to the police and the neighborhood committee. Every time, she was sent away and told to resolve her problems herself. In one instance, she and her husband were sat in a room and told to mediate their dispute. He just stared her down and demanded that she return home.

In June 2010, Chen had again asked for a divorce, and offered her husband all their property and savings if he left her and her family alone. He still wouldn’t let her go. One night in October, she came home from work to find him drinking with friends. He insisted that she drink with him, but she was exhausted and wanted to rest. Her husband started hurling abuse. Their neighbors intervened, but her husband was furious at them and Chen suggested they go home. Once they left, she began changing into pajamas. “You want to sleep?” her husband shouted. “You expect to sleep tonight?”

Chen’s husband walked over and slapped her in the face, then grabbed her by the throat and held it tight, cutting off her breath. Their son came to her rescue but just as he freed Chen, her husband seized his neck. Chen could see her son’s eyes start to bulge. Desperate, she grabbed a fruit knife, closed her eyes, and blindly stabbed at her husband. Her mind was blank, she felt nothing. When she opened her eyes, there was blood everywhere. She called emergency, and waited wordlessly with her still-shaking son for the police to arrive.

Prisoners walking down a hallway at Shanghai Women's Prison, March 11, 2016.  Gao Zheng/Sixth Tone

Increasing awareness

Sun Xiaomei is an expert on domestic violence and one of the key legislators behind the new law. She is a professor at China Women’s University in Beijing, where she’s been teaching for 30 years, and the only academic specializing in women’s rights in the National People’s Congress (NPC) — China’s top legislative body. Warm and tenacious, Sun has consistently used her position to push the agenda for gender equality.

Sun first heard the term “domestic violence” at a joint U.S. and China symposium on women’s rights in 1990. At the time, she’d been working at a counselling center for women, now known as The Maple Women’s Psychological Counseling Center Beijing. Many of the enquiries they fielded involved what she came to understand as domestic violence, though at the time the center could only listen and advise the women to hide or escape to the homes of families or friends. There were no legal experts, no shelters, no protection orders. In severe cases, victims could call emergency services. In 1995, the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing introduced the concept to a wider audience. Previously, domestic violence was simply known as “wife-beating,” and regarded as a private misfortune.

Sun Xiaomei in her office in Beijing, Dec.16, 2013.  Huang Liang/VCG

But in recent times, increased media coverage has fostered greater recognition of domestic violence as a social problem. An early catalyst was the 2001 television drama, “Don’t Talk to Strangers.” The 23-episode series helped to build awareness that domestic violence operates on a dynamic of control and oppression, in which social isolation and psychological abuse can be just as damaging as physical assaults. By depicting a successful, urbane doctor as a perpetrator, the series also challenged the perception that domestic violence only happened in poor, uneducated rural households.

High profile cases also drew attention to the issue. In 2011, after being beaten by her husband Li Yang and ignored by police, American woman Kim Lee posted photos of her injuries on Chinese microblogging site Weibo. Though she only had a small number of followers, her husband’s fame as the education entrepreneur behind the “Crazy English” teaching program resulted in her post going viral. She received an avalanche of support from the Chinese public, especially after Li admitted he’d assaulted her but appeared unrepentant in the press, attributing their conflicts to “character and cultural differences.” As one of the first women in China to tell her story publicly, Lee became a hero and confidante for thousands of women who had never before heard another survivor speak out. Despite the challenges of pursuing justice through the Chinese legal system, Lee told National Public Radio (NPR) that she persevered because she didn’t want her three daughters to think that they only had rights because they were Americans. “I wanted to teach them,” NPR quoted Lee as saying, “No one can beat you because you’re a person, you’re a woman.”

Most recently, the case of Sichuanese woman Li Yan sparked public outcry when she was sentenced to death for killing her husband in 2010. He had subjected her to brutal physical and sexual abuse, including burning her face with cigarettes, locking her out of their home, and cutting off part of her finger. Though she’d reported the abuse to authorities and produced evidence of the violence at her trial, the courts ruled it was insufficient to prove the murder was in self-defense. Finally, her sentence was commuted in 2015 after hundreds of lawyers and feminists within China petitioned the court. In March 2016, the Supreme People’s Court recommended leniency for survivors of long-term domestic violence who kill their abusers. Social stigma is decreasing as awareness increases.

Nowhere to turn

Unlike Chen Wan, Lin Ping never saw her husband behave violently outside their relationship. But she speculated that he’d picked up the behavior from his own upbringing, with his hot-tempered father often shouting at the family, and his mother learning to stay quiet. It was a stark contrast from the open, jovial atmosphere of her own family.

A fair, fine-featured woman who looks younger than her 35 years, Lin had known her husband since their youth. After graduation from high school, they had a whirlwind romance and wed in 2001 when Lin was just 21. A year later, they had a baby boy. It should’ve been the start of a wonderful life. But Lin’s husband started drinking heavily after starting an unsuccessful business, and when Lin found a job to help support the family, it became a source of tension rather than relief. Although her husband never mentioned anything about her earning more money, she says she was always aware that he resented it.

Lin remembers a night her husband was drunk and started a fierce argument over something trivial. He lashed out at Lin and left her with a black eye. Lin reported the incident to the police, but they just urged her to reconcile with her husband. She didn’t push the matter, and the police never followed up. As her hometown was small, Lin felt she had nowhere to turn without becoming known as a victim.

Lin Ping tells her story at Shanghai Women's Prison, March 11, 2016.  Gao Zheng/Sixth Tone

Her parents and in-laws, concerned about saving face, didn’t want to make an issue of it. With no choices left, Lin thought of her young son and decided to continue with her marriage. From then on, her husband would get drunk, they’d argue over trifling matters, he’d beat her, and then the next morning he’d apologize, admitting his faults. It became a familiar pattern.

One night, Lin’s husband came home after staying out late drinking with friends. He stumbled through the door at midnight, drunk. Lin knew that the more she tried reasoning with him in this state, the angrier he would become. At the end of her patience, Lin too was seeing red. She grabbed a fruit knife and sat on the end of the bed where her husband was lying momentarily silent. Suddenly, her husband kicked her in the back and started beating her. Under attack, Lin raised the hand that gripped the knife and thrust it into his heart.

A long journey ahead

On March 1, the first day of the new law, Kong Suying applied for a protection order against her ex-husband, entrepreneur Lan Rongxiang. Lan was the founder of one of China’s most well-known vocational schools in Lanxiang, Shandong province, so the case was highly publicized. Kong expected a response within 72 hours, as stipulated in the law, but no response came from the court until the following week. It was the first high-profile test of the new law, and a clear sign that standards for its implementation would take time to develop.

Training police to enforce the new laws will be especially crucial in rural areas, which are typically less well-funded and harder to reach. But, as the authorities’ failure in the death of Beijing woman Dong Shanshan proved, police in China’s cities still have a long way to go, too. Schools, kindergartens, residential committees, welfare services, and medical facilities are among the institutions that are all required to report domestic violence under the new law, but the legislation lacks details when it comes to their specific responsibilities or the sanctions they’ll face if they fail to report. In addition to maintaining victim confidentiality, experts say that institutions need specialized training to recognize the hallmarks of domestic violence, because victims are often intimidated into withdrawing complaints. For example, doctors can learn how to distinguish the injuries typical of domestic violence from those caused by accidents or falls. Mandatory reporting and early intervention, combined with effective training, could increase vigilance to domestic violence across society, experts say.

Restrictions on foreign funding, which have been tightening since 2010, affect many women’s rights NGOs operating in China. Beijing Zhongze Women’s Legal Counseling and Service Center was closed for receiving foreign donations in January 2016, after 20 years of operation. But the new law may mean that some of the services previously offered by such groups will now be provided by the state. Advocates hope that the law will be a catalyst for a national change in attitudes towards relationships and families, and a movement away from the perception of women and children as property.

The new law does not explicitly mention sexual violence or economic control, and another omission is the lack of coverage for those who are dating, especially as females aged 16 to 24 are often more vulnerable. But Sun Xiaomei is confident the omissions can be covered in future amendments. For her, there is one clear reason why the new law is going to be effective. “Most perpetrators of violence are cowards,” Sun says. “Once there’s a threat of legal consequences, they back down.”

Another prisoner at Shanghai Women's Prison recounts being beaten by her father when she was a child.  March 11, 2016.  Gao Zheng/Sixth Tone

Lessons learnt

Lin Ping, now 35 years old, is nearing the end of a 12-year sentence for murder. She has always regretted her actions, believing she should have explored other options. She thinks the protection orders available under the new law will help prevent consequences like hers: “It means you can give yourself some reprieve, a safe and calm environment,” she says. “You can think more rationally, so this kind of thing won’t happen.”

Lin’s son was 5 when she was arrested. Now nearly 15, he hasn’t visited her for two years, citing the fact she will soon be released as an excuse. Lin’s son lives with her parents. The boy’s grades are bad, and he spends most of his time playing computer games. Lin dares not think about the challenges she will have to overcome in attempting to rebuild her relationship with her son. “Just because I’ve done my time, it doesn’t mean I’ve repaid my debt,” she says.

Chen Wan and her son were both immediately taken into police custody on the night she stabbed her husband. A few months later, she was sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment. She’d anticipated the death penalty, so she didn’t feel the sentence was heavy. For Chen’s son, the physical scars have disappeared but the emotional damage runs deeper. Now 34, there are no signs of a love interest in his life, and he never talks about the subject. His main worry is that somewhere inside him lurk the violent tendencies that defined his father, Chen says. She also feels regret, but one thing is absolutely clear in her mind: Regardless of her actions, somebody would have died that night.

For her, there is one memory of her son that will never fade. In 2007, when she celebrated her 50th birthday, her son called his dad over so that he could dedicate a well-known song to him. Chen’s son started singing, “A good man won’t allow any harm to come to his beloved woman.” At that moment, both Chen and her son broke down in tears.

Additional reporting by Peng Wei.

For privacy reasons, the names of Chen Wan and Lin Ping have been changed.

(Header image: Chen stands in front of the reading room of Nanhui Prison in Shanghai, March 15, 2016.  Wu Yue/Sixth Tone)