Two Chinese women are up against one man — a judge who they claim ruled against them in child custody cases due to his prejudice against women.
The mothers, Wei Wei and Dai Xiaolei, shared their stories publicly on Mother’s Day last weekend, saying the verdicts robbed them of their motherhood. Under Chinese law, courts in child custody cases usually rule in favor of mothers of young children.
“On Mother’s Day, we want to say that (the judge) has abused his discretion and violated the explicit provisions of the law, ignoring the interests of women and children and displaying serious personal prejudice with the judgement,” Wei and Dai co-wrote in a post on microblogging platform Weibo. “His judgement was obviously unfair.”
The two women plan to file a formal complaint to the Beijing High People’s Court about Zhang Shuaibin, the district court judge they are accusing of bias against women.
In 2019, Zhang ruled against Wei — who was not married to her partner — and granted custody of the couple’s 18-month-old son to the father. The court said the father was more financially prepared to raise the child and had already been taking care of him before the custody case, according to the verdict seen by Sixth Tone.
Three years earlier, in 2016, the same judge had ruled against Dai, who is Chinese-Canadian, saying it was “in the child’s best interest,” according to that verdict, also seen by Sixth Tone. Custody was granted to her former husband, whom she had reported to the police for domestic violence multiple times.
The two mothers met online two years ago and formed an alliance after they discovered their cases involved the same judge. In each other they’ve found support, and they hope the judicial system will not only undo Zhang’s verdicts but also investigate him.
Dai Xiaolei waits in a hotel lobby with gifts for her child on May 3, 2021. Courtesy of Dai Xiaolei
Yang Dadi, a Shanghai-based attorney specializing in family law, told Sixth Tone it may be difficult to prove that the judge’s rulings were influenced by personal bias.
“The court doesn’t adjudicate a case based on a single issue, so it’s hard to simply compare two different cases,” said Yang, who is also a member of the Minor Rights Protection Research Committee of the Shanghai Bar Association.
Referring to a 2014 case, the lawyer said a Chinese court had ruled that abusive parents can hinder a child’s growth, suggesting that the ruling could have been in Dai’s favor. “But China doesn’t do case law,” Yang said, referring to when courts consider previous decisions in making new judgements. “That is to say, (Chinese) courts don’t necessarily have to follow precedent.”
Meanwhile, in countries like the United Kingdom, an unwed mother gets custody of her child by default, while the father must file legal proceedings to pursue such rights. In China, the country’s civil code stipulates that children under the age of 2 should be raised by their mother, regardless of her marital status — though Wei still lost her custody battle.
Since the two mothers shared their post online, thousands of people have come forward to support them, asserting that women are still often overlooked in Chinese society.
“Depriving mothers’ rights to custody not only violates the children’s rights, but also treats women as men’s surrogates,” said one Weibo user who shared the post.
Li Ying, an attorney specializing in women’s rights who provided legal counsel to Wei, told Sixth Tone that China’s custody cases consider what’s best for the child — something the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has also stressed — as the primary factor when deciding guardianship disputes. She added that judges ruling in such cases may consider women’s rights a secondary issue when weighing their judgements.
“Judges’ gender awareness still needs to improve,” Li said. “I wish all judges who deal with marriage and family cases would receive gender awareness training.”
Meanwhile, Wei and Dai say one stroke of Judge Zhang’s pen has upended their lives. Both are worried they’re now caught in a legal crossfire that may keep them from being a part of their children’s lives in the future.
Wei has joint custody until her 3-year-old son turns 5, but she fears the boy’s father may take him abroad when he gains full custody. Dai’s visitation rights, on the other hand, only permit her to visit her child twice a year for one hour each time.
“My son is 8 years old, which means that from now until he turns 18, I will only get to spend 20 hours with him,” Dai said through tears. “I can’t help but wonder if I was just a free surrogate.”
Editor: Bibek Bhandari.
(Header image: Visual elements from RUNSTUDIO and Akini/People Visual, re-edited by Ding Yining/Sixth Tone)