When Chinese survivors of domestic violence summon the courage to go to the police, they often hear one thing: That's a private matter, go home.
That, at long last, may change.
After years of feminist organizing and advocacy, China's legislature this weekend passed a domestic violence law. For those who worked to make it happen, it's a hard-earned victory — an achievement "worth celebrating," according to veteran campaigner Feng Yuan.
At the same time, advocates say, the law is deeply flawed, a sort of field guide to enduring stereotypes and societal blind-spots. It fails to account for sexual violence, for one. And it is silent on the matter of same-sex couples.
"The law is very necessary to combat the epidemic of domestic violence, but there are a lot of problems with this legislation," said Leta Hong Fincher, author of “Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China."
"And," she said, "we will have to see how it's enforced."
The law was a long time coming. Women's groups here have for more than a decade campaigned to take domestic violence out of the shadows and into the courts.
Though the problem is widespread, domestic violence has long been treated as a family matter, something to be handled quietly behind closed doors. In recent years, a series of high-profile cases have helped change that, putting pressure on the state to step up.
A Chinese court this year overturned a death sentence in the case of Li Yan, a Chinese woman who killed her physically and sexually abusive husband in 2010. In changing the sentence, the court publicly acknowledged domestic violence as a mitigating factor — a first.
The case of Kim Lee, an American woman violently beaten by her well-known Chinese husband, also caught the country's attention.
In an essay published in the New York Times, Lee remembered sitting at a police station in 2011, badly bruised. Instead of helping her, the police told her to calm down and go home to her husband. “As far as the police were concerned,” she wrote, “no crime had occurred.”
Exasperated, Lee posted pictures of her battered face on Weibo, a popular social media platform. They were quickly re-posted 20,000 times, with people expressing solidarity and sharing their own stories. In 2013, she was granted a divorce on grounds of domestic violence.
Feminist organizing helped spread their stories — it also led to some important changes to the law.
A draft version of the legislation excluded non-married couples, for instance; women's groups spoke out and the draft was changed.
Other suggestions were not adopted. The final law defines domestic violence as "physical, psychological and other harm inflicted by family members with beatings, restraint or forcible limits on physical liberty," according to Xinhua, a state newswire. Though "physical violence" could encompass sexual violence, activists say the absence of the word is worrying — and telling.
In China, as elsewhere, survivors of sexual abuse are wary of speaking out. The law codifies that silence and compounds the stigma surrounding sexual violence, said Lu Xiaoquan, a lawyer at Beijing's Zhongze law firm who has worked on domestic violence cases for 15 years.
"Failing to identify sexual abuse in the law will make it even more difficult for victims to stand up for themselves," he said.
"It implies that people can do whatever they want in intimate relationship and that some sexual offenses might be immune from punishment," agreed Yuan.
The law also makes no mention of same-sex couples — an oversight the government struggled to justify. "As for homosexuals in our country, we have not yet discovered this form of violence, so to give you a certain answer, it can be said that people who cohabit does not include homosexuals," Guo Linmao, an official, told the media.
The law is vague enough to leave room for some of these concerns to be addressed in practice — advocates hope they will. Feminist organizing has helped put the issue on the government's agenda and, with luck, it will guide the implementation of the law, they said.
Lee is hopeful. When she first went public with her story, people told her "This is China"—a phrase that has gone from a "poor excuse" as to why nothing is being done to words used with pride to describe "the power of working together to bring about change," she said in an email.
"Yes, it was a long road and long overdue, but that doesn't mean this law isn't a milestone worth celebrating," she added.
"A national law carries weight. I hope it will be a weight that victims will wield in the fight for their right to violence-free lives."
Xu Jing reported from Beijing.