The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

China issues death sentence for man who set ex-wife on fire during live stream

A cellphone screen shows Douyin, China's version of TikTok. (Costfoto/Barcroft Media/Getty Images)

Online, Lhamo led an idyllic life in the videos she posted of harvesting herbs in China’s autonomous southwestern Sichuan province. Offline, the 30-year-old video blogger, who like many Tibetans goes by one name, was struggling to escape her abusive husband despite repeated pleas to the police and courts for help.

Ultimately, Lhamo divorced him. But in September 2020, while she was hosting a live stream, he suddenly burst into the frame, doused her in gasoline and set her on fire. She died two weeks later.

On Thursday, a Chinese court found her ex-husband, Tang Lu, guilty of homicide and sentenced him to death for an “extremely cruel” act that had an “extremely bad” social impact, according to state-run broadcaster CCTV.

For many in China, it was a wrenching conclusion to a shocking story that — along with a string of similarly disturbing cases last year — highlighted how nationwide laws, courts and police too often fail to protect victims of domestic violence.

China passed its first nationwide law explicitly criminalizing domestic violence, both physical and emotional, in 2015. Under China’s divorce laws, abuse was not considered grounds for a divorce until 2001.

China wants to stop domestic violence. But the legal system treats it as a lesser crime.

Despite these advances, women’s advocates say domestic abuse frequently is still treated as a private family matter, with authorities either reluctant or refusing to get involved. The 2015 anti-domestic abuse law also had some major omissions, such as excluding same-sex couples and cases of sexual violence.

In a 2020 report, Beijing Equality, a women’s right group, found that since the law was enacted in 2016, more than 920 women died in a domestic violence incident — three women every five days. With the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, reports of domestic violence rose in China, as they did in countries around the world.

Lhamo’s ordeal reflected the everyday violence and systematic indifference many women in China have faced.

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From a poor and remote village, she married Tang when she was young and the couple went on to have two children. Lhamo’s sister, Dolma, told the New York Times she often saw bruises on Lhamo, who periodically fled back to the family home to recover from Tang’s physical abuse.

Lhamo finally filed for divorce in March 2020. In retaliation, Tang threatened to kill their two sons, according to news and family reports. Lhamo twice turned to the police for help, but they were reportedly unresponsive. Distraught, she remarried Tang.

Two weeks later, Lhamo again reported the ongoing abuse to the police, who, according to Dolma, told her it was her problem as she had chosen to remarry.

In May, after Tang choked Lhamo and threatened her with a knife, she sought help from a government agency to protect women’s rights, Dolma told the New York Times. The agency reportedly dismissed Lhamo, saying other women were facing worse.

Lhamo once more filed for divorce and fled back to her family. In early June, Tang went looking for her and, when Dolma would not disclose Lhamo’s location, reportedly hit Dolma and broke her jaw, according to the South China Morning Post. Dolma reported the incident to the police, who allegedly questioned and then released Tang.

A few weeks later, a court granted Lhamo her divorce — but afforded Tang full custody of their two sons.

Lhamo, meanwhile, escaped to the mountains, where she sustained herself picking herbs. Since 2018, she had gained a following on Douyin, China’s version of TikTok, posting videos of her harvesting, cooking, and singing.

In mid-September of last year, Lhamo was live-streaming while cooking in her father’s kitchen when a man — Tang — burst in. She shrieked. Soon after, the screen went dark.

Read more:

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