BEIJING — China stands on the verge of passing a landmark new domestic violence law, a victory decades in the making that owes much to the extraordinary, and very different, stories of two battered women whose suffering helped prompt a national debate.
Both women were initially turned away by the police when they went for help; both were advised that their wounds were a “family matter” better addressed at home. At that point, however, their stories diverged dramatically.
One, an American woman with a celebrity Chinese husband, did not take no for answer: She won public support and ended up winning a divorce in a highly publicized court case.
The other, an ordinary Chinese woman, struggled in obscurity, finally becoming so desperate she killed her husband and was sentenced to death. She became well known only as she sat on death row.
The American, Kim Lee, and the less fortunate Li Yan, are just two out of hundreds of millions of women here who have been battered by their husbands, but their cases captured the public’s imagination — and paved the way for China’s draft law. The measure sets out new legal protections for victims of domestic violence, including children, and mandates action by local governments.
The legislation, already made public, is due for its first reading before the National People’s Congress (NPC) Standing Committee in August.
“Domestic violence is society’s secret anguish, and something all modern governments should face,” NPC spokeswoman Fu Ying said Wednesday. “Even the process of discussing the law is spreading positive energy and knowledge.”
Most surveys show that between 25 and 40 percent of women in China suffer domestic violence, roughly in line with global norms and compared to around 25 percent in the United States. But statistics here are still patchy, and reporting rare: There is some evidence that the proportion could be significantly higher, especially in rural areas.
Yet police are often reluctant to intervene, men are rarely prosecuted, and violence is almost never acknowledged as grounds for divorce.
Beijing, a city of 20 million people, has no shelters for battered women, and the few hundred dotted around the country are usually attached to homeless shelters, where women feel unsafe. Most have fallen out of use.
Kim Lee’s husband had kicked and slapped her before. Finally, after a particularly long and savage beating in August 2011, she gathered up her courage, grabbed her daughter, Lydia, and walked to the nearest police station, bruised and bloody.
The police were not interested in helping, initially trying to fob her off as a foreigner and then simply telling her, “Go home, relax, you are both good people.”
When she finally persuaded police to accept her report, she would return to find the file had been “lost.” Finally, with nowhere else to turn, she published photographs of her injuries on Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter.
“I was hurt, my child who had witnessed this was shaking. To be told to just go home, that everything would be fine, was not something I could accept,” she said.
Her husband was Li Yang, the celebrity founder of the popular Crazy English learning program; the images of her injuries went viral. Eighteen months later, after countless hours in police stations and waiting for judges who tried to duck the case, Lee finally won in court, the judge granting her a divorce and ordering her husband pay $1.9 million in alimony and compensation.
The divorce ruling included a rare mention of violence, and it marked the first time the issue had been mentioned on state-run China Central Television.
In southwest Sichuan province, Li Yan was living a very different nightmare. Shortly after her marriage, her husband, thrice divorced already, had begun to beat and kick her. He stubbed out cigarette butts on her face and chopped off part of one of her fingers.
“My sister wanted help,” her brother Li Dehuai said in a telephone interview. “She wanted legal and other intervention to help save her marriage and help save her. She called the police many times; she went to the women’s federation, to the community committee. But nobody came to her rescue.”
Finally, in November 2010, Li killed her husband in a fight, hitting him with the butt of an air rifle — with which, according to her lawyer, he had threatened to shoot her — and then dismembering his body. Nine months later, just seven days before Kim Lee began posting photographs of her own injuries, Li Yan was sentenced to death.
Activists took up her case, and the nation’s Supreme Court finally overturned her death sentence last year and ordered a retrial. Today, she remains in prison, awaiting a new verdict.
Writing from prison, Li told her brother that if only an effective law against domestic violence had existed in China a few years back, her story might have turned out very differently.
“Of course she has to pay for what she did, but not by death,” her brother said. “I hope her tragedy will make the public reflect on the issue, and help promote the legislative process.”
It already has. In March, in apparent response to the furor over Li Yan’s case, authorities issued new guidelines to judges and police saying self-defense can apply in cases where defendants are trying to prevent domestic violence. More generally, the stories of Kim Lee and Li Yan have helped activists record what could be a landmark victory.
“China is not an easy country in which to be an activist on any issue, including gender issues,” said Julie Brossard, who runs the U.N. Women office in China. “For them to get to this point is actually a huge achievement.”
Feng Yuan, one of China’s most prominent feminists and a founding member of the Anti-Domestic Violence Network, says that when she first brought up the issue two decades ago, the response of officials and others was always to make the same joke. “Domestic violence? You mean women beating up their husbands?” men would say, brushing off the issue.
Change has been coming for a while. Domestic violence was first outlawed in the marriage act of 2001, but it has not been regularly enforced.
The proposed new law gives victims of violence access to redress and protection, including restraining orders, and it requires local governments to set up more shelters.
But it fails to outlaw marital rape, and it puts too much onus on the police to respond, and not enough emphasis on health and social services, critics say.
Cai Yiping, another leading women’s activist, says the new draft law feels like “a big leap forward” but is far from the end of the story. “It is like a fruit that is not ripe, it tastes a bit sour,” she said.
And it is also taking a painfully long time to wend its way through the legislative process. NPC spokeswoman Fu says this is because “traditional ideas” remain very strong in China, and the question of when “public power” can intervene in family disputes remains controversial.
Kim Lee, who remains involved in the issue in China, puts it more bluntly. She says her greatest victory is to see Chinese women finally speaking out on the subject. Her biggest frustration is that in a country where development is racing ahead, a law saying “it is not okay to beat your family members” has not yet seemed a priority.
“I just suspect that there are too many lawmakers who still beat their wives, or want the privilege,” she said. “Because I can’t think of a single other reason, in a society that is accelerating as fast as China’s, that this law can’t be passed.”
Xu Yangjinging contributed to this report.