BEIJING — A key provision of China’s anti-domestic violence law, a promise to issue restraining orders, is not being properly implemented, putting women at risk and blunting the force of legislation touted as a cornerstone of President Xi Jinping’s social policy.
In China, domestic violence has long been a hidden epidemic. The government agency in charge of promoting women’s rights estimates that 1 in 4 married women is beaten. Experts think the rate of abuse is higher, especially ifnon-married women and other forms of abuse are considered.
After a decades-long fight by Chinese feminists, the government went forward with legislation designed to address the problem. Amid optimism about the move, Xi, whose government has jailed feminists, was invited to headline the 2015 U.N. Women Summit in New York.
“As the Chinese people pursue a happy life, all Chinese women have the opportunity to excel in life and make their dreams come true,” he said.
That tone increasingly seems at odds with facts on the ground. Last year, a Washington Post investigation into the death of a 24-year-old woman, Li Hongxia, showed the limits of using the law alone to keep women safe. It also showed how the impact of anti-domestic violence measures is muted by a one-party system in which courts are weak, women are underrepresented and traditional gender norms rule.
Although China has yet to publish national-level data on the effects of the new law, interviews with survivors, their families and the lawyers who support them show major gaps in the rules, raising questions about the Chinese government's commitment to advance women’s rights.
A system built on sexism is not equipped to protect women, said Feng Yuan, a Chinese expert on domestic violence. Women applying for restraining orders are often advised by local officials, police and judges to go back to their partners for the sake of family or “social stability,” she said.
“They think, ‘If we take action, the marriage might be broken,’ rather than ‘If we take action, the violence could be stopped.’ ”
To work, restraining orders must be accessible and enforceable. By both counts, the provisions in China’s new anti-domestic violence law are falling short, according to several recent cases.
Take that of Dai Xiaolei. In June 2016, Dai, 40, applied for a restraining order against her husband. She thought she had a strong case: He had been filmed punching her in an airport. A court had awarded her damages for physical abuse.
The first challenge was gathering evidence.
When Dai was first beaten, she said, she immediately went to a police station in Beijing. They told her to go back to her husband, sending her home without a record of the attack. “The police just didn’t care,” she said. (Reached by phone, Dai’s husband declined to comment on the case.)
As the violence escalated and her husband’s family took custody of her son, she repeatedly sought help from local authorities — and they repeatedly brushed her off. “They said, ‘I do not live in your home and I have not seen him beat you,’ ” Dai said.
When her husband punched her in the face in an airport, they had to act. The police reviewed surveillance footage and issued a fine. That evidence later led a judge to order her husband to pay her 5,000 yuan, or about $700, for physical abuse.
Several lawyers and survivors said the law has major loopholes, most notably that it excludes many forms of non-physical abuse, as well as non-marital relationships including same-sex partnerships and divorced couples.
Zhang Wenxia, 51, applied for a restraining order in October seeking protection from her ex-husband, a man she says has beaten and harassed her for years. The judge turned down her request on the grounds that he was no longer her husband and hence it was not technically domestic abuse.
“The judge said I should call the police,” she said. “The police said, ‘You have a special relationship with him, he is your ex-husband, you guys should work this out by yourself.’ ”
Another woman, who asked not to be named because she feared her husband would kill her for speaking out, said that her family, the police and the local court all urged her not to file for a restraining order and instead go back to her husband. The court then declined her request for a restraining order without citing a reason, she said.
In Dai’s case, it took about four weeks for the judge to issue the protection order — and then it didn’t really work.
Even with the order in place, Dai’s husband published her contact information online, leading to further harassment from his associates, she said. When she told the judge about it, he referred her to police. The policereferred her right back to court.
Dai’s lawyer, Qi Lianfeng, said nobody in the system seemed willing or able to help. “Which department should protect her? The court? The police?” he asked. “All of them have an obligation to protect her, but none of them know how to do it.”
Dai said she seemed to need an abuser present, fist raised, about to strike, for authorities to to take her claim seriously.
“The whole point is to protect me from something happening again,” she said.
"Nobody will care unless I’m beaten to death.”
Xin Jin in Beijing contributed to this report.