Two cases of domestic abuse that have gained widespread attention on Chinese social media in recent weeks have renewed the spotlight on China’s crisis of domestic abuse. In October, a young Tibetan woman named Lhamo was gruesomely attacked by her ex-husband while streaming live on Douyin, triggering widespread public outrage and the censoring of social media discussion relating to her death. Public anger was reignited this week over a second case, where a man and his parents were handed shockingly lenient sentences for torturing the man’s wife to death. The woman, surnamed Fang, was beaten to death by her husband and in-laws over her infertility. A wave of public anger was triggered by the lenient sentence handed down to the husband and his parents by a local court, prompting judicial authorities to nullify the initial ruling and promise a retrial for the woman’s husband and his parents. Sixthtone’s Zhang Wanqing reported on the details of Fang’s abuse and the original trial:
According to a report Wednesday from The Beijing News, the victim, surnamed Fang, had married a man surnamed Zhang in 2016. The marriage was arranged by their parents when Fang was about to turn 20. Zhang’s parents paid a bride price of 130,000 yuan ($20,000). Disability reportedly ran in the bride’s family: According to a cousin, Fang’s mother had been diagnosed with a mild mental condition, while Fang had also shown “slower mental development.”
After the marriage, Zhang and his parents tortured Fang, beating her with wooden rods, forcing her to stay outside in the frigid winter, locking her in the home, and not allowing her to eat. The cousin said Fang’s weight dropped dramatically, from 80 kilograms to 30 kilograms, during the years of abuse. A forensic examination suggested that Fang was malnourished at the time of her death last year.
In its ruling in January, the Yucheng People’s Court said that because the three defendants were “honest” and had prepaid 50,000 yuan in compensation to Fang’s family, a more lenient punishment was in order. The defendants were convicted of “abuse” and sentenced to up to three years in prison. However, the husband’s sentence was suspended — meaning he would not face any jail time unless he violated the terms of his probation. [Source]
Reporting on the case of Lhamo, the New York Times’ Elsie Chen covered the horrifying details that provoked a wave of outrage on Chinese social media:
Lhamo, a Tibetan farmer in southwestern China, lived her life mostly outdoors and shared it online, posting videos of herself cooking, singing and picking herbs in the mountains around her village. By this fall, she had about 200,000 followers, many of whom praised her as cheerful and hardworking.
Over 400 of them were watching one evening in mid-September as Ms. Lhamo, 30, streamed a video live from her kitchen on Douyin, the Chinese version of the TikTok app. Suddenly, a man stormed in and Ms. Lhamo screamed. Then the screen went dark.
When Ms. Lhamo’s sister Dolma arrived at the hospital a few hours later, she found Ms. Lhamo struggling to breathe, her body covered with burns. The police in Jinchuan County, where she lived, are investigating Ms. Lhamo’s ex-husband on suspicion that he doused her with gasoline and set her on fire.
Ms. Lhamo died two weeks later. [Source]
Independent news site What’s On Weibo’s Manya Koetse reported on the outpouring of anger and support for Lhamo on the social media platform, writing that the hashtag “#Lhamo is cremated today” was viewed over 310 million times, after internet users circumvented authorities’ attempts to censor discussion of the case.
Just one day after Ms. Lhamo’s death, Xi Jinping told a UN conference on women that the “protection of women’s rights and interests must become a national commitment.” After internet users pointed out the irony of his statements, the hashtags around Lhamo’s case were censored. https://t.co/aALU9zUJny
— Sui-Lee Wee 黄瑞黎 (@suilee) November 16, 2020
CDT Chinese editors’ tests on major Chinese social media platforms found several terms related to the Lhamo case to be sensitive last month. In tests carried out between October 8-14, “Lhamo” (拉姆) and “The Lhamo Bill” (拉姆法案) were both censored on Sina Weibo and prevented from becoming trending topics. Searches and posts including combinations of the words “Police” + “nonfeasance” were censored to varying degrees. While Sina Weibo displayed related content in the “hot” column, searches yielded no results. Searches on Douyin brought up content, but included no negative information.
In both Lhamo and Fang’s cases, the victims’ families had tried to contact authorities to seek protective measures. That has turned public scrutiny towards the failings of the Chinese legal system when it comes to protecting victims of abuse. Lhamo’s sister sought help from a local chapter of the All-China Women’s Federation, the government agency responsible for protecting women’s rights. But she was blown off by officials there who said other women were worse off.
Previous reporting has shown how the ACWF has fallen short when it comes to advocating for women, and particularly spouses. In an extensive story published in 2016 about the culture of silence around domestic abuse in China, The Washington Post’s Emily Rauhala reported that the ACWF has pressured women to stay married, even if they are trapped in abusive relationships:
[…] Though divorce rates are on the rise, women face enormous pressure to get married and stay married. And that message is backed by the All-China Women’s Federation, the group that’s supposed to promote women’s rights.
The director of the federation’s Luyi County office, Guo Yanfang, said the organization has been spreading the word about the new anti-domestic violence law and encouraging survivors to seek help.
She said Li never came to them. “As a female comrade with a family, you must first behave yourself and do well in your role as a wife, and second, if your husband makes trouble for you, you have to say it,” Guo said.
Citing a Chinese expression — “demolishing 10 temples is better than destroying a marriage” — Guo said the federation encourages mediation in most cases of domestic violence. “If he corrects his mistakes, things will be fine.” [Source]
Recent legislative changes have made it even harder for people to get out of marriages. Under a new civil code adopted in May of this year, couples are required to wait 30 days between registering their intent to divorce and actually being allowed to legally do so. As The Economist reported, that policy provoked a groundswell of criticism, as activists warned it would only endanger victims of violence:
The government’s motive is clear. It sees happy families as the bedrock of social stability. The country’s soaring divorce rate must therefore be a threat, in its view. Around 5% of divorces are done “rashly”, Sun Xianzhong, a legislator, told state media. A cooling-off period would give spouses a chance to “calm down”, he said.
[…] Couples who genuinely want to divorce will not be dissuaded by a month of delay. Rather, the cooling-off period will endanger victims of violence, says Lu Pin, a feminist activist who moved to New York after the arrest of fellow campaigners in China in 2015. It is mainly women who will be affected by the new law—they initiate three-quarters of divorces in China.
The legislation says no cooling off will be needed if a spouse suffers abuse. But will officials accept allegations of it? A study in 2017 by academics at Queen Mary University of London and Sichuan University found that, while men in China were overall less likely than those in Britain to get into fights or beat up other people, they were twice as likely to assault their partners. However, in divorce cases that go to court, judges often ignore accusations of abuse, especially when raised by female plaintiffs. [Source]
Courts ignoring allegations of abuse is not the only way that victims are disadvantaged under China’s judicial system. Another criticism of the way that domestic abuse is prosecuted is that the very crime of “abuse” is treated significantly more leniently by the courts. For the most recent case where Fang was tortured to death by her spouse and in-laws, China’s criminal law recommended penalties of two to seven years in prison. In comparison, the general charge of “intentional injury resulting in death” can be punishable by death in China.
A recently introduced domestic abuse law was supposed to change things. Introduced in 2016, the law created new protections for victims on paper, most notably protection orders and mandatory reporting for social workers, schools, medical practitioners, welfare officers, and community workers. But it ignored other issues – marital rape, for example, remains legal in China. As Sixthtone’s Fu Danni reported in 2018, a variety of factors relating to the execution of the law continue to hobble its effectiveness:
But almost two years after the law came into effect, experts say protection orders are still not doing their job to shield victims from harm. Obstacles plague nearly every step in the process: Low awareness of the orders among both the public and the courts leads to low application numbers. Successful applications require substantial documented evidence, the protections themselves are limited, and punishments for violation are relatively mild. [Source]
Local initiatives are trying to address the domestic abuse crisis in their own ways. In June, The New York Times’ Sui-Lee Wee reported that the city of Yiwu introduced a searchable database of domestic violence offenders, to allow people entering marriages to run background checks on their partners.
Nonetheless, high profile cases of violence abound, and have worsened, as in the rest of the world, with the COVID-19 epidemic. And as one expert told Axios’ Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian, the crisis will not abate until marriage and social stability are separated in the eyes of the party:
“There’s this notion that a harmonious society is based on a harmonious marriage and family,” Leta Hong Fincher, author of “Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China,” told Axios.
The party believes that “it would be destabilizing if all these victims of sexual or domestic violence were to find recourse in the courts,” Hong Fincher said. “The government thinks it would lead to chaos.” [Source]