How two women deal with fear, abuse and divorce in China
Updated 17:30, 25-Nov-2020

"At 2:48 this morning, I woke up with a start from a nightmare. In the dream, I meet up with my ex-husband and three other men while I'm walking downstairs. He looks at me angrily, then hurls me down and kicks me in the abdomen," Lin Yi said during an interview with CGTN. It's been a year since her divorce after 17 years of abuse.

Victims of domestic violence often harbor fear and anger for many years after they escape. Lin lost track of the times her ex-husband beat her during their marriage. "The violence just escalated year after year, even while we were becoming more well off with job promotions and higher salaries. I felt like a trampled worm under his foot."

Lin, a university professor in her 40s at the time, didn't make up her mind to get divorced until 2016, when her ex-husband pinned her to the ground and slapped her in public because she was going to visit her mother. Neighbors saw the scene play out, but they simply stood by. She called the police, who came, took pictures of her injuries and then left, dismissing the incident as a family matter.

Run away

"I realized I had no alternative but to run away from what I called home, or I'd be beaten to death," Lin recalled the moment when she left with a suitcase and then managed to rent a condo four times smaller than her former home. In three years since then, she battled to finalize her divorce.

In cases like Lin's, joint property ownership and teenage children complicate divorce proceedings, not to mention the widespread mentality women in China that labels female divorcees as failures and no longer deserve better men.

Translated excerpt of interview with Lin Yi.mp3


Fang Jia, a woman in her 50s, fled from home on a summer night after another beating by her former husband. During her 30-year marriage, she endured nonstop physical and verbal abuse. But she didn't realize that what she was going through was considered domestic violence until she saw TV shows about marriage and clips on the short video platform Douyin a couple of years ago.

"I ran away from home in slippers, hopped on a taxi and headed downtown where my son lives," said Fang, a resident of northwestern Beijing's Miyun District. She wasn't as animated as Lin, seemingly haunted by the fact that she continued to live in the house owned by her and her wealthy ex-husband in a district where he exerts considerable influence. Fang had to stop several times to collect herself while she recounted her story. "She completely downplayed the abuse from her ex-husband," said her lawyer Zhang Jing, who was sitting next to her during the interview.

Translated excerpt of interview with Fang Jia.mp3


It wasn't Fang's first attempt at escape. One of those times, six cars surrounded her on a highway because her then-husband had tracked her down using her phone's geolocation, monitoring every move she made. Her younger brother – her only family member – told her that all couples fight and persuaded her to stay married.

Her son was the only one who supported her in filing for a divorce, having witnessed his mother being abused throughout his childhood and also a victim of violence himself. "Ever since I could remember, pots and pans were flying over my head." He was diagnosed with severe depression at the age of 15, but his illness didn't change the hostile dynamic between his parents even after he told them.

He fled to Canada in 2008 when he reached 18. "I just wanted to run away."

Translated excerpt of interview with Fang's son.mp3


Everywhere, yet invisible

More than 90 million married women in China regularly face domestic violence. Among some 157,000 Chinese women who commit suicide per year on average, 60 percent are victims of family violence, according to a 2016 survey by All-China Women's Federation. On average the victims don't call the police until they've been abused at least 35 times. Figures may be much higher given that most victims never speak out.

Many domestic violence cases in China are like Fang and Lin's, according to Zhang Jing. A family affair lawyer for over a decade, Zhang listed common characteristics of intimate partner violence. "For one thing, not all abusers commit violence in the heat of the moment. Some may prepare beforehand, such as installing double-paned windows for soundproofing, closing the doors and the window shades, confiscating the victim's phone, and putting on leather dress shoes so they can immediately leave after committing abuse."

This methodic planning belies the senseless violence that can happen, such as grabbing the victim's hair and slamming her against the wall. Lin is a typical victim of such violence – her husband often stepped on her with his boots at night. No one could hear her cries for help through those double-paned windows.

Most victims are also hesitant to leave their partners for good. "Quite a few clients say they are in no hurry. Some of them have ruminated on the matter for years," said Zhang. "Some even hope that I can persuade their husbands to stop beating them. They are just pinning hope on hopelessness."



At the root of the problem, Zhang added, are the deep-seated beliefs that man is superior to woman and a husband is someone who can consider his wife and children as personal property. "When a woman fails to fulfill his chauvinistic desires, he would impose verbal and physical abuse, economic control or even marital rape."

Other factors, though subtler, could also contribute to family violence. Lyu Xiaoquan, a lawyer with Qianqian Law Firm which offers legal aid for women, observes that many aggressors grow up in a similarly abusive family. "Violence is cyclical," he told CGTN. "Children who witness domestic violence are more likely than their peers to be violent in their future families."

And if a man comes from a poorer or less powerful family compared with his wife, he may develop an inferiority complex, which will manifest as arrogance, neglect and contempt over time, both Zhang and Lyu noted.

Fang, born into a relatively well-off family, and her ex-husband were co-workers at a local textile factory when they married. At the time, her ex-husband relied on her father to build a fortune and became increasingly scornful and violent toward Fang. He controlled her whereabouts, their son's career and marriage, and the family's finances. "Coercive control is a central ingredient in domestic violence," Zhang said.

The man Lin ultimately left had grown up in a family of violence, indifference and relative poverty. After Lin became a professor of economics, he beat her even more.




Making up one's mind to leave an abusive relationship is tough, but getting a divorce is tougher. "Since abuse often happens behind closed doors, it's difficult to acquire evidence," Zhang said. Abusers are usually reluctant to agree to a divorce, so victims have to resort to legal proceedings in court.

Judges require documentation of medical injuries, records of emergency phone calls to the police and other types of evidence. On a few occasions, bruises may not be enough to prove that victims suffered from domestic violence, and fractures are sometimes identified as "slight injuries."

"I thought of ending my life once and for all, so I looked online for a way to end my life without looking too ugly." In agony, Lin recounted the three years between her escape and divorce. "Then I saw a psychiatrist because I have to live on."

She also started studying psychology in her spare time, trying to understand how family violence sabotages her self-worth and why it's difficult to leave an abusive relationship.

"It's called learned helplessness," she said. Just like the popular story: A young calf tries many times to break free from a rope tied to its leg but is unable to do it, so when it grows into a stronger and larger elephant that can tear away from the flimsy restraint, it doesn't do so because it "learned" early on that doing so was futile. Similarly, breaking this "rope" mindset is hard for domestic violence victims. In repeated compromises to stay in a relationship with their abusers, they gradually give up.

"I told myself that it's normal to feel weak, scared and hopeless. Things are as bad as they can be. How much worse can they get?"

For victims, the greater difficulty lies in breaking free from self-blame, often on top of developing post-traumatic stress disorder. "Every morning, the only thing he would say was 'don't forget to clean the house'," Lin recalled. For Fang, keeping a 500-square-meter villa clean was her daily routine for three decades. They worked hard, earned a decent salary, took good care of the family, but were still beaten by husbands. Prolonged abuse made them believe it was their fault. "My father seems to have manipulated my mother's mind," Fang's son said during an interview with CGTN.

In some cases, stigma from exposing such abuse, in addition to family pressure and judicial apathy, is enough to destroy a woman's life.

After the tragic death of Lamu, the woman who had been abused by her ex-husband for over a decade before being set on fire, a few fellow villagers still blamed her for being murdered due to what they considered to be her moral failings, saying that she didn't do the household chores, that she always wore make-up, and that she played mahjong with guests at the local teahouse. Her identity as an internet sensation was an affront to their biases against women, despite the savagery of the incident.

Read more: Lamu died from family violence. She won't be the last one. What now?

Law and belief

In China, about one in four women have reported experiencing a type of domestic violence, and among them 5.5 percent suffered serious injuries. China introduced its first anti-domestic violence law only in 2016, which helps victims of physical or mental abuse in the family through various legal means such as restraining orders, 15 years after it included physical abuse as grounds for a divorce.

"The landmark legal interpretation offers much easier access for victims to apply for restraining orders," said Zhang. Such personal protection orders issued tripled from 687 to 2,004 within three years of the law's introduction. Moreover, female victims are more aware of their rights in fighting against partner abuse and are even more vocal about it. "In a way, the law plays the role of prevention, but it falls short on punishment."

Levels of enforcement vary throughout the country. In rural areas such as the remote southwestern village where Lamu had lived, punishments are usually light. Police officers just gave a verbal warning to her ex-husband when she had called for help.

"Even today, many police officers lack proper training to deal with domestic violence cases," Lyu noted. "Sometimes local police officers just cling to the most expedient way of doing things." Statistics from the All-China Women's Federation show that 80 percent of women calling the police due to domestic violence are ignored because they are considered "family affairs."

Statistics from China's Supreme People's Court reveal that nearly 15 percent of divorces were triggered by domestic violence in 2016 and 2017. Over 920 women died from intimate partner abuse, according to a report released by Equality. The Beijing-based women's rights NGO collected media reports on family violence between March 2016 – when the country's anti-domestic violence law came into effect – and December 2019.

The lack of urgency from law enforcement and public attitudes rooted in victim blaming, male privilege and tribal justice continue to hinder progress in addressing domestic violence. There is hope – more victims have grown aware of their legal rights and are willing to seek help from legal and social organizations in escaping abusive relationships.

Progress, however, isn't limited to legal processes or enforcement mechanisms. During the final session of her divorce proceedings, Lin, who had always trembled uncontrollably in the presence of her ex-husband, was able to calmly look into the eyes of the judge while he looked on and utter for the last time, "I want a divorce."

(Lin Yi and Fang Jia were given pseudonyms to protect their privacy.)


Article written by Wang Xiaonan

Data editor: Zhao Hong

Voiceover: Sai Na, Niu Di, Zeng Ziyi

Graphics designed by Chen Yuyang, Jia Jieqiong

Yu Jing, Zeng Ziyi also contributed reporting.

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