Women in China are on the rise, so why is it still common to see them beaten in public?

A man cycles past a wall painted with an anti-domestic violence slogan in the rural province of Hebei in Northern China.
A man cycles past a wall painted with an anti-domestic violence slogan in the rural province of Hebei in Northern China.
Image: AP Photo/Elizabeth Dalziel
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A few summers ago in Toronto, I saw a couple break up on the street. After several minutes of yelling, the woman turned to walk away. The man then grabbed her wrist and yanked her back with so much force it sent her stumbling to the ground. There was an instant pause, as if the couple and everyone that saw the incident realized a line had been crossed. The man scrambled to help her up. The woman, swatting him away, hissed back, “Don’t you ever touch me like that again.” Several strangers walking by stopped to ask the woman if she was alright and lingered protectively until her now-former lover moved on in the opposite direction.

No matter where I am in China, I often see similar scenes of couples fighting in public, except the screaming is even more shrill and the escalation to violence more frequent. In fact, tearful arguing, arm grabbing, shoving and kicking are so commonplace on Beijing’s streets that I’ve come to wonder whether it’s part of the local mating ritual.

Passers-by rarely stop and if they do, it’s only to gawk, not intervene. Occasionally someone will pull out his phone, but only to capture the spectacle with his camera rather than call for help. When the onlookers have had their fill, they carry on without saying a word, leaving the couple to continue their quarrel undisturbed.

Once in Beijing, when I was returning home late from dinner, I saw what appeared to be a woman in genuine crisis. A college-aged man was dragging her along the ground, wrenching her arm at an unnatural angle, as she whimpered and clawed weakly at the pavement. Instinctively, I stepped in and told the man to back off. The couple immediately jerked back in alarm. The man released his grip, and the woman quickly stood to duck behind him. She mumbled nervously that everything was fine and they scuttled away together, hand-in-hand. It made me feel as though I was the one who crossed the line.

As a foreigner in China, I constantly feel like I’m groping to understand what’s considered proper behavior, both legally and socially. But the most perplexing set of protocol I’ve had to decipher is the place of women in Chinese society.

Of my Chinese female friends under 40, almost all of them are university-educated and financially independent. They hold positions of authority in the workplace and shoulder many of the important responsibilities at home. The most prominent role men play in their lives is carrying their handbags. I wonder how these empowered women I see all around me stride through the same streets that other women are openly beaten and dragged across.

The recent case of Li Yan, a Sichuan woman sentenced to death for murdering her husband after enduring more than a year of brutal abuse, underscores this paradox. Despite the dramatic gains Chinese women have made over the past half-century, they still do not hold the same rights and protections as men.

Of course, there are differences that separate Li Yan’s situation from that of my peers: she is 41-years-old, part of an older generation still raised on the notions of Confucian patriarchy that encourage exerting male dominance. She and her husband also lived in a county roughly 200 km outside of Chengdu, itself only a second-tier city in the southwest. Rural communities are known to abide by traditional mores that are more permissive of physical violence at home. And as a silk factory worker with limited personal wealth or educational background, she lacked access to many resources those with middle-class privileges take for granted.

But as literally and figuratively distant as Li Yan’s experience is, it closely reflects some of the challenges women continue to confront in China. One friend who asked me only to use her English name, Tina, is the embodiment of a modern, self-possessed woman. She has an undergraduate and masters degree from two of the country’s top universities, has spent time living in Europe, owns her own car, and works for a multinational company in Beijing. Yet she, too, has experienced domestic violence that is all too common in China. A staggering poll showed that one third of families experienced domestic violence with 90% of the victims being women.

Born in Hebei province, Tina grew up intensely aware of the inferior status of women. As the only child of a father who hoped for a male heir, she always knew she was a disappointment. His attacks on her intelligence and ability, though usually only verbal, were nonetheless constant and painful. The physical abuse Tina did suffer came from her mother, who pushed her relentlessly to excel at school. Sharp pinches were used to keep her awake and studying long past exhaustion. Worse punishments were doled out for mistakes on homework or tests.

However, as is customary, Tina never discussed her problems with others. It’s considered more shameful for a household’s internal affairs to be aired publicly than to be abusive toward members of your own family. The main problem according to Tina and every person I spoke to is that there is no clear concept of what it means to be a victim of abuse. China doesn’t have a specific national law that defines what domestic violence is and how it should be handled.

In Li Yan’s case, the local police, women’s federation, and neighborhood committee all refused to act on her direct pleas for help, claiming again that it was a family matter. The judicial system then pursued the maximum possible penalty of execution when she took action on her own. By contrast, even in instances where they are convicted of domestic violence, men rarely receive the maximum seven-year sentence.

And those are the cases that make it to court. More commonly, parties turn to the deeply engrained system of personal relationships called “guanxi.” It’s China’s unofficial network of power—controlled largely by powerful families and men—that is relied on to conduct business and resolve problems. Li Yan’s husband apparently came from a well-established local family that could use its “guanxi” to persuade officials and others to look the other way.

In an online conversation, one friend explained, “Chinese don’t have enough legal consciousness for now… 5,000 years of history has stuck in our roots that “managing people” is much better than “managing rules,” so we don’t go to the regulations if issues occur.”

This has bred a culture in which victims must either silently suffer behind closed doors or fight a system on their own that’s skewed against them.

While the women I talked to were realistic about the longstanding issues they have to overcome, they also had faith things would improve with time. In modern China, nothing stays the same for very long. Eventually, even the most fixed social norms and government laws will have to bend to the new realities of women’s elevated position in society.

Ultimately, Tina escaped her abusive home environment through education, and she is determined never to return. Although she has yet to find someone who meets her standards for marriage, she does hope to one day become a mother. “Son or daughter,” she told me, “I will teach them to respect everyone the same way and never tolerate violence.”