China's Domestic Violence Breakthrough


The Chinese government has proposed a draft law against domestic violence – the first such law for China. The draft, published by the State Council’s Legislative Affairs Office, is open for public comment until December 25. The law will cover all forms of domestic violence, including spousal abuse, child abuse, and elder abuse. A full English translation of the draft is available from China Law Translate.

Domestic violence, particularly spousal abuse, has gained more and more attention in China thanks to a number of high-profile cases. As Xinhua put it in an article on the new draft law, “Family violence has remained in the shadows for a long time in China, where the culture holds that family conflicts are embarrassing private matters. Only in recent years have the Chinese people begun to examine the issue.”

The Xinhua piece cites the example of Kim Lee, the American wife of Chinese entrepreneur Li Yang. Lee went public about being abused by her husband, sparking a public debate on the issue of domestic abuse. Lee was criticized by her husband and some of the general public for violating Chinese cultural norms by drawing attention to her abuse. She was vindicated in court, however, winning a divorce and a restraining order against her ex-husband.

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The All-China Women’s Federation issued a firm statement in support of the draft law. “Domestic violence is not a family dispute, rather, it is aggression against people’s rights and should be resolved with legal measures,” the statement said. In an effort to further change the way domestic violence is viewed, the draft law exhorts Chinese media outlets to shape public opinion on the issue. Clearly, China’s government is trying to bring the issue of domestic abuse out of “the shadows.”

Accordingly, the new law encourages and even requires social aid organizations, schools, and medical institutions to report cases of abuse to the authorities. Both social organizations and individuals should be empowered to “dissuade, prevent, and report physical and psychological abuse from within the victims’ family,” the law said.

Importantly, the law aims to increase legal options for victims of domestic abuse. Police will be required to “step in immediately” when a report of domestic violence is filed. In the past, women’s rights advocates have complained that police often send victims of abuse away, telling them it is a family issue. The case of Li Yan shone a spotlight on this sort of attitude. Li was severely abused for three years before killing her husband after he threatened to shoot her. Li had reported her abuse to police and a local women’s association but was ignored; her supporters argued she was given no legal recourse to protect herself. Li was tried for her husband’s murder and initially sentenced to death, sparking outrage from women’s rights activists before her death sentence was overturned by China’s highest court.

Learning from Li Yan’s tragic story, the draft law requires police to take action in cases of domestic abuse, both to prevent ongoing abuse and to gather evidence about the case. According to Xinhua, abusers will receive “written reprimands in minor cases” and will face criminal charges “in serious cases.” Current law allows for abusers to be sentenced to up to two years, or up to seven years if their abuse causes “serious injury or death.” Victims will also be allowed to file for “a personal safety protection ruling” against abusers before filing a lawsuit or seeking a divorce.

The lack of a specific law dealing with domestic violence was a major hindrance to victims seeking redress. With the new draft law, Beijing wants to address some of the largest issues surrounding domestic violence, especially the tendency for victims to be marginalized and ignored by the very institutions that are responsible for protecting their rights.

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