China Power | Society | East Asia

China’s Hidden Epidemic: Domestic Violence

The surge of domestic violence in China amid COVID-19 lockdowns points to the ineffectiveness of its Anti-Domestic Violence Law.

By Sophie Mak for
China’s Hidden Epidemic: Domestic Violence
Credit: Pixabay

The surge we are observing in domestic violence cases globally during lockdowns proves that the home is often the most violent space for women. Abuse can happen behind closed doors, and this is especially so for women in China. Domestic violence has increased threefold in Hubei province, the heart of the initial coronavirus outbreak, from 47 cases last year to 162 this year.

Domestic violence in China has become a more visible issue in recent years, but the first law that specifically targets the problem was only passed in 2015. The main principles of the Anti-Domestic Violence Law are explicitly stated in Article 1: “to prevent and stop domestic violence; protect the equal rights of family members; preserve equal, harmonious, civilized familial relationships; promote family harmony and social stability.” Unfortunately, the last objective (preserving and protecting family harmony) directly contradicts with the first (preventing domestic violence), which is the main issue leading to the law’s overall ineffectiveness.

In China, the principle of family harmony and social stability stems from Confucianism, which spreads patriarchal values of female submissiveness. Violence against female family members is normalized and even encouraged, as shown in sayings like “a beating shows intimacy and a scolding shows love.” Indoctrinated with ideas of female subordination and that being beaten by their significant others is normal, women rarely stand up against their partners even if they are abused. It is a common belief that protesting against their husbands is a demonstration of lack of obedience and modesty — if a wife were to leave her husband, she would disrupt the social harmony of the family and provoke the disdain of the community. As the old Chinese saying goes, “don’t wash your dirty linen (family issues) in public.” Violence against a woman by her husband is concealed within the sphere of private life and, as such, is largely overlooked. Any violence a man committed against his wife was seen as his family’s private matter instead of a larger social concern.

The endorsement of “family harmony” and “fulfilling familial duties” reflects Chinese society’s strong traditional belief in family unity over conflict and separation, and indirectly promotes the idea that victims (especially women) should remain virtuous in the face of abuse and be obligated to tolerate abuse. This would mean that women will be largely influenced by the notion that they should not openly protest about their significant others’ transgressions in order to protect family harmony.

The goal of promoting harmony and social stability makes mediation the preferred method to handle domestic violence, which is conceptualized as an interpersonal conflict amenable to conciliation. The Anti-Domestic Violence Law views mediation as the primary method in treating domestic violence cases and “encourages individuals who encounter domestic violence in their families to educate and criticize the abusers, and to try their best in mediating and reducing family conflicts.”

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The use of mediation in domestic violence-related cases invites conflicting opinions. Mediation has its advantages, such as confidentiality, flexibility and its ability to sustain and save relationships. Ultimately, the main goal of mediation is to revive and save the damaged family relationships and protect vulnerable victims from suffering from long-drawn court litigations.

However, multiple studies have also shown that mediation is ineffective in curbing domestic violence. During mediation periods, victims regularly erase the violence against them out of fear and intimidation by glossing over the reality of violence in their descriptions or leaving out significant aspects of the violent incidents. In this case, mediators, especially inexperienced ones, will not be able to identify the actual troubles faced by the victims and to read between the lines of the victims’ words and gestures. They will be prone to dismiss the cases as not serious enough to merit necessary attention.

Mediation allows the convergence of the state’s interest in stability and society’s belief in family harmony. However, this also raises serious safety concerns for victims. First, the Anti-Domestic Violence Law calls for informal mediation by “people’s mediation organizations” and “employers” to “prevent and reduce incidents of domestic violence.” Such mediations are typically conducted by people who are inexperienced in such work, thus their ability to help victims and prevent further abuse is highly questionable. Second, police response to domestic violence favors conflict resolution through “criticism and education” instead of taking coercive action against abusers. For example, in cases of assault where a person abuses a family member — which legally can subject the perpetrator to 15 days in detention — police are nevertheless directed to mediate “disputes among family members” instead. Third, family members are encouraged to act as mediators to reduce conflict by criticizing abusers. This can easily create adverse effects. Oftentimes, as seen in several cases of intimate partner violence in China in recent years, friends and relatives would encourage victims to go back to the abuser to try and win him back and “save the family.” These are people who are untrained in mediating conflicts and as they are personally close to the abusers or victims, tend to be biased and unable to give proper judgement or advice.

By using mediation as the primary method in treating domestic violence cases, the Anti-Domestic Violence Law fails to acknowledge the potential negative impacts of mediation on victim safety. The pervasive use of mediation fails to assign blame and punish abusers, and thus contributes to the continuation and vicious cycle of long-term abuse against women.

The Anti-Domestic Violence Law also advocates for the implementation of education in hopes to solve the domestic violence problem at the grassroots level. Education is not effective unless it successfully subverts conservative values and teaches young people modern ideals like gender equality and respect between partners. Keeping in mind that, according to a survey conducted by the All-China Women’s Federation and National Statistical Bureau in 2010, 61.6 percent of men and 54.8 percent of women still agree with the traditional saying that “men should be socially based, women should be family-oriented,” it is safe to say that education has not been effective in subverting those conservative views at all.

The coronavirus lockdown has shown us how inadequate the Anti-Domestic Violence Law is. Domestic violence cases also expose the government’s priority in keeping families intact rather than safeguarding women’s safety. At the core of it all, China has to structurally modernize its deeply entrenched patriarchal culture. Only then will women realize that they can stand up to their male partners when their rights are violated, demand equal treatment and respect from their partners, and report any instances of abuse to trustworthy and capable authorities. Ultimately, a culture that is embedded in gender inequality is the root cause of the evil that is domestic violence. Lawmakers have to incorporate modern, feminist values into the Anti-Domestic Violence Law to stop the vicious cycle of abuse and the devastating domestic violence epidemic in China.

Sophie Mak is a law and literature student at the University of Hong Kong. She completed a legal research thesis entitled “Winners and Losers of China’s Anti-Domestic Violence Law” last year.