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A Beginning for China’s Battered Women

Like it or not, it takes an American woman to give a face, bring a voice, and deliver a victory to battered women in China. On February 3, a milestone court decision in Beijing granted a divorce to Kim Lee, a victim of domestic abuse, from her celebrity Chinese husband Li Yang, a motivational speaker and the founder of a hugely popular and officially sanctioned English learning program that fuses language learning with Chinese patriotism. After enduring years of an increasingly loveless and volatile relationship—during which Li spent most of the time away from Lee and their three daughters, visiting home only two days most months—the desperate Lee took to the Internet for help in September 2011, posting a graphic account of their most recent altercation and photos of her bruises on China’s microblogging service Sina Weibo. Li was unperturbed by her wounds, rebuffing Lee in public for defying Chinese tradition by taking a domestic matter public. The case aroused strong reactions among China’s Netizens. While many women wrote to relay their own sufferings at the hands of men or to express sympathy and show support, some questioned whether Lee was making too big a fuss over what they took as routine. Indeed for many in China, especially in rural areas, physical violence within the confines of the family is an accepted part of a marital relationship where wife-beating is a man’s natural right.

The case reminds me of a conversation I had with Zhang Yue, the host of a women’s program on China Central Television (CCTV) called Half the Sky—whose name, before the show was canceled in 2011 after sixteen years, was a reference to Chairman Mao’s famous proclamation that “women hold up half the sky.” In 2009, Zhang recounted how a series of gender-consciousness training sessions helped to inject progressive gender politics in the program’s otherwise-resistant production crew. She told me how, during one intense discussion, a male colleague broke down, tearfully confessing that he beat his wife. He lived in a small town in northern China where men routinely beat their wives, Zhang recalled. “He was much ashamed about the belated awareness of domestic abuse and later apologized to his wife. But many men still consider wife-beating an honorable thing to do,” she said. “I was in northeast China the other day, and a group of men confronted me, telling me that our program was misguided and that there was nothing wrong with beating up one’s wife because how else can one turn a woman into a good wife.”

A photograph showing a bruised Kim Lee posted to the Sina weibo account “<a href="http://weibo.com/2254494161/xmr4ltHSF" target="_blank">丽娜华的Mom</a>.”

Though domestic violence is illegal in China, many still consider it a private matter in which the state has no business interfering. Zhang said that her program was up against deep-rooted traditions in rural China. She interviewed Li Yang in 2009 when rumors surfaced that he had hit his wife. But Zhang softballed the interview and later was criticized online by regular Netizens for taking lightly the pride of a battered woman, and an American, no less. Interestingly, the sharpened focus on women’s empowerment on Half the Sky owes much to another American woman: Hillary Clinton.

Half the Sky debuted on January 1, 1995 in anticipation of the Fourth World Conference on Women that would take place in Beijing in September of that year. It was a special topics program that was put on the air hastily and temporarily for a special occasion. Yet a speech made by Clinton, who was then First Lady and the honorary chair of the U.S. delegation, would give the program a prolonged life and a renewed purpose. To the dismay of the White House, which was wary of offending the Chinese Communist Party leadership, Clinton catalogued a litany of abuses that afflicted women around the world and sharply criticized China for limiting free and open discussion of women’s issues. Her talk and the ensuing discussions served as an inspiration for new ideas and perspectives on gender equality for the new women’s program on CCTV. The program was eventually cancelled due to low ratings in 2011, not long after Zhang conducted the less-than-critical interview with Li Yang. By then, Zhang knew that her program had worn out its welcome at the station, as CCTV wanted to make room for commercially viable programs able to compete for viewership with newly popular programming from local and provincial broadcasters.

China had changed. Years of accelerating economic growth had brought unprecedented social and geographic mobility, as well as pressure on men to strive to succeed and follow the trail of power and money, leaving behind their women. While living with Li in Beijing, Lee had no bank account, no property under her name, not even a driver’s license. She relied solely on the cash Li delivered to her in an envelope each month. Economic growth has exacerbated the gender gap, often reviving cultural traditions that can reduce women to sub-human status. Women are still supposed to obey their fathers when young, their husbands upon marrying, and their sons when their husbands die. All too often, the defiant are punished with a beating. The choices for unattached women are stark: they either become “leftover women,” stigmatized for remaining unmarried at thirty or older; join the army of kept women under the thumbs of wealthy businessmen and ranking party officials; or are held captive by rural bachelors in desperate need of brides, as men greatly outnumber women in contemporary China.

The contempt for women that I have witnessed in China in recent years is alarming. While passing through Shenzhen several years ago, an old male acquaintance who is now a ranking party official hosted a banquet in my honor at a private villa. The rest of the invitees were all local party officials and all male. Halfway through the banquet, a few young girls were ushered in. Several men promptly disappeared into the adjacent room. There were sounds of struggle and muffled screams. I told my acquaintance that whatever was going on in the next room had to stop immediately. While complying, he seemed surprised at my strong reaction. “My guys are just having a little fun,” he said, “and they pay these women well.” The irony was not lost that this was supposed to be a banquet in honor of a woman.

On September 25, 2011 shortly after Kim Lee took her case public, another CCTV program, the weekly news magazine show Eyewitness, persuaded Lee and her husband Li Yang to appear on the program, albeit separately, to talk about marriage and domestic relations. The interviewer, Chai Jing, an empathetic young woman, was incredulous when confronted with Li’s utter lack of emotion. At one point, Li said that he was kind enough to grace his home with his presence once or twice a month. “I did not have to go home at all,” he said matter-of-factly. The contrast between Lee’s devastation and pleading and Li’s chilly lack of emotional response or genuine remorse was shocking. Footage of Li’s female fans reassuring him that he had done no wrong and that his wife had blown things out of proportion was jarring to say the least. Yet this is the reality of China. While Lee, an American woman, at last triumphed with a court-granted divorce and $1.9 million in compensation on February 3, millions of Chinese women continue to suffer in silence. The same month when Lee walked out of the Beijing court a free and empowered woman, the Sichuan High Court in Southwest China rejected an appeal from a woman who was sentenced to death in August 2011 for killing her husband after suffering years of unimaginable abuse. Hopefully, another occasion will soon arise for a Chinese woman to become the standard-bearer for battered women in China.

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