BEIJING — In 2006, when she was seven months pregnant, Kim Lee was kicked so hard in the abdomen by her husband that she needed hospital treatment. Such domestic violence, though shocking, is not uncommon in China. Around a quarter of Chinese women have experienced domestic abuse, according to the All China Women’s Federation (ACWF), a state-controlled NGO, but experts say the real figure is probably much higher. Concerns about losing family “face” mean many incidents go unreported, and few offenders are ever punished.
What makes Ms Lee different is that she is a white American. Her husband is Li Yang, the celebrity founder of Crazy English, a wildly popular English-language training institute, which encourages students to learn English by shouting it at the top of their voices.
The few people Ms Lee confided in, including her Chinese sister-in-law, told her to stop provoking her husband. When she complained to the police, after suffering concussion and bruised ribs, they told her to “relax and go home”. Frustrated, she turned to the internet, posting photos on a Chinese microblog last August. One showed a lump the size of a golf ball protruding from her forehead. Another showed a bloody ear. The photos caused a sensation. Hundreds of thousands of comments were published about them on microblogs. Since then, many more victims of domestic violence have come forward, and the issue has been reported and discussed more widely in Chinese media.
While a 2005 law vaguely states that domestic violence against women is prohibited, there is no national provision for dealing with offenders. This year, the creation of such mechanisms was put on the legislative agenda of China’s parliament, the National People’s Congress. It marks the fifth time the ACWF has submitted such a proposal. Julie Broussard, China programme manager at UN Women, part of the United Nations, says she is optimistic that it could pass this time.
After months of waiting, Ms Lee has been granted a civil protection order forbidding her husband to come within 200 metres of her. On August 10th she attended divorce proceedings in Beijing for the third time, after Mr Li refused to co-operate at previous hearings. A group of Chinese women, made up with fake bruises, came to the court with 1,200 signatures expressing support for Ms Lee.
Mr Li has apologised for his actions but last week he told Chinese reporters that what is called domestic violence could just be a difference between cultures. Ms Lee has claimed custody of their three young children and decided to remain in China. She knows she can leave if she wants to. Chinese women, she points out, do not have that option.
Photograph by Ryan Baumann