In China, a Conversation About Domestic Abuse Begins

Lee is surrounded by local journalists as she leaves a Beijing court building during her divorce trial Photograph by Alexander F. Yuan/AP Photo

Two years ago, Kim Lee, the American wife of a millionaire Chinese entrepreneur, posted photos of herself on the social media site Weibo. The images showed her delicate facial features bruised and puffy, with a bloody ear and a raised bump on her forehead. She was a victim of domestic abuse, her message explained. In going public about a secret most families in China have long preferred to keep hidden, Lee bravely started a conversation and may have set an important precedent.

On Sunday, Feb. 3, the final hearing of her divorce case attracted several supporters and divorce advocates in China, who gathered on a snowy morning outside Beijing’s Chaoyang District Court. Among them was a woman in a makeshift white bridal gown with splattered red paint to look like blood; she held up a sign that read, “Shame on you, perpetrator Li Yang!”

Li Yang, Lee’s former husband and the celebrity founder of the language-training program known as Crazy English, did not attend. He has previously acknowledged the abuse, at times in contrite terms and at other times saying it was a family matter. In a microblog post on Sept. 10, 2011, Li wrote: “I wholeheartedly apologize to my wife Kim and my girls for committing domestic violence. This has caused them serious physical and mental damage.”

The court granted Lee a divorce on grounds of domestic abuse, approved her application for a three-month restraining order on Li, and awarded her 12 million RMB ($1.9 million) and custody of the couple’s three children. “Chinese woman must defend their own rights,” she told reporters from Xinhua News Service.

Lijia Zhang, an author in Beijing who joined the demonstrators on Sunday, wrote in an editorial for the Guardian newspaper: “Traditional wisdom in China is to deal with domestic violence as something ‘best kept inside the house.’ … Now Lee has become an unlikely hero for having the courage to speak out.”

It is difficult to measure the extent of domestic violence in China. Although most officially cited studies are thought to underestimate its prevalence, even those numbers are deeply unsettling. In 2011, the All China Women’s Federation, a state-steered non-governmental organization, released its findings that 25 percent of women in China have been victims of some form of domestic violence. A survey by the China Law Society put that number at 35 percent. An academic study published in 1999 in the International Journal of Gynaecology and Obstetrics found that 16 percent of pregnant woman admitted to the clinic of Hong Kong’s Tsan Yuk Hospital had suffered domestic abuse in the preceding year. By any yardstick, the problem is severe.

The more hopeful news is that there is a growing willingness to acknowledge domestic abuse—with peer support groups offering help to the victims, if not yet adequate legal protections. As public information materials prepared by the anti-domestic-abuse nonprofit, Half the Sky, put it: “Domestic violence is not a private matter but a crime. Physical violence in a relationship should not be accepted and everyone should intervene if they know someone who is being abused.”

A movement has also arisen among legal advocates in China to make it easier for women with less means and visibility than Lee—whose case, as a millionaire and ex-wife of a celebrity, is in some ways exceptional—to have their rights safeguarded in court. At the very least, Sunday’s verdict is being heralded as a decisive moral victory.