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Shocking cases of domestic violence are leading young Chinese to question marriage

<i>TopPhoto/AP</i><br/>A series of high-profile domestic violence cases in China
A series of high-profile domestic violence cases in China

By Nectar Gan, CNN

Hong Kong (CNN) — A series of high-profile domestic violence cases in China, including a killing carried out in broad daylight that was captured on video and circulated widely on social media, has sparked outrage – and reignited a debate among young people about the pitfalls of marriage.

The killing in the eastern province of Shandong came to widespread public attention Monday after footage filmed by a witness was posted online.

In the video, a man is seen repeatedly driving a car over a woman – later identified by police as his wife. On multiple occasions the man exits his car to check whether the woman is still alive, before continuing the attack.

In a statement late on Tuesday, police in Dongying city said a 37-year-old man had been detained after he hit and crushed his 38-year-old wife to death over “family disputes.” The case was still under investigation, it added.

By Wednesday morning, the attack had become the top trending topic on China’s Twitter-like Weibo, racking up 300 million views.

Many were appalled by the level of cruelty on display in the attack, which follows two other high-profile domestic violence and homicide cases involving women victims that have caught public attention. Last month, a man in the southern province of Guangdong stabbed his wife and her sister in law to death. The wife had reportedly suffered years of domestic violence and was planning on a divorce, her family told state media outlet The Paper.

And last week, another case emerged, involving a woman in the southwestern metropolis of Chengdu who said she had spent eight days in an intensive care unit after being attacked by her husband in a hotel room in April – because he found out she was applying for divorce and a protection order in court, according to state media reports. The case came to light after the woman posted about her case on social media, where she said he had attacked her 16 times during their two years of marriage.

In online discussions, these cases are increasingly cited by young people as a cautionary tale for entering into marriage, given what many see as inadequate protection for domestic violent victims and the difficulty of getting out of abusive marriages.

“No wonder everyone is afraid of marriage now,” said one popular comment on Weibo with more than 4,000 likes.

Others cited a saying trending in popularity among young Chinese women: “Keep yourself safe by staying away from marriage and childbirth.”

Such sentiments pose a potential challenge for the Chinese government, which has struggled to reverse the country’s nosediving rates of marriages and births in the face of a population crisis.

An increasing number of young people are delaying or shunning marriage entirely, due to its associated financial burdens and entrenched gender inequalities.

“While marriage can bring some benefits, it is actually more of a constraint on women, and more and more women have become aware of this,” said Feng Yuan, a feminist scholar and co-founder of Equality, an advocacy group for women’s rights and gender equality in Beijing.

“Given its prevalence, domestic violence is an issue everyone knows about, even if they have not encountered it themselves.”

‘Family affair’

In China, domestic violence has traditionally been regarded as a private family matter. After two decades of advocacy by women’s rights activists, the country finally imposed its anti-domestic violence law in 2016.

The law defines domestic violence for the first time, covering both physical and psychological violence – though it fails to address sexual abuse such as marital rape. It authorized courts to issue protection orders for victims and police to issue written warnings against abusers.

While the legislation has brought some progress on protecting victims and raising social awareness of domestic violence, experts say its enforcement remains patchy and often ineffective, partly due to the country’s deep-rooted patriarchal culture and long-existing barriers in the judicial system.

Feng, the feminist scholar, said in many places police still treat domestic violent cases as a family affair. “Violence between family members is not treated with the same level of importance as violence between strangers…It’s often dealt with lightly by the police and the courts,” she said.

“Therefore, many victims couldn’t receive effective and timely help, and many preventable tragedies of domestic violence were not stopped in time.”

Abusive marriages

To some Chinese young people, the fears for marriage also stem from the difficulty of getting out of it – especially when the relationship turns abusive.

In 2021, the Chinese government imposed a 30-day “cooling off period” on couples seeking to separate – widely perceived as an attempt to contain the rising divorce rate amid a looming population crisis.

The policy has drawn fierce criticism that it could potentially trap people in unhappy or even abusive marriages. In response, the Ministry of Civil Affairs has said the “cooling-off period” only applies to consensual divorce filed in the civil affairs system, and victims of domestic violent can file for divorce in court.

But in Chinese courts, it is extremely difficult for victims to win a divorce lawsuit on the grounds of domestic violence, according to Ethan Michelson, a professor of sociology and law at Indiana University, Bloomington and author of the book “Decoupling: Gender injustice in China’s Divorce Courts.”

“Women are showing up in court with really strong and compelling evidence supporting their claims of domestic violence, and the judges are just completely ignoring it,” said Michelson, who reviewed 260,000 pieces of court verdicts on divorce cases between 2008 and 2023.

About a quarter of the verdicts Michelson analyzed were on cases filed by women who accused their husbands of domestic violence. Most of their divorce petitions were denied, and among the few that were approved, almost none were granted on the bases of domestic violence, according to Michelson.

“Domestic violence allegations, even when they’re supported by evidence, make no difference – like judges just don’t care at all,” he said.

Chinese judges have long tended to deny divorce petitions, according to Michelson. In Chinese courts, it is almost a default practice for judges to deny a divorce petition the first time it’s filed, he said, adding a second divorce petition can only be filed six months later.

“When judges deny divorces from women who are making allegations of domestic violence, they’re prolonging their exposure to abuse and violence,” he said.

Part of the reason for judges to deny divorce petitions is practical: shutting the cases down quickly is a “coping strategy” for overworked judges struggling with heavy caseloads, Michelson said. But there is also an ideological and political side to it, he added.

“For decades, there has been ideological pressure on judges to reconcile couples and preserve marriages, but it’s gotten much stronger under Xi Jinping,” he said, pointing to the Chinese leader’s promotion of traditional family values that emphasize harmony.

China’s declining rates of marriage and births have only added to the pressure, but denying domestic violence victims’ petitions for divorce will only be counterproductive to the government’s goal of promoting births, Michelson said.

“It’s just ridiculous to think that preserving abusive and toxic marriages is somehow going to promote fertility,” he said.

“Actually, the opposite would be true. Liberating women from abusive and toxic marriages so they can marry somebody they actually love and treats them well – that is more likely to promote fertility.”

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