Tackling intimate partner violence is not of interest to China

25. May 2020

 by Pia Eskelinen,  Doctoral Candidate at the Faculty of Law, University of Turku.


In early 2016, a legislation on domestic violence was implemented in China. However, the law does not provide adequate protection for the victims. And furthermore, intimate partner violence is often seen as normal thing within families or in other close relationships. In China civic activism is extremely limited, which makes it difficult to debate on the issue publicly.

”Go to another hospital, we cannot treat women who are victims of domestic violence.“

“This is a family issue, not ours (the police). Go home, talk to each other, do not argue. A wife should listen to her husband.”

”In my opinion, divorce is not an answer to domestic violence. It is only an excuse to get a quick divorce. Go home and come back after three months if you still want a divorce.”

These quotations are from clients of a Chinese law firm. The quotations reveal an ugly truth about lives under a threat of domestic violence in China. The hospital refuses to treat victims of domestic violence, the police denigrates and dismisses the situation and a judge urges to try again.

In early 2016, law on domestic violence came into force in China after 10 years of preparation. There was a small disappointment after the implementation, because after some analysis and research (for example the Washington Post) it turned out that the law did not provide victims of intimate partner violence with the security that the victims had hoped for and would have needed.

The legislation does not address intimate partner violence primarily as a criminal matter, but puts more emphasis on mediation, discussion, and forgiveness. The law does clearly define what physical and mental intimate partner violence is, but it completely fails to mention for example economic and sexual violence. In addition to this, the law only takes into account a marriage that is between a man and a woman and does not provide security for divorced people who are victims of violence by their ex-spouse.

The law can be considered advanced in that it allows a restraining order to be imposed on a violently behaving spouse. On the other hand, several court decisions show that there is no desire to impose a restraining order, because then the perpetrator would have no place to go. So, who does the law protect, the victim from the perpetrator or the perpetrator from homelessness?

Currently I am a PhD Candidate at the Faculty of Law in University of Turku. The main focus of my research is on Chinese women’s land rights, but very often I come across cases where there is also some degree of violence behind the denial of women’s basic rights. In most of the cases I have studied, biased community practices increase the unfulfilling of women’s fundamental rights, vulnerability and probability of domestic violence based on economic motives. It is important to notice that intimate partner or domestic violence is not only physical but is often linked to psychological as well as economic violence.


Domestic violence is not recognised in China

According to the official statistics (All China Women Federation; National Bureau of Statistics), about 25 % of women have experienced domestic or intimate partner violence. However, Li Ying, a lawyer specializing in women’s affairs, sternly states that people do not recognize well enough intimate partner violence. – When women are asked if their husband is acting violently towards them, 75% of women reply yes.

The ability not to recognise domestic or intimate partner violence is largely due to the prevailing notion of equality in China. In some areas, especially rural areas, it is quite common that women are secondary to men. However, men also suffer from intimate partner violence in China, but statistically women are more likely to be victims than men. Although the overall situation has improved, the intergenerational cycle of intimate partner violence is difficult to break, and learned behavioural patterns are difficult to change.

It would be important articulate more clearly what intimate partner violence is. It is not just a family matter or a normal part of a relationship, but a social phenomenon that needs to be addressed strongly.

In China, according to my own work experience the definition of domestic violence is exceedingly difficult to explain because the violent behaviour has been and continues to be acceptable in marriage and is often considered a woman’s own cause. Unfortunately, many different operators make it possible for intimate partner and domestic violence to continue: women, men, family, police and the judiciary. Xu et.al argue that domestic violence is not recognized because it is considered a normal part of a relationship. Women accept violence because they have grown up under the influence of a culture where violence is part of a man’s rights in a relationship. Therefore, childhood experiences of violence socialize women into a certain culture and society.

Quite often, an extended family that includes aunties, cousins and grandparents want to keep violence within the family so that it would not bring shame on the family. Families usually deal with violent behaviour by themselves and that is one of the reasons why the police or courts have not been burdened with “small” internal family matters.

Intimate partner violence is not a priority issues at the Chinese police force and attitudes towards it and its victims are problematic. Too often the police only register a violent situation as an internal family conflict, so the matter does not even proceed to official investigation. The police, of course, visit the incident after receiving the alert but usually urge the parties just to be tolerant and respect each other. It also often happens that the visit is not even recorded. Because of this, many cases of intimate partner violence do not progress to courts. There is not enough evidence of violence and its continuity.

In Nordic countries, the victim’s situation in domestic or intimate partner violence can be very difficult, as in China, but for slightly different reasons. In China, violence is silenced because intimate partner violence is widely seen as an internal family affair and it is not appropriate to address that in public. Of course, silencing is a problem in Nordic countries as well. Health care officials, schools or social welfare representatives can be too discreet or sensitive to bring up the violence situation in discussions. Too often, the attitudes of different authorities towards a victim of repeated intimate partner violence is also problematic, and the victim does not receive the support they need to go through an exhausting legal process.

However, the biggest difference between China and the Nordic countries is the attitude of the whole community towards women and their rights. In the Nordic countries, intimate partner violence can be talked about and addressed in various ways. In China, on the other hand, there is no desire to address domestic violence – neither within the family nor on the state side. Family researchers Hu & Scott have written how intimate partner violence experienced by women is not considered a major problem in China and little effort is made to prevent it. China’s long tradition of Confucianism continues to affect the equality situation in the Chinese society. The culture of respect for parents and superiors very strongly determines how women are treated in China.


The victims

While working in a law firm in China, I was able to learn about various cases of intimate partner or domestic violence and follow them up in courts. I followed closely a case where a woman who had lived in a violent relationship for several years tried to get help for herself after a life-threatening situation.

Police downplayed the situation and ordered Ms. Liu to seek help at a nearby hospital where she would receive treatment. After waiting for several hours, Ms. Liu found out that the hospital had not been registered to receive or treat victims of domestic violence. Doctors could treat the injuries, but they were not permitted to write a statement for the police stating that the injuries were caused by intimate partner violence.

Hospital staff advised Ms. Liu to go back to the police station where she could obtain information about a hospital registered to receive and treat victims of intimate partner violence. The proper hospital was located on the other side of town, and by the time the Ms. Liu arrived at the hospital, almost six hours had passed since the assault. Some of the traces of the beating had already eased off and the swelling had subsided, so according to the medical certificate the violent attack was not very serious.

A few days later, Ms. Liu returned to the police station to report a crime against her husband, but police said there was no reason to suspect that any crime had happened. Police recommended Ms. Liu to reconcile the matter with her husband and to forgive him. However, the Ms. Liu decided to file for a divorce on the basis of intimate partner violence.


Limiting activism, blocking a debate

In China, the recognition and identification of intimate partner or domestic violence through legislation is a big step towards better protection of victims against an abusive partner. However, there should be more talk about intimate partner violence so that ordinary people recognize it and understand that violence is not part of a normal relationship.

In China, however, civic activism is very limited. The only official body that can publicly discuss intimate partner violence and the problems it causes is the All China Women Federation. The ACWF has indeed brought some problems to light, but because it operates under the Communist Party of China, the ACWF cannot address it too sharply.

A new generation of feminist activists have been allowed to be somewhat at peace, and the Communist Party of China has not paid too much attention to them. However, during the reign of President Xi Jinping, the government has tightened its grip and is working very hard to eradicate and erase all forms of civil disobedience, including women’s rights defenders. For example, in Women’s Day 2019, the authorities closed one of China’s most significant media accounts in support of women’s rights. The closure was intended to prevent possible feminist expressions and was simply justified by the sharing of sensitive and illegal information in the accounts. As Helsingin Sanomat points out in a recent article, Feminism is gaining a foothold in China, and it is causing horror in the Communist Party’s leadership – “The police are reacting really fast,” says the activist.


Pia Eskelinen. Pia Eskelinen is a Doctoral Candidate at the Faculty of Law, University of Turku
ASLA- hankkeen sivut: https://blogit.utu.fi/asla/


ACWF and National Statistic Bureau (NSB), Di erqifunv shehui diwei chouyang diaocha zhuyao shuju baogao [The Statistical Report on the Survey of Women’s Status], internal document of ACWF, September 2018.

Fincher, L. H. (2016). China’s Feminist Five. Dissent 63(4), 84-90. University of Pennsylvania Press.

Helsingin Sanomat, 6.5.2019, https://www.hs.fi/ulkomaat/art-2000006094880.html

Hu, Y., & Scott, J. (2016). Family and Gender Values in China: Generational, Geographic, and Gender Differences. Journal of Family Issues, 37(9), 1267–1293.

Niemi-Kainulainen-Honkatukia: Sukupuolistunut väkivalta, oikeudellinen ja sosiaalinen ongelma, Vastapaino, 2017.

Radio Free Asia: China Silences Its Feminists on International Women’s Day, 9.3.2019, https://www.rfa.org/english/news/china/women-silenced-03092018130214.html

Washington Post: Despite a new law, China is failing survivors of domestic violence 7.2.2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/despite-a-new-law-china-is-failing-survivors-of-domestic-violence/2017/02/02/ae7948a4-e31f-11e6-a419-eefe8eff0835_story.html?utm_term=.1a9939e7c6e8

Xu, X., Campbell, J. C., & Zhu, F.-C. (2001). Intimate Partner Violence Against Chinese Women: The Past, Present, and Future. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 2(4), 296–315.


This article was previously published in Finnish in  ILMIÖ