For years, many Chinese envisaged domestic violence as a scenario largely limited to less-educated people and rural areas.
But they were wrong. Studies and surveys conducted by legal workers have found that domestic violence also occurs among the highly educated.
An analysis by Wang Xingjuan and her colleagues at a women's hotline service of 100 cases of domestic violence chosen at random from the countless calls to the hotline in 2000 indicated that 35 abused women had received education above junior college level, although 27 did not specify their education background.
In the same study done by the Maple Women's Psychological Counseling Centre - a Beijing-based non-government, non-profit organization that runs the hotline, 21 of the 33 male violators, whose education background was specified, were college graduates.
A 26-year-old woman from the city of Nanjing in East China with an Master's Degree told the hotline that her husband, also a holder of a Master's Degree, beat her whenever she repeated herself in words or in her actions, even on their honeymoon, when she was already pregnant.
"He made it a rule that I should never say or do something twice, or he'd beat me," said the caller who had been married only one year.
"This indicates that domestic violence has little to do with levels of education. It reminds us that domestic violence among educated people and professionals in big cities should not be overlooked," says Wang Xingjuan, a senior researcher at the centre.
Seeking the truth
Experts attribute these family tragedies to increasing uncertainties ensuing from the rapid changes in Chinese society and economy in the last 20 years, especially in urban areas, coastal cities in particular.
Domestic violence may arise from any twist or turn in family life, such as when a partner gets laid off, or he or she is caught in an extra-marital affair.
A report from the All-China Women's Federation in 2000 said that domestic violence occurred in 30 percent of Chinese families, in varying degrees.
Out of the country's 270 million families, an estimated 100,000 fall apart every year as a result of domestic violence.
Liu Wei, a lawyer with the Centre for Women's Law Studies & Legal Services under Peking University, says one cause of domestic violence is the stress on the man in a changing society.
"The centuries-old concept of male superiority has resulted in high expectations for men, who are supposed to be the backbone of the family," she says. "Once their economic and social status is overtaken by the wife, or when they are under great pressure, they tend to resort to violence to demonstrate their control over their women physically."
Li Dun, a professor of law with Tsinghua University, approaches the issue from a more historical point of view.
In feudal society, a woman was supposed to be obedient to men throughout her life: to her father when unmarried; to her husband after married; and to her son after her husband died, Li points out.
Therefore, although the country's ancient laws prohibited people from taking the life of others, in actual practice, cases in which a husband was let off or punished only slightly after he injured or "unintentionally" killed his wife or his concubine were not rare.
Such discrimination against women led to further suffering for women and violations of their rights in the later stages of feudal society, Li says.
"And these old concepts still have their impact on people today."
While China's criminal law stipulates that a man can be taken into custody or sentenced to up to five years in prison for having injured his wife, in reality such cases rarely go to trial because most women victims refuse to take legal action against their husbands.
Some lawyers maintain that in most cases Chinese women are victimized because of their physical disadvantage, their economic dependence on men, and their poorer educational backgrounds.
But in the 100 cases studied by Wang Xingjuan and her colleagues, 70 percent of the abused women had jobs and were economically independent. Although 14 percent of the victims could not leave their abusive husbands because of financial problems, the main reason for them staying in their abusive relationships was not money problems.
"Most women (who come here) claim to have good relationships with their husbands emotionally. They just don't know why their partners become violent all of a sudden. They want to find solutions to avoid violence," says Liu Wei. In her centre cases of domestic violence make up 20 percent of the work load of Liu and her colleagues.
This coincides with Wang's 100-case study. Only 26 callers expressed the wish for divorce. More than 52 percent of the women pinned hope on their partners' change of attitude and behaviour, and 24 percent of the victims do not want a divorce because they want to "let their child have a complete family."
Fear of "losing face" and "failure in life" through divorce are also among the motivations to stay in a violent relationship, while some simply blame themselves.
Wang Xingjuan, who is also a superintendent for the hotline, blames public opinion for compelling women to endure domestic violence. Very often the dominating opinion of a community suggests that violence is something in the victimized woman's fate.
The family bond is more important and women have the responsibility to keep the family together.
"So the woman is expected to swallow her pain and suffering for the sake of her responsibility to the family," she says.
This more or less blocks the way for women to get outside help. Wang's study shows that only 6 percent of the beaten women surveyed say their move to seek social support was effective, whereas 63 per cent think that their plight remained unchanged or even worsened after seeking social help.
Toughening the law
Although it is a step ahead that the revised marriage law adopted last April has incorporated clauses about compensation for victims of domestic violence and divorce, experts want more clear-cut stipulations as to whether community organizations and police should interfere with domestic violence when the victims themselves do not appeal for help.
"Under the current legal framework in China, there are still difficulties in the legal settlement of cases of violence against women," says Professor Guo Huimin from the Research Centre for Women's Development and Rights affiliated with Northwest China Engineering University.
She points out that there is still no legal definition for domestic violence nor for the prohibition of violence directed at women. Domestic violence is still not listed as a crime in the criminal code, she says.
With more and more people becoming aware of the necessity of blocking the loopholes in legislation, over 20 cities and provinces in China have issued regulations or administrative decrees on domestic violence, which give the law-enforcing departments assistance in dealing with domestic violence cases.
The issuance of the regulations marks some progress in society, says Li Hui, a judge of the Supreme Court of China.
This will eventually lead to officially outlawing domestic violence in China.
Meanwhile, in many cities across the country, hotlines and emergency aid centres have been set up to offer domestic violence victims psychological consultation and consolation, as well as safe shelters.
In some cities such as Ji'nan in East China's Shandong Province, where a Family Violence Injury Testimony Centre has been established by the Ji'nan Intermediate People's Court, help is offered for victims of domestic violence in getting medical evidence for filing a lawsuit.
A national project was also launched by the China Law Society last year to mobilize community resources to prevent and combat domestic violence.
"The key lies in the general awareness (of domestic violence). When people realize it is a violation or even a crime, they can make a difference," says Liu Wei, the lawyer.
(China Daily February 22, 2002)