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Domestic abuse is thriving in China’s culture of silence

LUYI COUNTY, China — Two months after Li Hongxia was murdered, her body is not in the ground. She lies swathed in a pink duvet in a refrigerated coffin, in the house she shared with her husband. He’s accused of killing her. His family, who lived with them, fled town.

Li’s parents do not believe there can be justice for victims of domestic violence. They’ve seen the system fail those without connections, they know a conviction can require clout. Refusing to bury their daughter, who was strangled to death, is a bid to make local cadres take notice, to make someone — anyone — care.


In China, as elsewhere, domestic violence is a hidden epidemic — a public health crisis dismissed as private scandal, a crime discounted or covered up.

The state estimates that one in four Chinese women is beaten; experts think the figure is higher and note that statistics often exclude other forms of abuse. Tens of millions are at risk.

Chinese feminists fought for decades to get the government to take notice, galvanized in recent years by a string of brutal cases. In 2009, a young woman named Dong Shanshan was beaten to death by her husband after going to the police eight times.

In 2011, Kim Lee, the American wife of a Chinese celebrity, went public with pictures of her battered face and her failed efforts to seek help from police. That a relatively wealthy, foreign woman was turned away reinforced a message Chinese women have heard for years: This is your problem, go home and work it out.

Since coming to power in 2012, the government led by President Xi Jinping has tried to make the issue of domestic violence a cornerstone of its social policy. The country last year passed a first-of-its-kind anti-domestic violence bill. On March 1, just days after Li was killed, it became law.


The bill was hailed as a step in the right direction. Though it does not cover sexual abuse and ignores same-sex partnerships, it includes measures like restraining orders that — if requested and enforced — might have helped Li.

But Li’s short life and gruesome death show vividly the limits of using the courts alone to keep women safe. The government-linked body tasked with protecting women often works against them by promoting marriage at almost any cost, providing tips on how to ‘‘win back’’ partners, and trusting perpetrators to change their violent ways.

In the last year of her life, Li knew she needed help but was told repeatedly to go back to her husband. As she struggled, mostly alone, she faced a system utterly ill-equipped to save her and a society that, for the most part, did not think she needed help.

Li, just 23, knew her husband might kill her. The question for China: Didn’t anybody else?

Li was born and raised in Yan Guan, a cluster of homes set among the wheat fields of the Chinese heartland, south of where the Yellow River cuts the northern plain. The second daughter of the Yan family, she spent her first eight years living with a family friend, Li Jinzhong, while her parents raised a son.

As a child, Li Hongxia was fun-loving and cheerful but not much of a student, her sister said. She finished middle school and joined the millions of Chinese migrants living between farms and the factory cities of the south. In 2013, an acquaintance one village over played matchmaker, introducing her to the shy young man she would marry, Zhang Yazhou.


After their wedding, Li moved into his family’s home in Zhang village, a 10-minute stroll from Yan Guan. In 2014, they had a daughter. Despite what later happened, neighbors remember the sight of them walking, elbows linked, down rutted, dusty roads.

Interviews with more than a dozen villagers suggest the community saw domestic violence as something that happened often, but to other people.

In May last year, Li complained about pain in her lower back, the result, it later emerged, of an attack that sent her to a hospital for X-rays. When people asked about the injury, she said her husband had hurt her, accidentally, while walking on her back.

When Li told her mother about the beating, she was advised to work things out at home. Her mother said she discouraged her daughter from getting a divorce because ending a marriage might ‘‘bring a bad reputation’’ in town.

For survivors of domestic violence in China, that’s a common theme. Though divorce rates are on the rise, women face enormous pressure to get and stay married. And that message is backed by the All-China Women’s Federation, the group that’s supposed to promote women’s rights.