This month marks the fifth anniversary of China’s landmark national domestic violence law. Advocates say that making it actually work for survivors of domestic abuse is an uphill battle.
A new pop song is raising awareness about the struggle. When Chinese pop star Tan Weiwei released her single, “Xiao Juan,” in December, it shocked people. Pop songs in China usually don’t take on difficult topics, but "Xiao Juan," or "Jane Doe," put the spotlight on something that often gets pushed under the carpet — domestic violence.
The lyrics reference horrific stories of abuse that have made headlines in recent years in China before leading to a chorus: “Erase our names, forget us, the same tragedy repeats itself over and again.”
“Tan Weiwei was able to string together all these incidents of domestic violence and speak out about them bravely. And advocates can use the song as a tool to move the conversation forward."
Feng Yuan, a longtime gender equality advocate, said this song opened up the conversation about domestic violence to a broader audience. “Tan Weiwei was able to string together all these incidents of domestic violence and speak out about them bravely. And advocates can use the song as a tool to move the conversation forward,” said Feng, who runs a Beijing-based abuse support hotline.
That conversation still remains largely unspoken in mainstream media even five years after the anti-domestic violence law was passed. Instead, survivors have been turning to social media to raise awareness and call for help.
In 2019, Yuya Mika, a well-known beauty blogger, exposed the mental and physical abuse she suffered from her ex-boyfriend in a video that went viral. Last year, a Tibetan internet star was brutally murdered by her ex-husband while she livestreamed on Tiktok. And just last month, a former journalist used the popular Chinese social media platform WeChat to call out her husband for his abuse of her and her children over the past seven years.
These shocking incidents are sounding the alarm on domestic violence, but advocates say there’s not enough education on how the anti-domestic violence law works. A core piece of the law allows people to file for personal protection orders against their abusers. But not enough people know about the protective orders — not even the police.
Lin Shuang, an anti-domestic violence volunteer in Shanghai who accompanies survivors to the police, said that before the law went into effect, the police saw abuse as a family dispute.
“They would say, 'This is your family affair,'" she said. "'You just go back, talk to your husband. We have no reason to get your husband to our station unless he voluntarily comes, and we can talk to him. Otherwise, we have no legal reason to do that.'"
Even with the law, Lin said that this response is still common. Before survivors go to make a report, she gives them specific instructions to save the text of the law on their phones so they can show it to police.
“You would think now we have the national law, at least the government officials would know about this. ... But a lot of them still are not educated or not trained. Or this is not their priority. They just find 1,000 excuses to not do their job.”
“You would think now we have the national law, at least the government officials would know about this,” she said. "But a lot of them still are not educated or not trained. Or this is not their priority. They just find 1,000 excuses to not do their job.”
Protection orders can shield victims from their abuser by barring contact with them or forcing them to move out of a shared home, but the barriers to getting one are high, Lin said. In the first three years of the law, less than 6,000 protection orders were issued in all of China. Lin said one woman she helped had to provide police with examples of the documents she needed just so they would know how to make one.
“The victim is educating the police and is pushing for the police to do their own job or to even to learn how to do their job,” she said.
It’s a difficult ask for survivors. But those like beauty blogger Mika say victims have been silent for too long. In her video she says: “Domestic violence continues. Speak up, she says, to prevent another victim.”