China has approved a final draft law aimed at combating domestic violence, including the violent punishment of children by parents, but leading feminists said the draft they saw comes amid growing expansion of police powers and will likely have little effect on the situation of women.
China’s cabinet, the State Council, signed off on the bill after a public consultation process during which non-government organizations (NGOs) and charities pointed out numerous problems with the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s approach.
According to the state-run news agency Xinhua, the bill requires police to “intervene immediately” once such reports are filed.
It also “defines clear-cut responsibilities for different social groups to prevent domestic violence, including government, social organizations, communities, schools and medical institutions,” the agency reported.
Social organizations and individuals are also required to take steps to prevent and report “physical and psychological abuse within families,” Xinhua said, without giving details of how this would be achieved in practice.
The government-backed All-China Women's Federation (ACWF), estimates that nearly 25 percent of married women have suffered domestic violence, although this figure didn’t appear to include violence between unmarried couples.
Little change expected
Chinese feminists said they were unconvinced that the bill in its final form would usher in meaningful change for women.
Feminist activist Zhao Sile said she is worried that the bill will further extend police powers into the domestic realm, without offering genuine support for women’s rights.
“Right now, the National Security Law has already been passed, and it looks likely that the Overseas NGO Management bill will also pass into law,” Zhao said, in a reference to a draconian bill forcing overseas-funded NGOs to register with police or be ruled illegal.
Zhao said the government seems to be focusing on national security and “stability maintenance” concerns as a priority, while sweetening the latest package of legislation with some upgrades in public services. “But one thing that is very worrying about these upgrades in public services is that they could become another excuse for the abuse of police power, and add resources and legitimacy to a further inflation of the powers of police agencies,” Zhao told RFA.
“So, if you ask me … whether the passing of the Anti Domestic Violence Law will bring an improvement in domestic violence against women, I think that it will have some symbolic impact, and I think we can expect to see some stories [in the media] of successful police intervention in domestic violence cases next year,” she said.
“But it is a bit cosmetic, an attempt to make things look as if they are improving.”
Zhao’s comments came after police detained five feminist activists for planning an anti-sexual harassment campaign ahead of International Women’s Day on March 8.
Wu Rongrong, Li Tingting, Wei Tingting, Wang Man, and Zheng Churan, who have since been released on “bail," have written to the United Nations in a bid to make their release unconditional after their detention prompted an international outcry. They will continue to have police restrictions on their movements for a year after their release.
The women said they have struggled to rebuild their lives following their ordeal, which came amid a broader crackdown on the activities of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).
Zhao said the authorities’ approach is still one of “stability maintenance” rather than empowerment.
“I think they are trying to prettify the overall system by which the state controls its citizens,” she said. “As for expanding police powers, these will shrink individual freedoms in every aspect of life, and of course that includes the freedom of women.”
She said there are “problems with the attitudes” of the majority of Chinese police agencies when it comes to dealing with domestic violence, and the bill is unlikely to change that.
“They take a sort of stability maintenance approach, which could actually exacerbate domestic violence against women,” Zhao said.
Meanwhile, Xiong Jing, social media editor of the non-government group Gender in China, said there has been little transparency around the detailed wording of the bill so far.
“This bill has been in a consultation stage for the past few months, and yet there is very little detail being reported,” Xiong said. “Various NGOs, including ourselves, and individuals have put forward suggestions for amendments to the draft bill, but we don’t yet know whether or not our ideas were adopted.”
She added: “A lot of people thought there were a lot of issues with the previous draft, including its definition of what constitutes a domestic setting, as well as various forms of domestic violence; for example financial abuse, which wasn’t included in the original draft.”
Xiong said she welcomed the law in principle. But she said it might make little difference to Chinese women.
“It remains to be seen whether or not it will achieve a drop in domestic violence,” she said. “China has no lack of legislation; what it lacks is the ability to enforce it.”
The law is also aimed at preventing physical abuse of children by parents in the name of “punishment,” a widespread practice seen as part of good parenting in traditional Chinese culture.
A 2010 government study found that 34 percent of girls and 53 percent of boys polled had received "physical punishments" from their parents during the past year.
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA’s Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.