Domestic Violence, International Implications

The American conversation on gender has a bit of tunnel vision: although many students have a vested interest in women’s rights and the political mechanisms that influence those rights domestically, few have preexisting knowledge of these same issues and their development abroad. This lack of background knowledge holds true with regard to China, despite the popularity of Chinese language and culture courses amongst Yale students.

On Tues., Sept. 26, Li Ying, director of the Yuanzhong Gender Development Center in Beijing and a leading voice in women’s rights advocacy and gender equality in China, joined Bronx Supreme Court Justice Denis Boyle for a panel on domestic violence and battered-woman defense.

Paul Tsai China Center, Yale Law School

Battered woman syndrome (BWS) is a mental disorder that develops in domestic violence victims due to long-term, serious abuse. Characteristics of the disorder include “learned helplessness,” where the victim believes she is incapable of escaping — or even feeling responsible for — the abuse due to feelings of depression, defeat, and hopelessness.

During the ’70s, many U.S. state courts began to allow BWS as a defense for violent outbursts by victims of domestic abuse. This change in policy is well-known to many campus women’s rights activists — but few American college students know the specifics of women’s rights outside the confines of the United States.

Hosted by the Paul Tsai China Center, the panel focused both on recent battered-woman cases in China in which the defendant has killed her abuser, and the implementation of China’s first Domestic Violence Law in 2015. The discussion also compared the legal and cultural development of domestic violence cases in America to China’s.

Kenneth Xu, TD ’21, explains that while his L5 Chinese class teaches the language, the students also discuss “Chinese heritage, Chinatown, culture and politics, [and] Chinese representation in American government…” Yet he admits that he was not aware of recent domestic violence cases in China, even though they were extremely publicized across Chinese internet and social media. Xu notes the importance of this sort of discourse in reference to the panel. “It makes us global citizens; it makes us more open-minded. It makes us more worldly.”

Li first described a case involving a domestic violence victim who first chronicled the long physical abuse she endured through a journal and photos, and eventually killed her husband in his sleep the night he threatened to kill her. The defendant then turned herself in. This was “the most high-profile battered-woman defense case in China,” according to Li.

The initial trial court convicted the defendant of intentional homicide, sentenced her to death, and, due to “insufficient evidence,” rejected arguments for leniency that had included “presence of long-term serious domestic abuse prior to the killing.”

The case sparked huge debate in China. According to the Committee of 100, a nonprofit that furthers constructive dialogue between the United States and Greater China, few Americans believe that China’s economic growth and rising middle class will lead to social change. Because of China’s historical image as a severely authoritarian regime, the American perception is that China is unwilling to change or listen to its constituents. Xu explains that, “People who learn Chinese know that now it’s a mixture of capitalism and communism economically, but that it is predominantly authoritarian.”But as the panel revealed, the public debate surprisingly generated discussion around the leniency due to domestic violence victims in court, especially as the case moved from the intermediate court to the court of final appeal, and later to the Supreme People’s Court of China (SPC) for death penalty review. Chinese women’s rights advocates put forth direct appeals during the SPC death penalty review, helping publicize the case and the relevant women’s rights issues by generating widespread media coverage. This high-profile case even incited domestic violence demonstrations in China. One example includes a girl dressed up as a bride sporting blood on her veil — a critique of public indifference to domestic violence.

Chinese Media and Society, a class taught this semester by Professor William Zhou, is currently focused on women’s rights in China. Zhou explained that though “feminists who push for change in China were often harassed by government,” many Chinese citizens now see “international changes and understand this pressure to change domestic legislature has to come from international awareness.” In fact, because of the public discussion and international outlook toward legislation in other countries, China did not ignore the protests of its citizens this time around; instead, the government used this and another case to establish the nation’s first anti-domestic violence legal guidelines. Professor Zhou explains, “China is in the process of modernization. Whether it’s Chinese or international, they care about what’s going on in the world.”

According to the Council on Foreign Relations, “No relationship will be as important to the 21st century as the one between the United States, the world’s great power, and China, the world’s rising power.” But “the [American] media does not carry as much international news as China and other countries normally do,” Professor Zhou states. So, he underscores the importance of international discussions at universities. “Maybe in America, we think we’re the most important world…we care about what’s immediately associated with our life and security, but it’s important that we become informed Americans.”

This particular case is a “successful example of many organizations pushing for a goal,” says Li. “The SPC is willing to listen to a number of opinions.” This case established a new precedent for domestic violence cases in which the abusee injures or kills the abuser. The defendant was ultimately granted a two-year reprieve: if she does not commit new crimes during that period, her sentence will be commuted to life imprisonment, and even with the possibility of parole.

Yale prides itself on producing leaders in the world, which means that a conscious global perspective is crucial. “It’s important because we’re going to be the people who combat these problems as people in positions of power,” says Xu. “Historically, young people have always been at the forefront of social justice.” Professor Zhou agrees: “We need to feel the urgency of understanding what the rest of the world is doing.” Tuesday’s panel not only emphasizes how our government shapes the texture of American women’s rights, but how women around the world are working to better those rights globally. As students who hope to lead change in our global society, we must lend a willing ear to both the crises and the progressive changes that other nations strive to make.