‘The system is designed to make you give up’: An American tackles domestic violence in China
Kim Lee met Li Yang on a trip to China in 1999, when he was lecturing about “Crazy English,” a way of learning the language that involved overcoming inhibitions through shouting slogans such as “Conquer English to Make China Stronger!” He convinced her to move to China, where she developed the business with him, wrote its books, and gave birth to their first daughter before they married. While Li Yang travelled for much of the time, teaching “Crazy English,” Lee stayed in Guangzhou with their daughter. Lee had no bank account of her own, and relied on cash that Li Yang would give her every month.
Shortly before they married in 2005, home prices in China began skyrocketing, and Li Yang became obsessed with buying property. “He started this shell game of us moving every few months because the price would go up; we would sell the house, then move to another one,” said Lee. They moved nine times in ten years, and Li Yang bought dozens of properties in addition to the ones in which they lived. But – as with many women in China – Lee did not insist on adding her name to any property deeds because she accepted his argument that the names did not matter since they were a team: “I didn’t care about property … I loved him and I took his word for it.”
People ask Lee why she didn’t leave him the first time he hit her, but she says it wasn’t that bad at first:
The first time, it was just a shove, and we’re both very passionate people. And from the very beginning, people pulled me aside, and said: “You don’t understand, this is China. He works so hard. You have to be softer wenrou yi dian.” And I said, that’s true, he does work really hard, I work with him. But then it gets to be more than a shove. Then you’ve already accepted a shove, so then you accept a slap. Then you’re seven months pregnant, and you’re getting kicked in the stomach and trying to fight with a clothes rack to protect yourself.
Li Yang violently attacked Lee in 2006 when she was pregnant with their second child, but she did not tell anyone about it except for her sister-in-law, who said: “It’s nothing. All men are like that.”
By 2009, they had three daughters in Guangzhou, and Li Yang continued his love of looking at and buying real estate:
One night, we had stopped, we were supposed to be on an outing to a night zoo, but he sees a real estate development, so we have to go look at it. And I was really impatient and I was complaining, frankly. I said, “This is crazy, I don’t want to look at houses, I don’t even own a house,” and we’d been fighting about this. He said: “This has nothing to do with you.”
In the meantime, Lee had learned enough Chinese to understand the conversations her husband had with his sister about buying property while they drove around:
I would be in the back seat, his sister would be driving, Li Yang would be in the front seat, and they would talk about these things in front of me like I was a stone, talking about, “Oh, we can sell this apartment, it’s up by so much money, so many square meters, we can sell that one and buy two more here.” I began to feel – I’m the wife, she’s the sister, but I have no say-so in any of these real- estate transactions, except that I suffer and I have to keep moving my kids… I started realizing, I had never lived in a house with my own name, and maybe if I did, I would have said, I’m not moving this time. So I just put my foot down. I said, “I don’t want to do this anymore.”
From the moment Lee mentioned her dissatisfaction with the marriage, her husband started transferring marital property out of his name to someone else’s name: to his sister, his uncle, other relatives and friends. Lee was so worried about running the “Crazy English” business and taking care of their three daughters that she didn’t pay attention to who exactly was getting the properties. She did not give permission for her husband to transfer ownership, but that did not stop him:
I was so stupid in retrospect… I think a lot of women fall into this trap too. I think they’re in love, like I was, and it’s so easy when you’re in love to just go along, it’s such a hassle otherwise. He says, “we’ll just put it in my mom’s name, my dad’s name, my sister’s name,” and women just say OK.
Lee had thought about an exit strategy for years, but she was afraid that if she left her husband she would lose custody of her daughters and would be “destitute.” In August 2011, Lee had finally had enough of the violence, and posted photos of her bloody head and other injuries inflicted by her husband on Sina Weibo:
There are two fears: fear of leaving and fear of staying. And I think every [battered] woman reaches that point, where the fear of staying is greater than the fear of leaving. And in spite of all those romantic times in the past, the day my head hit the floor in front of my 3-year-old is the day that my fear of staying was greater.
Lee’s husband bashed her head on the floor repeatedly in front of their 3-year-old daughter, who yelled out, “What are you doing? Stop, Daddy!” The 3-year-old jumped on her father and only then did he let go of Lee. “I grabbed my passport, grabbed my cash, grabbed [my daughter], and went,” said Lee.
Still dazed from the beating, Lee managed to take her daughter with her to the police station to report the abuse, but they said they couldn’t do anything without her husband present as well. He refused to go, sending a text message that he had only hit her ten times: “I was not that cruel,” he wrote. The police gave her a slip to obtain a medical examination at a military hospital, but didn’t tell her that she needed to pay almost RMB 2,000 (around US$320) in cash for the check-up. Lee normally only carried several hundred renminbi in her wallet, but by chance she happened to have a lot of money in her wallet that day because she was planning to pay the gas bill. She used RMB 1,800 (US$290) to pay the hospital for a check-up, a CT scan of her head, and X-rays. Even though she felt humiliated, she took off her top and let male staffers take photos of injuries on her head, back, knees, and elbows, thinking that she could use the evidence to have her husband charged with attempted murder.
But when Lee consulted a lawyer, she was told that in order to have her injuries count as legal evidence of assault, she had to get a check-up at an “approved” crime hospital instead. “All those bills, I had Demerol for pain, whiplash, a concussion… I was livid. You mean this doesn’t count?” Lee said. So a week later, she had another check-up at an “approved” hospital, but by that time her concussion had subsided and her injuries were not considered severe enough for Li Yang to be charged with attempted murder.
Fortunately, Lee had posted detailed photos of her injuries on Weibo. The pictures went viral and her followers jumped from a few dozen to tens of thousands. She realized that while the police and legal system had failed her, she could use her husband’s fame as the “Crazy English” founder against him. “My Weibo pictures were my insurance policy, that my records wouldn’t be swept away,” she said. In September, Li Yang admitted in a Weibo post that he had beaten his wife. “I formally apologize to Kim… I committed domestic violence against her,” he wrote.
As an American, Lee could have avoided the Chinese legal system altogether. “One side of me, the American, thought, I can be all the way on the other side of the world, away from all this. But on the other hand, I have three girls who are half-Chinese: is that the right thing to do?” she said. The moment she posted her first photo of her injuries on Weibo, she started receiving an outpouring of private messages from other Chinese women who had suffered horrific violence at the hands of their partners. Some wrote of broken bones, cigarette burns; some asked her to delete their message as soon as she had read it, because if their husbands found out, they would be beaten even more; many wrote that they couldn’t leave their husbands because they would lose their home and custody of their child:
So many women wrote to me about their failed divorce attempts. They would go to court and the husband would say, “She just fell off her bike,” or “She bumped into a door.” And the woman would say, but I have here the police report. But the police report just says “family conflict”; it doesn’t say domestic violence or that he beat her. Even when women have evidence in court, the judge just dismisses it.
Lee said it was because of the helpless situation of so many other abused Chinese women that she decided to stay in China and fight her case through the Chinese system:
Every time I went on television, I wanted so much for someone else, a Chinese woman, to be with me, even if she didn’t show her face, because I didn’t want the message to just be that I am American. No one said to me, “Hey, you’re American, we’re going to wait on you in five minutes.” I sat in the police station for six hours just like a Chinese woman. No one said, “Oh, because you’re American, sit here in this comfy chair and we’ll get the female photographer.” No. I had the male photographer. I had to take my clothes off; I had a thin piece of cheesecloth in the crime hospital, like a Chinese woman would. The difference is, I had all those Chinese women’s voices in my head, so instead of saying, “I can’t do this” and running out, which I wanted to do, I just stood up. I took off my shirt, lifted up my arms, let them take the pictures. Without thousands of people pushing me on, I wouldn’t have had the confidence to do it.
Lee became a heroine to tens of thousands of women across China; but she also faced a great deal of public hostility for trying to undermine a famous businessman, and trying to “split up everything that he owns.”
Throughout the court trials, Li Yang sent her explicitly violent text messages and pounded on her apartment door, threatening to kill her. One of the text messages said: “Sooner or later, you’re going to be run down in cold blood in the street. A car could run you over, anything could happen. This is China.” Another time, Li Yang told her in person: “I can hire someone to hit you, run you down with a car on the third ring road [a major highway in Beijing, near where Kim Lee lives]. I will be on stage in another city, and I will never be blamed, so you think about that.” Each time Lee received a threat, she went to the police to report it, but they told her, “That’s just words; that’s not a crime in China.” Lee explains:
When the police said, “We don’t do that, the court does that, you need to go to the court,” I went to the court and I said “I want a protection order,” … this is my life we’re talking about. And the court said, “We need evidence, we don’t have any evidence, the police have to have evidence, you need go to the police.” I’d just been to the police, and I’d go right back to the police… It’s like a ping-pong game and it fits into that overall theme: the whole system is designed to make you give up.
No Beijing court had ever issued a protection order before, and they did not give Lee one now. So Lee posted each threat on her Weibo account, and gave regular interviews to journalists to keep the spotlight on Li’s violent behavior. She also hired a personal security guard and took her lawyer’s advice to expedite the divorce case by not trying to claim any of the company profits. Rather, she focused on the real estate Li owned because it was tangible and at least some of it could be identified.
In February 2013, in a landmark ruling for China, the court announced that it was granting Kim Lee a divorce on the grounds of domestic violence, something that very rarely happens given the absence of a law on intimate partner violence, according to feminist activists. The court also issued the first-ever restraining order in Beijing, which held for three months. Finally, it ordered Li Yang to pay a fine of RMB 50,000 (US$8,050) for committing domestic violence – extremely rare in Beijing.
Women have stopped her on the street dozens of times to share their personal experiences of intimate partner violence and to thank her for speaking out on the issue:
Last time, when I was on the [Beijing] subway line 1, a woman came up to me and rolled back the collar of her expensive blouse to show a yellow and purple bruise on her shoulder. One woman in the shopping mall lifted up her sleeve to show me the cigarette burns on her arm… Two women said they went to the hospital, and between the hospital and the police station their medical records were mislaid.
Lee’s mission is to keep lobbying for a national law to tackle intimate partner violence:
This is really an open sore. It’s hidden, but it’s hurting. When I put those pictures [of my injuries] on Weibo, I started a dialogue that needed to happen. Because domestic violence can’t stop until there are better laws, and there aren’t. The excuses are so flimsy: “Well, it’s complicated” [say government officials]. They just won’t pass a national law. And it’s written. I have the draft. It’s thorough, it’s accurate and it’s easy to enforce, but they won’t pass it.
© Leta Hong Fincher 2014
From Leftover Women by Leta Hong Fincher, to be published by Zed Books on May 10, 2014.
More articles by Category: International, Violence against women
More articles by Tag: Domestic violence, Equality, Asia, Sexualized violence