In October 2018, a music video was spread quickly and widely on Weibo, the most popular social network in mainland China. It’s a parody of the song “Cell Block Tango” from the musical “Chicago.” The video described six stories of women in prison who killed their boyfriends or husbands, each one of which was based on a real murder.
Each of them had a different motive. Some of them were inspired by infidelity, some took revenge after their husbands killed their children. Others suffered from their husband’s domestic violence, stalking and intimidation, or were even falsely accused of trafficking drugs that belonged to their partners.
This video only existed for one day before it was pulled from Weibo.The blogger who uploaded the video tried to publish it several times, but eventually her accounts on Weibo and other social media sites completely vanished.
Why was this video banned so quickly? Didi, a Chinese car-hailing app reacted with strong opposition to being mentioned in the video. In 2018, several female passengers were raped and killed by drivers who registered on Didi, which hurt the company’s image and made it a target for public scorn.
This is just a microcosm of the status of women in China. Domestic violence was made illegal in China in 2016, but reports from Amnesty International show the law has far from eliminated spousal abuse and its systemic defenders throughout the country. Chai Jing, a well-known Chinese journalist, once interviewed 11 female prisoners who killed their husbands. All of them, without exception, took action after years of suffering.
Li Yang, the founder of a well-known English learning institution in China, admitted to beating his wife, Kim Lee, in front of their 2-year-old daughter after Lee publicly accused him of domestic violence. Lee, an American, eventually received an order of protection in what became a landmark case for the country, but said she was pressured to drop her charges along every step of the process.
“The whole system here is designed to pressure women to give up and just drop it. But I didn’t. I just didn’t give up,” Lee told NPR. “So that’s why when they read the decree and they issued the protection order, I just really sighed. I think I earned it.”
Yes, a husband can beat his wife, even today, with anti-domestic violence laws on the books and public opposition to domestic violence stronger than ever. Even if the wife reports the abuse to the police, she faces a legal system that does little more than issue a written warning. Even though domestic violence has been estimated to affect a third of all families in China, women who try to divorce their husbands still have their petitions rejected by courts that claim to defend “traditional values.”
China is one of the world’s oldest civilizations, with a recorded history documented in an unbroken tradition extending back to the second millennium BC, so ancient culture still influences modern people. Confucianism advocates that unmarried women should obey their fathers, married women should obey their husbands and widows should obey their sons. Through changing dynasties women remained shackled and restrained under the strict control of men who thought their only value was in having children. These shackles are not as strong as they were long ago, but they have never been broken completely.
China stands tall in the east as one of the great powers of the modern era, but it still has a long way to go for equal rights.