Sasha Welland and Anna Zhao on Violence Against Women in China

Sasha Welland is Chair and Professor of Gender, Women & Sexuality Studies at the University of Washington in Seattle. She is author of A Thousand Miles of Dreams: The Journeys of Two Chinese Sisters (2006) and Experimental Beijing: Gender and Globalization in Chinese Contemporary Art (2018). Her writing has appeared in Journal of Visual Culture, Feminist Studies, positions: asia critique, and Yishu: Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art, among other journals and anthologies. 
Anna Zhao is currently a PhD student in Feminist Studies at the University of Washington. Her research interests are reproductive health, biopolitics and transnational feminisms. During COVID-19 related lockdowns in China in early 2020, she interned at UN Women's Beijing office, where she worked in the EVAW (ending violence against women) team, and gained knowledge on gender-based violence in China.
Ningqi (Carina) Zhao '24 interviewed Anna Zhao on on September 30, 2022.
Photograph and biography courtesy of Anna Zhao.

On June 11, surveillance footage of men beating several women at a barbeque restaurant in the city of Tangshan went viral on Chinese social media. The incident sparked outrage and re-ignited discussions regarding violence against women in China. This obviously is not an isolated incident. What do we know about violence against women in China?

Sasha Welland: Before we address this question, I think it’s important at the outset to recognize that Western media coverage when covering patterns of violence against women in “other” places often resorts to blanket and unnuanced explanations, such as cultural, or in the case of China, Confucian tradition. In fact, gender-based inequality and violence is more often than not caused by complex and interrelated factors, such as asymmetrical distribution of resources, poverty, authoritarianism, multiple scales of violence including war, and transnationally circulating gender ideologies. 

One striking example that I teach comes from feminist philosopher Uma Narayan’s cross-cultural comparison between dowry murders in India and domestic violence murders in the United States. In the 1990s, Western discourse on dowry murders focused on women getting burned to death as rooted in Indian culture, rather than examining contemporary economic pressures on women and families. In addition, statistics demonstrated the domestic violence murder rate in India at the time was basically the same as in the United States. For many U.S. students and commentators, when they learn about domestic violence elsewhere, they search for cultural explanations. However, when it comes to their own communities, the violence is either less visible to them, or they can more readily begin thinking about political, economic, social, and other of structural factors.

Anna Zhao: Violence against women is a form of gender-based violence. Sometimes people may use these two phrases alternatively, though their meanings are not exactly the same. Violence against women can be examined in two dimensions—space and time. In terms of space, there's public and private space. For example, the incident caught on video in Tangshan, China happened in the public. In private space, there could be domestic violence and sexual violence. 

In time dimension, we can understand violence against woman as it happens across the lifespan and the timeline of a woman's life. At different stages, women face different kinds of violence from different sources, such as work, marriage, or domestic violence. The violence is not only from the family and individual level, but also at state level. For instance, forced abortion and sterilization under the one-child policy in China could also be considered as a kind of violence towards women. Violence comes from different kinds of situation with different forms. 

Instead of focusing on gender violence, the Chinese official media produced a narrative of gang violence. Why does the Chinese government view the feminist movement as unwelcoming and even threatening?

Anna Zhao: This is because feminist movement has political mobilization power, which is why citizens’ movements are viewed as unwelcome. If you look at the recent trends of history, a lot of political movements come from student-led protests. Therefore, the Chinese government has been alerted to all kinds of protest movements, and it’s really good at suppressing them. 

In addition, they use the narrative of gang violence because it is a part of the governmental plan to clean up gang violence. By renaming the topic, it is easier for the government to advocate for their own priorities.

Sasha Welland: It’s also interesting that a younger generation in China often doesn't know about its own feminist legacy and historical resources since the government has suppressed this history. In fact, before the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) came to power, its members were an underground revolutionary movement. One of the very earliest promises the party made was women's liberation, because Communist thinkers in the early twentieth century viewed it as an anti-feudal stance necessary to building a modern, independent nation-state. 

At that time, many women believed in the promise of women's liberation, leading them to join the party and even fight as soldiers to help bring the CCP to power. In those early decades, many women worked toward the intertwined goals of class and gender revolution. They included thinkers like the anarcho-feminist He-Yin Zhen who at the turn of the twentieth century theorized nannü jieji (male/female class) as an analytic category in which gender distinction and material, socio-economic power are inextricable from one another. It is perhaps not surprising that the men who came to power in the CCP essentially erased women like her from official history.

Another reason a new generation of Chinese feminists don't recognize the labor and activism of their predecessors is because of what historian Wang Zheng has called a politics of concealment. Women leaders tried to move forward their agenda through the Women's Federation, its publications, or through local associations, but without the backing of higher-level leaders in the party they always were at the risk of having their efforts questioned or countered if they attracted too much visibility. Therefore, they had to navigate and negotiate very carefully. 

The Global Gender Gap Report 2020 ranked China as 106th out of 153 countries, which is significantly lower than its ranking in 2008 as 57th. What is responsible for such a large decline in gender-inequality ranking of the country despite China’s rapid gains in economic development?

Sasha Welland: This is an interesting statistic but one to question in terms of its authoritativeness.  We should ask who created the report, what measures they used to produce it, and how women from different countries and social positions within them were able to shape those measures and the collection of data. We might also ask about the seeming correlation between economic development and social disparity, including gender inequality. 

Anna Zhao: As a feminist, I’d always approach this kind of ranking with careful criticism, regardless of China’s rank in it. I can still elaborate two reasons to answer your question. First, the decline is due to China's women's low political participation. For example, there are not many high-level women in the National People's Congress, and political participation is a very important indicator in this data measurement. 

In addition, there is a skewed sex ratio in China’s birth rate. Even after the ending of the one-child policy, people are still preferring boys to girls. Even though sex selection screening is against the law, we can still see people are practicing it based on the sex ration of newborn. Sex ratio is an important criterion in this ranking; thus, imbalanced ratio might be a reason why China’s ranking dropped. 

Currently, the Marriage Act passed in 2001 and the Domestic Violence Law passed in 2015 are supposed to address the issue of domestic violence. How effective are the laws in terms of protecting women against domestic violence? 

Sasha Welland: Just to put things in historical context, when the marriage law was first instituted in the 1950s, it codified marriage as a heteronormative union sanctioned by the state of one husband and one wife. It was, in part, what the CCP had promised to rural peasant men who joined the revolution: that in New China they would be able to get a wife. Previously poor men could not compete in the marriage market with wealthy men who had many wives. Recent revisions to the law included, for example, provisions related to divorce. 

The Anti-domestic Violence Law is more recent, and in terms of how it is practically taken up and used by various people, we can ask to what extent it asserts the value of family stability over women's autonomy. And then there is an issue of social coordination when it comes to the law actually providing safety and a livable future. All of the actions required to remove women or children from a violent situation in the household involve a lot of coordination. For instance: Who is going to help them get protection? If the police intervene, will that make things better or worse? Who runs shelters they can go to? If someone ends up in the hospital, how are their injuries recognized as the result of domestic violence? The law also can’t really be effectively used as a tool, to put into place all of these necessary considerations, unless there's a local official who stands by it and make sure that it's enforced. 

Anna Zhao: The Anti-domestic violence law has limited effectiveness so far. On a practical level, we’re still facing several difficulties, such as a lack of shelter for victims. For many women, after they find a shelter to live, it may be far from her workplace that it is difficult for her to get to her job, causing her to lose her job. In this situation, they don't have enough money to support themselves through the most difficult period, and they often are forced to go back to the perpetrator. In addition, sometimes the shelter they can find is not a shelter specially for women seeking safety from domestic violence, but one where they are together with homeless people. In this case, it can be dangerous for women to stay in such an environment.

Another problem is that the local police are reluctant to enforce the law, as they are really behind in understanding gender frameworks and domestic violence laws. They must be trained in the first place to realize that domestic violence is not “a family thing,” but is illegal and needs intervention. 

What are the reasons for the occurrence of domestic violence in China? Are there any observable patterns of domestic violence and what explains such patterns?

Sasha Welland: To look for any patterns, it’s important to first recognize it can't be just one giant pattern for the entire country. You really need to look at a finer grained and intersectional level. 

For example, there are different expressions of masculinity. Expressions of masculinity that tip toward dominance and violence can be exacerbated by a lack of access to resources and economic power in rural areas are different from urban and economically privileged forms of hegemonic hypermasculinity. However, these things can be related, especially when powerful people project particular kinds of patterns of behavior that go unpunished. In this way, we could go back to your question about the official narrative of gang violence and state goals of cleaning it up. To what extent is the gang violence framed in terms of masculinity and class? Are CEOs who perpetrate violence against women understood as gangsters?

Anna Zhao: As Prof. Welland just said, there are too many levels and different scenarios, so there's no single pattern. However, one pattern I have observed is that there's a global rise in the rate of domestic violence during COVID lockdowns. At the start of 2020, there was a rising number of incidents of domestic violence globally, including in China, but the government is reluctant to talk about it. 

This could be explained by several factors, such as the power imbalance that already existed in the family, the need of controlling family members, and limited space. This situation gave rise to the possibility of quarrels and fights. An important factor is money and access to jobs. Due to the lockdown, some women lost their jobs and income, which deprived them of the freedom that allowed them to live somewhere else. In addition, there was a lot of domestic violence towards the children during lockdown.

Sasha Welland: Right now, we can also consider that a lot of government energy and resources, such as medical and police services, are going to address COVID. How does that diminish even more the time and resources needed to successfully enact the domestic violence law, which requires training police or other providers so they can really understand the law, what it means to intervene, and how to intervene in a way that supports women. 

What can the Chinese government do to address domestic violence?

Anna Zhao: It’s important to have better law enforcement, build shelters for victims, and get support systems to help people leave perpetrators. It’s also important to foster an environment where people watch out for each other. The key is to let people know they're being watched when they’re engaging in domestic violence. 

Sasha Welland: I think that it’s important to recognize that the government is not one undifferentiated force, but many officials and social actors at different levels and locations. It's important to recognize the successes of work being done on the ground and to ask if the state at large is supporting or hindering it. It’s also important to build support systems that create access and care for the most vulnerable. For instance, in the United States, domestic violence shelters failed when it came to helping undocumented women who were afraid to go to government-funded shelters because they feared they could be deported. In the context of China, women who are part of the rural-to-urban migrant labor forces, who often work in domestic spaces, are similarly vulnerable. 

Ningqi (Carina) Zhao CMC '24Student Journalist

Anagoria, CC BY 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

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