The Limits Of China's First Anti-Domestic Violence Law

Abusive husbands are now criminally liable in China, and their victims can seek restraining orders. Rights advocates applaud the new rules, but say that many women are still reluctant to speak out.

Woman walking in Beijing
Woman walking in Beijing
Abhijan Barua

BEIJING â€"The Maple Women’s Psychological Counseling Center in Beijing has been running its hotline service for more than three decades, counseling tens of thousands of women every year. But even now, two months after China implemented its first anti-domestic violence law, cultural factors continue to prevent many women from picking up the phone and reporting abuse, says Hou Zhi Min, who works at the center.

"Many people still don’t think a husband abusing his wife is a big problem," she explains. "Usually, after the victims are abused, they go back to parents' house. But the response they get there is that they're not doing their job, that they're lazy, that it's their fault. It’s not the man’s fault."

In China, as is the case in many countries, domestic violence is a hidden epidemic. The All-China Women's Federation estimates that nearly 25% of married women in China have experienced domestic violence, but the real figure is probably much higher.

Julia Broussard, the country manager at UN Women, says that for cultural reasons, domestic violence isn’t openly discussed in China. "There's a very deep cultural norm in China that you do not air your family's dirty laundry. And for that reason, many victims are reluctant to come forward and admit that violence is happening in their homes," she explains.

"A lot of work"

The country's new law, introduced in March, has helped reinforce the idea that domestic violence isn’t just a private matter. But critics say the legislation is far from comprehensive.

The law prohibits all forms of domestic violence, including physical and psychological harm, and verbal abuse. Yet there is no mention of sexual abuse, or marital rape, says Broussard. "To be honest, we were a bit disappointed that sexual violence was not included in the definition of the law," she says. "We think that marital rape is a reality and should be considered a crime just like any other physical violence."

Under the law, victims can apply for a restraining order if they are subject to domestic violence, and perpetrators can be criminally liable. In the past, neither the police nor any other governmental authorities were obligated to take any action in such cases. Now they're obliged to investigate any complaint of domestic violence, gather evidence, and help victims get medical care.

Introducing the new law was an important first step, says Broussard. The next and perhaps the biggest test, is implementation and enforcement. "Unfortunately, with domestic violence there are a lot of challenges," the UN representative explains.

"You have to raise awareness and do a lot of training of a lot of different people who are responsible for enforcing the law â€" the police and judges, health workers in hospitals, local government officials," she adds. "All of these people have to know what the law means, what its aim is, and what their responsibilities are. And China being a large country, that’s a lot of work."

Getting the word out

Observers expect the law will begin to show results within a year. Yet even then, with no reliable national data on domestic violence in China, the effects will be difficult to measure.

Organizations like the Maple call center remain focused on helping victims cope. But Hou Zhi Min says obstacles remain even there. "We've used our research to develop a guide for victims on how to deal with the abuse," she says. "But we feel helpless over the fact that victims who might want shelter after being abused don’t have access to one. There is no such women’s shelter in China yet."

Another problem is public awareness. Guo Ruixiang, a UN Women program coordinator, sees this as an area where Chinese media could do a lot more. "All media can play an important role," she says. "Social media is very powerful now. But there's also the mainstream media, the television stations, which can really help convey the message that domestic violence is a crime."

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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