She put the photos online, but can this woman’s bruises keep China’s wives safe from domestic abuse?

When the police told her to ‘relax and go home’, Kim Lee decided she had had enough of her husband’s abuse – and posted pictures online that have caused a sensation. Clifford Coonan hears why she did it

Less than two years ago, Kim Lee was best known in China as the American wife of the celebrity entrepreneur Li Yang, whose chain of English-teaching schools, “Crazy English”, had made him a household name.

But in August 2011, Ms Lee decided to publish photographs of her bloodied ear, badly bruised legs and swollen forehead on her online microblog, claiming that the injuries were the result of a brutal beating Mr Li had inflicted upon her. The pictures, which quickly went viral, not only highlighted Ms Lee’s plight, but that of many other women in China where strong traditions mean domestic violence remains hidden.

Now, Ms Lee has been granted a divorce on the grounds of domestic abuse, a decision she hopes will help other women in similar circumstances. On Sunday she was issued a three-month protection order against her ex-husband – a first in Beijing.

“This ruling takes away some of the sting and the sadness and the pain of divorce,” Ms Lee told The Independent yesterday. “The laws on domestic violence in China are too weak. My case can be the catalyst for change.”

Around one quarter of Chinese women are victims of domestic abuse, according to the All China Women’s Federation (ACWF), although experts say the real figure is probably much higher, as many cases go unreported. A law introduced in 2005 vaguely states that domestic violence against women is prohibited, but does not offer a national mechanism for dealing with offenders. Though divorces have been granted on domestic abuse grounds before, Ms Lee’s is the most high-profile. Since Ms Lee posted the pictures, many more victims have come forward and the issue has been reported more widely. 

Li Yang shot to fame through the English-teaching schools that he and Ms Lee developed together. The schools are known for bringing large groups of people together to shout out English words as a way of learning basic language skills, and the unconventional method has attracted around 20 million users. Ms Lee decided to publish on China’s version of Twitter, Sina Weibo, out of frustration. She said she had confided in her sister-in-law, who told her to stop provoking her husband. She went to the police, who told her to “relax and go home”. 

After the photos were published, Mr Li used a TV appearance to apologise for his actions, but argued that domestic violence could be seen as part of Chinese culture – comments that caused outrage.

Yesterday, the Beijing court ordered Mr Li to pay his former wife 50,000 yuan (£5,100) compensation for mental anguish as well as child support. She will also have custody of their three daughters and receive properties worth more than 12m yuan (£1.22m) as well as a fixed sum annually until her daughters reach 18.

Ms Lee’s lawyer, Qi Lianfeng, told the China Daily newspaper that the divorce ruling on the grounds of domestic violence would encourage more women “to protect their rights in a legal way”.

Feng Yuan, head of the Centre for Women’s Studies at Shantou University, said women’s rights activists in China would be delighted with Ms Lee’s divorce decree, as it was granted on the grounds of domestic violence “and requires the perpetrator to pay compensation, and allocates children’s custody in terms of the maximum benefit for children”.

However, despite the divorce ruling, critics said the financial settlement awarded to Ms Lee did not reflect her husband’s true wealth and the court had failed to try and establish his assets.

Ms Lee said her husband threatened her repeatedly and did not show up for the verdict. “I had to go through hell for a year and a half to get here. Justice is what you should expect. But rich and powerful men have a lot of leeway here – my ex-husband requested and got a closed hearing, and he didn’t even show up for the second trial. The laws are very weak for protecting women and I hope this is the start of a change,” said Ms Lee.

Traditionally, women are expected to be subservient to their husbands, but Ms Lee hopes that her case will help women in China escape these binds. One case Ms Lee hopes to highlight is that of Li Yan a woman in Sichuan province sentenced to death for murdering her abusive husband in 2010. She says a more effective legal system would prevent stories such as Ms Li’s.

“She tried to use the law but she failed. When it’s easier to pick up a fruit knife than to go to the law, you end up like Li Yan. I understand that anger, that rage. If you haven't been there, you can't understand it," said Ms Lee.

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