Kim Lee: 'There were guys who spit in my face on the subway'

Domestic abuse activist on her battle to change the laws in China

It’s raining on the day we meet Kim Lee – a fact that she doesn’t mind cheerfully admitting has spoiled her plans. ‘I usually like meeting with journalists at the park near my house,’ says Lee, an energetic woman with an open and vibrant demeanour. ‘Often there’ll be someone going by who yells out, “We support you! This is not Chinese culture!” I think it’s important for people to know that there are Chinese who support me and what I did.’

What Lee did was make headlines in early 2013 when she won a domestic violence case against her then-husband – celebrity English educator Li Yang, founder of the company Crazy English – in a system where victories of this kind are almost unheard of.

It all started a little over three years ago in September 2011, when Lee was beaten so badly by Li that she ended up with a concussion and bruised ribs. She later described the incident on Weibo: ‘You knocked me to the floor. You sat on my back. You choked my neck with both hands and slammed my head into the floor.’ After years of domestic violence, that incident proved a turning point. Sitting in a Starbucks near her Sanlitun home, Lee recalls, ‘That day, my head hit the floor in front of my daughter’s little feet, her fluorescent toenails frantically pattering. Every time my head hit the ground, I had a wave of clarity: “I’ve got to stop this. This is the last time. I can never let her see this again.”’

And so Lee scooped up her daughter, grabbed her passport and headed to the police station. But when she tried to report the assault – head pounding and bloodied, her arms filled with a crying child – this is the response she remembers: ‘You’re fine, he’s fine, just relax and go home.’ It was, she would later discover, an all too common response among Chinese authorities to women who’ve been beaten by their husbands. In China, Lee says, domestic violence is considered a personal rather than a public matter – something that should be resolved within the privacy of the home.

It’s an attitude that translates into a paralysing amount of red tape for victims, ranging from preventing reports from being lodged because they’ve brought the wrong type of ID, to claiming that medical examinations are inadmissible because they weren’t performed at designated ‘crime hospitals’.

‘The entire system is designed to dissuade women from reporting, and from pursuing, any actions,’ says Lee. ‘It’s designed to make you give up.’

But Lee had an ace up her sleeve – and it wasn’t the fact that she was foreign. On the day she was so badly beaten that she decided to go to the police, Lee posted pictures of her battered face on Weibo. Her purpose wasn’t initially to draw public attention (‘I only had about 20 followers then,’ she says) but to reach out to friends for help, as she’d just gotten a new phone and didn’t have anyone’s number. But thanks in part to her husband’s celebrity as the head of Crazy English, the photos soon went viral. Lee found herself with thousands of followers cheering her on and offering advice – many of them victims of domestic violence themselves.

‘I learned everything from them. I owe everything to them,’ says Lee, her voice breaking. ‘It’s not fair. I squirm when people say “you’re a hero” or “you’re a role model for women”. If it weren’t for those women telling me their experiences, I wouldn’t have known what to do, or had the spiritual support to do it. Their failures taught me how to succeed.’

It was this that gave Lee the strength and know-how to move forward in the Chinese legal system – a choice that many of her foreign friends and family thought was crazy. ‘My daughters are half-Chinese, so I don’t think it would have been a good message to say: we’re going to the embassy, going back to America, and blame China for this problem,’ she says. ‘Instead, we’re going to zero in on the problem, which is domestic violence. And my husband happens to be Chinese, and China just happens to have not very good laws to stop it, so that’s where I’m going to focus all my energy.’

The process was gruelling: hours spent waiting for the correct forms or official; constant rebuffs from officers who didn’t believe that domestic violence was a crime; even open hostility from strangers determined that she keep her mouth shut. ‘There were guys who spit in my face on the subway. [They] screamed that they hope my husband beats me to death next time,’ says Lee.

‘I couldn’t accept some of the things the police were saying to me from day one,’ says Lee. ‘It was so hard to say what happened. My sadness and fear started to shift to disbelief, then disbelief started to shift to anger – and anger is something you can work with.’

Finally, after a year and a half of slogging through China’s legal system, Lee emerged triumphant. Her legal victory was among the first of its kind. Lee not only received one of the few marital restraining orders ever issued in China, but was granted a divorce on the basis of domestic violence, a ruling that she says is only awarded in around 3 percent of cases. Her victory prompted headlines both across China and around the world, transforming Lee into an icon for the country’s burgeoning anti-domestic violence movement.

The media attention has since petered away, but Lee’s fi ght continues, not only against her ex-husband – who has continued to keep her tied up in court over division of assets and child support – but also against domestic violence at large. Over the last year, Lee has been working with various groups on projects like safe houses and free medical exams for battered women, but her biggest and most successful effort to date is an upcoming conference that she’s organised in honour of Anti-Domestic Violence Month. The conference, which also involves the group UN Women, will provide training for task forces from ten provinces on legal procedures for victims of domestic violence.

‘The training is based on using the existing laws to oppose domestic violence,’ says Lee. ‘Women can’t wait; they’re being beaten every day. It’s simple: collect evidence, print out laws, be polite but firm, request a written report. If you get refused, ask the officer to tell you why.’

Part of the alimony from her husband Li, she tells us with a grin, is going to pay for travel and accommodation for the task forces flying to Beijing for the upcoming training conference. Each team will include representatives from the All China Women’s Federation as well as police offi cers, lawyers or judges, and victims of domestic violence. Though Lee’s own case has been central in the fight for changing the law (hers was one of ten pilot cases that went before the Supreme Court regarding restraining orders), her own focus has been primarily on practical, on-the-ground measures designed to help women in peril.

‘Women have to start saying, “this is a crime”. Whether or not there’s a law about domestic violence, assault is a crime, threats are a crime, and they’re already in the law,’ she says.

Ultimately, it’s this change in the public perception of domestic violence that Lee is most interested in creating. ‘I think one thing our case did was cause this public shift. It wasn’t just on a personal and legal level, it really played out in the media and on social media and public opinion. And that’s a good thing – because if you don’t have a dialogue, you can’t say there’s a problem, and you can’t find a solution.’

Follow Kim Lee on Weibo @丽娜华的Mom

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