The husband and wife were alone in her boutique, but the security cameras captured it all: him pushing her down, punching her, slapping her and dragging her by the hair across the floor.
In footage from last year that recently circulated online, he can be seen hauling her into another room. Minutes later, the woman — her hair flailing — plummets from the second floor onto the street below in the central Chinese city of Shangqiu. The woman, Liu Zengyan, said later it was the only way she could escape.
As she lay in the hospital after the assault, with fractures in her waist, chest and eye socket and her lower limbs temporarily paralyzed, Ms. Liu said, she was determined to leave her husband for good.
But a court said no.
Ms. Liu’s case has set off a nationwide debate about two of the biggest issues facing women in China: the prevalence of domestic violence and the difficulties of getting justice in a legal system stacked against them.
A survey conducted by the All-China Women’s Federation in 2011 showed that about one in four women had suffered physical or verbal abuse, or had their freedoms restricted by their partners. But activists, citing interviews with abused women, estimate the numbers are far higher, especially after millions were placed under lockdown during the pandemic.
Though China introduced an anti-domestic violence law in 2016, penalties are minimal. Marital rape is still legal, and women say restraining orders are rarely enforced.
Even divorce is becoming harder, with the government imposing a 30-day “cooling off period” on couples seeking to separate starting next year. Legislators alarmed by China’s rising divorce rate argue the new law will prevent couples from splitting up rashly, but women’s rights advocates say it will keep people trapped in abusive marriages for a longer time.
The problems for Ms. Liu, 24, started about a year after her marriage in 2017 to her high school sweetheart, Dou Jiahao, 23, in Shangqiu, a city of more than seven million. During their courtship he treated her very well, Ms. Liu said in an interview. Then in April 2018, Mr. Dou lost more than $7,200 gambling and beat her when he came home, according to Ms. Liu.
“That first time, I did not call the police because I did not classify the behavior as domestic violence,” she said. “At that time, the phrase ‘domestic violence’ had not been imprinted on people’s minds.”
She left Mr. Dou for over a month but, according to Ms. Liu, he apologized and begged her to take him back. Ms. Liu said she decided to stay with him because their son, who is now almost 3, was still a baby.
In July 2019, Ms. Liu said, she complained to her mother-in-law that Mr. Dou had stayed out all night playing cards. The elder woman lectured her son, who flew into a rage and slapped and punched Ms. Liu, she said.
After that incident, Ms. Liu said, she went on Zhihu, a website that allows users to ask and answer questions, and searched: “What are the traits of domestic abusers?”
On the list, Ms. Liu recalled, was choking their partners during arguments, saying they wanted their partners to die, or threatening their partners’ family members. Her husband had done all of those things, Ms. Liu said.
Though she didn’t feel she had enough evidence to go to the police, Ms. Liu decided it was time to end her marriage.
But before she could do that, according to Ms. Liu, the third beating happened.
In August 2019, Mr. Dou was enraged after his mother scolded him in front of his friends as he was gambling. Ms. Liu said his mother, alarmed at how angry he was, sent her a message: “Lock the door and quickly escape.”
Ms. Liu went to stay with her mother that night. But six days later, Ms. Liu returned to her boutique, thinking that her husband was out of town. Instead he stormed into the shop, pushed Ms. Liu to the ground, slapped her, snatched her mobile phone away and said he was going to kill her, she recalled.
The only way to stop the beating, Ms. Liu said, was to jump out the window, landing hard on her bare feet. Video footage from security cameras showed Mr. Dou sauntering out and looking quizzically at the window upstairs as shocked passers-by tried to help Ms. Liu.
“You can see that he’s almost become a psychopath,” said Ms. Liu, who is using a wheelchair while she recovers. “He was beating me to fulfill a desire for violence.”
Mr. Dou, who is in police custody now, could not be reached for comment. Ms. Liu said his parents had changed their mobile numbers and there was no way she could reach them. Her lawyer said he did not have contact details for Mr. Dou’s lawyer.
It was only in recent years that domestic violence came to be seen as a significant problem in China, where laws are largely made and enforced by men, and families are discouraged from airing their problems in public. Several high-profile cases have drawn attention to the issue, and one city in eastern China recently began allowing people to check if their partners have a history of abuse before marrying them.
But victims often meet resistance in the legal system, which can discourage them from seeking help. Though China’s marriage law specifies that domestic violence is sufficient grounds for divorce, many courts encourage couples to try reconciling in the name of social and family harmony.
Similarly, the domestic violence law made it easier to obtain restraining orders, but judges often ask for evidence of physical violence, discounting verbal and emotional abuse. From March 2016, when the law took effect, to December 2018, Chinese courts received only 5,860 applications for restraining orders and approved fewer than two-thirds of them, according to Equality, a women’s rights organization in Beijing.
At the root of the problem, according to activists, is a notion among police officers and the courts that divorce is bad and that marriage is the bedrock of society.
“Divorce is regarded as a personal failure, rather than as a remedy for one’s life,” said Feng Yuan, who runs Equality.
After the third beating, Ms. Liu’s in-laws tried to persuade her to stay in the marriage with promises of a car and an apartment, she said. She refused, and they have stopped paying her medical expenses since March.
Ms. Liu also found little sympathy when she reported her husband to the police. Officers blamed the fall for her injuries, she said, and a forensic board found that Mr. Dou was responsible only for fracturing her left eye socket, describing it as a “slight injury,” according to a copy of the report viewed by The New York Times. Multiple calls to the police for comment went unanswered.
A second appraisal in November 2019 concluded that Mr. Dou had caused Ms. Liu a “minor injury of grade one,” elevating it to a criminal case. He was detained in March and charged with intentionally causing harm.
In June, Ms. Liu filed for divorce in the Zhecheng County court in Henan Province, showing the video of the boutique beating as evidence. The court denied her request, saying Mr. Dou had not agreed to the divorce and that they should seek mediation. Ms. Liu was also told she could not get a divorce while the criminal case against her husband was still pending.
“It had never occurred to me that the courts could not directly grant me a divorce at the first hearing,” Ms. Liu said.
In a bid to pressure the court, Ms. Liu uploaded the video of her beating to WeChat, China’s dominant social media platform. Thousands of Chinese internet users rallied to her defense, and a hashtag about her case was viewed more than a billion times on the microblogging site Weibo. News media interviews soon followed.
Before long, a judge called Ms. Liu to say there was no need for mediation and the court would issue a verdict soon. On July 28, three weeks after she released the video, she was granted the divorce.
“I am so happy,” said Ms. Liu, who is preparing to reopen her boutique after renovating it. “I finally got what I wanted.”
Liu Yi contributed research.