Barrelled Thoughts #47 – Defining the Moral Line: Domestic Violence in Chinese Culture

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Last weekend I was asked to research a common topic in Chinese culture; one that is hushed, yet at the same time undergoing a revolution of sorts in the last decade: domestic violence.
My boss and mentor wanted to know why I thought Chinese media was so quick to publish raw, unadulterated images of domestic violence—particularly against children—depicting pixel after pixel of the bruised and battered. He told me that such images would never be allowed to go to press in the UK, leading to the logical question of whether it’s acceptable to publish such images just because the child is from abroad.
But why would someone want to publish gruesome pictures in the first place? He told me the following.
“My personal opinion is that domestic violence, whether it be against a wife or a child, is shocking, and if you constantly seek to keep the horror of it from people by deciding what they have a right to see and what not, then there is a risk of it being swept under the carpet and dismissed as something almost cavalier.
“Most of the time I tend to feel that if something is widely published abroad, that is where the law [to publish] applies, and the journalist’s role is to report on what’s happening without attempting to edit things for those that might be offended. However, if you start there, where do you stop? What is morally the correct approach to stories like this?”
His concerns mirror the ones I’ve heard recently after the widespread airing of U.S. journalist James Foley’s execution by ISIS Islamic radicals. Yes, it was a terrible ordeal; yes, a precious life was lost, but to what extent should the world be exposed to the images of truth?

That’s why perspective is important. And that’s why it’s vital to acquire knowledge of context.
The request to research domestic violence came after reports in China exposed a story of a young boy constantly beaten by his stepmother for trivial wrongdoings.
“The story [of the young boy] was shocking, and it was meant to be shocking for the reason of reminding people that domestic violence is a very real problem. The opposite answer is that controversy sells papers, and stories like this are the media making themselves rich from the suffering of others.
“I am, however, prepared to accept I might be wrong, and I need to have a memo from you letting me know the context of usage of a story like this—how widespread it was, and the wider context of the situation with social services and child abuse generally in China. Is enough being done? And is there an adequate network to tackle this problem?”
I didn’t study sociology, and I am by no means an expert on the complexities of Chinese society, but this is part of what I told him, and what I’d like to share today in this post.

“…Moving on to the general issue of domestic violence against children in China and its accompanying attitude. I would love to tell you that such cases are black and white and simply a matter of physical abuse being wrong in any shape or form, or that abusers are put away by authorities as soon as they’re exposed, but that’s simply not the case. And the reason is because there is an underlying cultural aspect in play here, which I will try to explain as best I can.

“Domestic violence against children lies in a grey area in Chinese culture where physical abuse and physical punishment—also known as “discipline”—meet, and where one is substituted for the other. Physical punishment of children in Chinese culture is in a transition phase. It used to be extremely popular for parents to beat their children at home, and teachers were even encouraged to do it in the classroom. Parents in the past would literally thank the teacher for disciplining (physically) their children; they believed that that was a sign of the teacher paying more attention to their son or daughter—“caring” more.

“In the past, so-called “merited” physical punishment was dished out for two reasons: being naughty or underperforming, or worse: both. This has changed, as more and more people believe that beating is not the proper method for instilling correct values. But this concept is slow to gain pace in the older generation, and even slower in rural areas.

“There needs to be a clear line drawn between punishment by parents (or teachers in the past) for misbehaving and plain unprovoked domestic violence towards children (and women). I would say these two issues need to be discussed separately because the reactions these two cases draw from the public are significantly different. This is because some (although increasingly fewer) people can still accept punishing a child for misbehaving if the beating isn’t too severe; a “slap on the wrist”, if you will. There will be crying and bruising, but if it’s “merited” (or dangerously, if the child is made to believe that it is merited), then not many would speak up against it.

“This is partly due to the fact that for the child it would seem like the further lack of discipline by refusing punishment, and for outsiders it would be seen as interfering in family affairs. Some Chinese (and Taiwanese) parents think they have the right to beat their children in order to make them behave, or even to pressure them to do better academically. Owing to this fact, it’s very easy for the Chinese to mistake abuse for discipline. This is dangerous. Parents and society, I think, are desperately searching for the moral line, for traditionally speaking, physical punishment for misbehaving—embarrassing the family name at school or in public, for instance—can get quite violent too, so best cut out physical punishment altogether.

“In the second instance when domestic violence is unprovoked or just entirely overboard, the public is less forgiving. However, this form domestic violence against children is often done under the false pretence of discipline. What’s worse is that some parents think physical punishment is the right thing to do because that’s how they were brought up. Like in the May 14 story, the boy was severely lashed by his stepmother using a hanger for back-chatting. The child refused to admit it to his teacher for fear of more punishment at home, and even more shocking is that the father didn’t think it was a big deal. Violence in parenting is still entrenched in Chinese culture. But like I said, these cases are heavily frowned upon and social services will step in, provided they know about it.

“You’re right in saying that much of the time the child is simply given back to the parent and that’s the end of that. In that case, either the parent decides to “change” his or her ways or relatives, neighbours and teachers are made aware of the situation, and if the parent is a repeat offender, he or she will be charged with domestic violence—two years behind bars, or up to seven years in the case of death by domestic abuse. I will come back to the laws later. Teachers are often a child’s first line of defence in China and Taiwan against domestic violence, and because it can be easily masked behind discipline, all forms of physical punishment are being slowly stamped out. But this is a very slow process, particularly in the rural areas, and with such a large population, too.

“The reason why this is such a complex issue to tackle is because traditionally in China, even unprovoked domestic violence has been considered a private issue that should be kept within the household, with any outside interventions left at the doorstep. And worst of all, most victims of domestic violence still remain silent. Social services are there to handle such cases, provided the abused speak up about it either to their relatives or teaches. And that’s the problem. The difficulty is making the children realise that they’re not getting punished for something they did wrong. And even if they did do something wrong, it does not warrant such harsh physical punishment. This has to be done through education, awareness and exposure. I’m uncertain how much this is spoken about in classrooms, but definitely amongst society in the past decade it’s been a very serious issue and often brought up in the news. That, I believe, is part of the reason why the Chinese media chooses to expose it.

“I genuinely would like to believe it’s not about selling stories, because if that were the case, they’d find something less embarrassing to the nation. After all, it is their own citizens they are exposing. Chinese people are very sensitive to what is considered “private information” and what is “public information”, as mentioned above. There is a saying somewhere in the lines of “whatever happens at home stays at home”, so if the Chinese really wanted to publish something to gain views, they’d definitely choose something less incriminating to their own national. This Chinese saying also typifies the difficulties faced by those wanting to expose the widespread disease that is domestic violence—victims simply don’t speak about it. But hopefully through constant exposure in the media—and in classrooms—the attitude can change.

“There’s also a flip side to domestic violence against children. From what I’ve read, China doesn’t have a law that specifically targets the abuse, or more literally “torture”, of children. So if parents are found abusing their children or going overboard in their punishment, they can be locked away by a law that targets “domestic violence against family member”; that’s anywhere between two to seven years in jail depending on the severity of the case. However, this “custom” that encourages the punishment of children for misbehaving, or worse, underachieving, is also used by teachers in China sometimes. The lack of a law against the “torture” of children means that teachers who abuse children (who are not their relatives, thus not falling under the domestic violence law) get away with the crime in the same way they would if they punched someone on the street, for example. The teacher might get fired and just spend a fortnight in jail for violent conduct.

In this case, the teacher was fired and got five years behind bars, but prosecutors had to file the case under “violent public disturbance”.

If such a law against the “torturing” of children were to be established, children would no doubt receive more protection—as they should. Many are lobbying for such a law. People want this because even if the physical abuse of a child is not visually apparent, mental and psychological scars are still just as harmful to a child’s development.” JSF. 

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