In a victory for women and Weibo, an American has won a landmark divorce case against her wealthy Chinese celebrity husband, whose vicious beatings she chronicled in visceral detail on the country's largest social network in 2011.
A Beijing district court on Sunday granted Kim Lee divorce from her husband, Li Yang, the multi-millionaire founder of Li Yang's Crazy English, a chain of private English language schools and publisher of hundreds of instructional books. In addition to awarding Lee 12 million yuan ($1.9 million) and full custody of the couple's three daughters, the court imposed a three-month restraining order on Li—the first time ever in the nation's capital, according to the New York Times.
In August, 2011, Lee published a series of pictures to her public Sina Weibo account that showed in graphic detail her husband's alleged abuse. In one, her forehead is swollen red with a golf-ball sized welt where Li Yang had smashed her head into the floor. Others showed her scraped and bruised knees and a raspberry-colored bruise painfully blooming on her left ear.
“My back is weak after having kids,” Lee wrote, describing the brutal attack as it took place in front of their children. “You weigh much more than me. Lydia screamed and scratched your arm to get you to stop. When you did, I got up, grabbed our passports, grabbed her and ran to the police station.”
Sina Weibo is China's Facebook and Twitter analog. Lee's multi-lingual posts spread with viral speed across the 400-million strong network, as hundreds of thousands shared and commented on her pictures. She was breaking Chinese cultural taboos to take on her husband in public. It's not exactly normal to talk about internal family problems with outsiders, much less 60,000 weibo followers.
“In the beginning, I did it for my daughters. I wanted to show them I was strong,” Lee told the New York Times. But as women's rights groups began following the case closely, she also gladly took on a role as vanguard of a broader cause.
“If I can help to change the very wrong concepts that domestic violence is ‘common, acceptable, should not be disclosed, the fault of the wife, part of Chinese culture’ then I feel both honored and obligated to do so,” she wrote in October, 2011.
The case highlights how social media can work as a catalyst for important social changes in China, even as users post under the constant shadow of the country’s censorship regime. For many Chinese, Sina Weibo and similar microblogging services provide their first opportunity to share and learn information not directly controlled by government censors. While there is widespread censorship on Weibo, it tends to focus on sensitive political issues, not social and cultural problems that don't directly threaten the regime. If Lee had gone to a state-controlled newspaper, it may have ignored her entirely. But thanks to Sina Weibo, she had a direct dialog with 60,000 people every day.
“Kim is doing something extremely valuable for Chinese women,” one of Lee's followers wrote during Domestic Awareness Violence Month in October, 2011. “This is exactly the kind of thing a well-known person needs to bring attention to before it can really shock people.”
One in four women are estimated to be victims of spousal abuse in China. Domestic violence is illegal in the country under a 2005 law, but that has hardly protected women in a largely conservative society where spousal abuse is often considered a private family matter.
Indeed, in a far more foreboding sign, a woman from Sichuan province was recently found guilty of killing her husband after suffering months of abuse at his hands. She pleaded with authorities to help her, showing them her bruises and scars from cigarette burns. She was pushed aside. It was a "private family matter," she was told. Hundreds of activists and lawyers have frantically petitioned to see her sentence convicted. They failed. She will likely be executed in the next few days.
Photo of Kim Lee via Weibo