In June, I found myself placing a call to the Shanghai police. My twenty-year old friend, Lily , slumped on a nearby couch with her face in her hands. She would not call herself, she said, because “The police will not do anything.” Given her ex-boyfriend’s abusive past, and his incessant calling, texting, and stalking, I insisted that the authorities would have no choice.
I had met this young woman and her Shanghai boyfriend, Adam, a few months earlier. Though more than ten years her senior, he seemed decent enough: the three of us played cards together and even went out on a few occasions. But, as Lily and I got closer, she confided her misgivings about the relationship. As Adam’s parents aged, she said, there was mounting pressure for her to marry him and start a family. She wasn’t ready for the commitment. “And besides,” she added, “sometimes we fight.” “Every couple fights,” I told her. “Well…” she continued, sensing I had not understood, “sometimes he hits me.” And then added, hastily, “But he is a good man.”
As time wore on, her assessment of Adam’s character rang increasingly false. On a visit to the apartment she and Adam shared, she pointed out a shattered pane in the glass divide between the living room and the balcony. “I broke that,” she said with self-reproach, “when he locked me out there for a day.” On another occasion, when we went to the park, a heavy layer of foundation, a silk scarf, and sleeves could not hide the cuts and contusions on her lips, neck, and arms. When she finally fled his apartment one summer evening, she arrived at my place bearing a tiny, immobilized terrier, its hind leg broken when the boyfriend flung it against a wall. The more I learned about their relationship, the more it seemed like a nightmare, rather than a marriage waiting to happen.
Someone at the police station answered. I asked for an English speaker, and was heartened to hear a woman’s voice on the line. I endeavored to explain the extent of the abuse, and how Lily’s ex-boyfriend was, as we spoke, putting the screws to every one of their mutual friends in an effort to discover her new address. The policewoman listened for a minute or two, then asked if she could speak to my friend. I passed the phone. I must have turned my own face to the floor, because I was startled moments later by Lily’s shriek and the sound of her cell phone shattering against the wall.
Lily took a few minutes to calm down. Apparently, the officer had explained that the calls, texts, and stalking were all ways of showing love. “He obviously cares about you and wants to be with you,” the policewoman reasoned. “You should go back to him.”
My friend Lindsey also acquired an admirer at the age of twenty. As he was a complete stranger, she did not accept his letters or little gifts of flowers and chocolate. Undeterred, he started throwing them through her open apartment window. The gesture lost some of its romance over the months that followed — especially after Lindsey learned the man had been watching her shower from the building opposite.
Throughout this one-way romance, she told me, her message was clear: “I am not interested in you. Please leave me alone.” But, rather than leaving her alone, the young man became more and more obsessed. He started showing up at her apartment and pounding on the door. Lindsey ignored him. One muggy afternoon, when she propped the door to get some air, her suitor crept inside. When Lindsey caught him rummaging through her things, he started; wild-eyed, he snatched up a knife and started slashing her chairs, pillows, and bedclothes. Lindsey said she ran down the hall, banging on her neighbors’ doors until one finally opened. She hid inside. Moments later, her suitor arrived and threatened to stab the bewildered neighbor if he protected her again.
At this point, Lindsey, like my other friend, called a Hail Mary: she went to the police. “Flowers and chocolates?” came the response. “This guy must really like you! Don’t you think you should give him a chance?” When Lindsey insisted she had no interest in the man — and, at this point, had good reason to fear him — the police dug themselves deeper: “Well, if this has continued over time, you must have given him some encouragement.” In the end, Lindsey had to threaten a lawsuit to get the police’s cooperation. Her stalker was instructed to stay off the floor where she lived. She continued to see him around her housing complex.
Two accounts can only carry so much weight. Yet the striking similarities between them suggest something disturbing about gender dynamics in China.
First, these accounts reveal a reluctance to label any behavior, however heinous, “harassment” or “abuse.” Lindsey endured months of unwanted attention, involving the police only when her stalker ransacked her apartment. Lily was battered, physically and emotionally, all the while insisting her boyfriend was “a good man.” As with many victims of abuse, naïveté played a role. But she did not arrive at this character assessment alone. Many people around her — people she considered friends — knew of Adam’s violent episodes and yet urged her to marry him. After all, didn’t he keep a roof over her head? In China, the normalness of violence toward women caused Lindsey and Lily to set their respective thresholds for “harassment” and “abuse” far too high.
Then, when they found the strength to call “abuse” by its proper name, authorities took no heed. In both cases, they dismissed, de-legitimized, and otherwise explained away my friends’ trepidation and terror. Shouldn’t the cops have shown a little more concern — if not out of human decency, then out of professional obligation?
But the cognitive process behind their indifference may be most alarming of all. Though fundamentally about abuse, Lily and Lindsey’s accounts also contained details which, if taken out of context, reflected well on their respective tormentors (e.g. chocolates and love letters). When one officer after another urged these women to give their abusive partners “a chance,” it was as if they had only registered these endearing sidenotes. They weren’t willfully ignoring everything else — the savage beatings, the stalking. These things simply made no impression, like a footprint in the sea.
In the past month, gruesome violence against women in India has exploded into international news. In the streets of New Delhi, that society has been forced to grapple with its age-old gender favoritism. Meanwhile, China—where at least one quarter of women suffer domestic abuse — serves as an uncomfortable reminder that unseen, smoldering violence, coupled with institutional indifference, is more than enough to keep millions of women living in fear.
Note: All names in this article have been changed.