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U.S. heroine for battered women in China

BEIJING -- Her head was ringing from the blows. Once, twice, three times, her husband slammed her face into the living room floor.

Kim Lee tried to twist her tall but skinny frame out from under his 200-pound body, scraping her elbows and knees on the carpet. He kept on pounding. Eight, nine, 10 times -- she thought she might black out.

Then, close to the floor, she glimpsed her 3-year-old daughter, Lydia. "Stop!" the child cried. "What are you doing? Stop, Daddy, stop!" She jumped on her father and scratched his arm.

He cursed as he loosened his grip on his wife, and she crawled away.

It wasn't the first time for the couple, who met in 1999 and married in 2005, that Li Yang, founder of China's most famous English-language teaching system, "Crazy English," had struck her -- but for his American wife, it was going to be the last.

She scooped up her wailing child, grabbed their passports and a wad of cash, and left their Beijing apartment for the police station, where police told her they could do nothing unless her husband came also. They took her to a hospital, where male staffers examined her, placed stickers on her body and photographed the bruises on her head, knees, elbows and back.

Challenging cultural views

Those pictures, posted online by Lee last August, went viral -- and in doing so, she opened the door to a torrent of anguish about domestic violence in her adopted country, inadvertently becoming a folk hero for Chinese battered women. Lee filed for divorce in October.

Domestic violence everywhere lives in the shadows, and in China it thrives in a secrecy instilled by tradition that holds family conflicts to be private. It is also hard to go public in a country where many still consider women subservient to their husbands, and there is no specific national law against domestic violence.

There are no official data on domestic violence in China today, and underreporting is common.

A recent nationwide survey by the All-China Women's Federation found, however, that 25 percent of women reported domestic violence from their spouses, almost the same as in the United States. Smaller-scale studies report a rate in Chinese rural areas of up to 65 percent. The violence takes many forms, from physical and sexual assault to emotional abuse or economic deprivation.

Lee's case has spawned tens of thousands of postings on Chinese Twitter-like sites, along with protests and talk show debates. It is especially explosive because she is a foreigner, at a time when China is particularly sensitive about how it is understood and treated by the world.

"A lot of people said, 'Oh, is it because Kim is an American and so she's too strong-willed, or her personality is too strong?' . . . Some others have asked whether she is making a big fuss over a small issue," says Feng Yuan, founder and chair of the Anti-Domestic Violence Network in Beijing. "This shows that in terms of the public perception of domestic violence, we still have a long way to go."

Still fighting her fight

After the scandal with his wife erupted last year, Li acknowledged in an interview with Chinese state broadcaster CCTV that his relationship with his parents was bereft of emotional or physical intimacy. He said he still suffers from mild depression. "You will find that my ability to love is poor. It is a problem," he said.

Now Lee's divorce case is before the courts, and she can do little but wait. In the meantime, she has changed the locks on her apartment.

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