“Family Harmony and Social Stability” at the intersection of China’s efforts against domestic violence and extremism in Xinjiang

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When Xinjiang released its local measures for enforcing China’s Domestic Violence Law last month, the inclusion of ‘extremist conduct’ as a form of domestic violence led some to question how even domestic violence had become entangled with China’s campaign to transform or eradicate local Islamic culture. Those who work on family violence issues elsewhere, or who have closely followed the situation in Xinjiang, are likely to have been less surprised. While there are legitimate intersections of faith, extremism, and domestic violence, many in China view ‘anti-extremism work’ and ‘anti-domestic violence work’ as sharing fundamental similarities.

Domestic violence legislation is always designed to push cultural norms beyond the bottom line of the criminal law. Such laws are intended to shape the standards of acceptable behavior by identifying what conduct a society considers abusive, and when the state should intervene. While everyone opposes domestic violence, decisions on what conduct constitutes actionable abuse can remain very controversial and politicized. Advocates recognize that domestic violence reflects a pattern of escalating and controlling behavior, not all of which is illegal by itself; but where to draw the line in identifying what abuse merits intervention isn’t easy.

The inclusion of psychological abuse like intimidation or insult in the definition of domestic violence was considered a major breakthrough in China’s Domestic Violence Law, but many argued that the law should go even further to include ‘economic abuse’ and more. Xinjiang’s implementation measures not only added religious extremism to the definition of domestic violence, but also added defamation, stalking, disclosing private information, and harassment as possible manifestations of abuse; all of which is promising, but will be difficult to delineate in practice. Outside of China, issues like parents’ use of corporal punishment, denial of medical treatment, female genital mutilation, and burqa requirements or bans remain examples of issues that somehow remain divisive.

As some of these examples suggest, there can sometimes be a connection between religion and domestic violence. While domestic violence can happen to anyone, religious doctrine, texts, and communities can be exploited to keep victims complacent or silent, or to excuse and condone the abusers’ behavior. Ideas about family roles, marriage, gender roles, sin and punishment can be leveraged to shift blame or discourage victims from seeking help. Religious faith can, of course, also be a critical support for victims, but it is not so surprising to see extremism mentioned in domestic violence legislation

It is particularly unsurprising in Xinjiang, where even the notorious ‘education’ camps have been justified not as punishment, but as protecting those who are “victims of extremist teaching”. The patronizing, but seemingly sincere, viewpoint, brutally familiar to colonial powers, is that many of those being detained are victims who require Beijing’s assistance to free them from a backwards culture and religious tyranny, even if it means imprisoning them to do so. Similarly, children are forbidden to participate in religious activities on the grounds that it interferes with their religious freedom because they lack the capacity to choose to attend; and rules ‘protect women’ from being forced to wear religious clothing, by forcing them not to wear face coverings regardless of their ability to make their own choices.

In short, it’s probably not right to say that anti-extremism efforts have penetrated the domestic violence law, but that anti-extremism and anti-domestic violence work are viewed as fundamentally similar by many who draft and enforce them. They are considered both as benevolent protections, offered from above, to help the unfortunate and vulnerable, and also a way of guiding the people towards a more modern and civil society.

China’s whitepapers on Xinjiang un-ironically discuss protecting the freedom of religion from religious extremism influence. The Chinese understanding of freedom of religion however, includes a corresponding obligation of the religious to assimilate by integrating their faith with local culture. Xinjiang’s de-radicalization regulations show that religious displays not conforming to mainstream culture, such as not watching television, wearing religious symbols, or growing beards may be viewed as signs of extremism. One is free to choose Islam but the proper demarcate the proper boundaries of the choice. The cognitive dissonance is enough to make your head spin, but probably not enough to make anyone reconsider their own nations’ burqa ban.

With the Domestic Violence Law, it is the state’s vision of familial harmony that limits the rights of those it seeks to protect. Alongside the law’s improved protections of family members is a commitment to family stability and values. While most of the law is devoted to increasing awareness of the severity of domestic violence and authorizing intervention, the concept of family harmony has sometimes been used to delay divorces and actively encourage survivors to remain with their abusers.

While the provisions on extremism rightly get the attention there are a few other items worth noting in Xinjiang’s domestic violence rules:

  1. Risk Assessment: A major challenge in fighting domestic violence is encouraging police to both get involved in family disputes and to take them seriously. Standardized risk assessment tools are used in some areas to create a ‘bright line test’ for when police should take action like arrest to separate the parties. I have previously recommended the use of such tools, and it is gratifying to see mention of risk assessment in a Chinese domestic violence document even if no clear mechanisms are provided.
  2. Written Warnings: China’s written warning system also encourages earlier police intervention, by giving them a non-punitive measure that lets them build a case for future action even where no crime or violation has been committed yet. Some areas have crafted rules for these notices poorly, making it so that police sometimes MUST issue a written warning on their first response, and Xinjiang avoids this trap.

They measures go further by including police in follow-up visits for those receiving written warnings, and requiring punishment where further domestic violence is carried out- making them a sort of mini- protection order directly through the police.

  1. Protection Orders: The Domestic Violence Law made it possible for those surviving or in danger of domestic violence to seek protection orders from the court, as a ruling outside of any litigation. These could require the subject of the order to give the victim space, leave the home, and so forth. Unfortunately, the primary enforcement mechanism was a fine or short detention by the courts with police only in a helping capacity, so victims often had to return to court for enforcement. Xinjiang’s rules go further by requiring police to dispatch officers to investigate reported violations of these protection orders.

 

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