This year has not seen many victories for those who seek to protect the rights of citizens in China. An untold number of people who took to the streets to protest the “zero COVID” policy were incarcerated, China’s internet watchdog announced the further “sanitization” of China’s already phenomenally restricted internet, and Beijing’s LGBT center was forced to close. But a more promising trend has received less attention from outside observers: China’s maturing legal system is providing increased protection and justice for victims of sexual abuse. And in some cases, when legal progress does not come fast enough, the courts go against current legislation to achieve justice – as happened last month in Hebei province.
In a national first, a victim of childhood sexual abuse was awarded financial compensation and a public apology from her abuser, after a Chinese court went beyond current laws to hold the abuser accountable under civil law – even though the statute of limitations had already lapsed. Almost 20 years after the abuse ended, plaintiff Li Xiaoran (a pseudonym) finally got some form of justice. And with the ruling, Chinese citizens found hope for further reform. As her father said in an interview, “Our experiences, indeed, make us feel the need for judicial progress.”
China’s legal system regarding crimes of sexual abuse is developing. In 2016, China’s Anti-Domestic Violence Law went into effect. Owing to China’s #MeToo Movement, anti-sexual harassment legislation was added to the country’s brand-new Civil Code. In 2021, the revised Law on the Protection of Minors went into effect. Slowly, but steadily, China is expanding the number of criminal acts related to sexual abuse, defining those crimes in more detail, fine-tuning prosecutorial processes, and heightening sentences.
In particular, China’s Supreme People’s Procuratorate, the organ charged with both the investigation as well as prosecution of crimes, has vowed a “zero-tolerance” policy on crimes against minors. In the first two years after the revised Protection of Minors law was enacted, almost 300,000 people were prosecuted. In general, after the Procuratorate decides to prosecute, China has a consistent conviction rate of above 99 percent – not always for the right reasons. The Procuratorate also published that the number of people prosecuted for sexual crimes against minors had increased by 20.4 percent year-on-year in 2022, showing a growing awareness of these crimes among the public as well as increased prosecutorial and legislative power.
There is still a long road ahead, however. Victims of sexual abuse face a multitude of problems after stepping forward, ranging from social stigmatization to difficult and notoriously long legal processes, where they regularly deal with ill-equipped or unwilling government workers. And, too often, their cases get dismissed, like Zhou Xiaoxuan’s case against TV host Zhu Jun, a landmark in China’s #MeToo Movement that came to a disappointing end. Often, complaints are not taken seriously or processed at all, or they get removed from public view, as happened after tennis player Peng Shuai accused a former top-ranking Chinese official of sexual assault in the lead-up to the Beijing Winter Olympics. Sometimes officials look the other way, or ultimately remove sexual abuse-related crimes from the charges brought, as in the case of Xiao Huamei, the infamous “chained woman” from Jiangsu province.
Even “on child protection, the Chinese justice system pays a lot of attention, but it is still not enough,” Wan Miaoyan, the lawyer for Li Xiaoran, told The Diplomat in an interview.
Li’s case shows that. While ultimately she got justice in civil court after six years of legal proceedings, the courts were unable to find her abuser, Yue Zhongjin, criminally liable. He has kept his job at a state-owned enterprise, only receiving a two-year administrative probation. On the Twitter-like platform Weibo, one user argued that was “the most outrageous” part of the case.
Moreover, despite Li’s testimony on sexual abuse and rape, the court only deemed there was enough evidence for the less severe crime of child molestation.
Li first came forward in 2017 and was immediately faced with stringent statutes of limitations in China’s legal system (a feature most countries have). The statutes of limitations in China are calculated based on the crime’s maximum sentence as stipulated by law. At the time of the abuse, the limit under China’s Criminal Law was five years for the crime of molestation. In 2015, it had been increased to 15 years. But since the abuse had taken place before that, the new laws could not be applied. By 2017, 13 years had elapsed since the abuse ended.
Yue, Li’s abuser and her father’s coworker, was released on bail after just several weeks. The state could and would not prosecute.
“Li Xiaoran paid the price for the lack of awareness of the harm caused by child molestation in prior to 2015, which resulted in inadequate sentences and criminal persecution periods,” Wan, Li’s lawyer, said, describing her as a “victim of China’s national criminal justice system.”
After the verdict was upheld after Li’s first appeal, an elderly public prosecutor told her father to stop pursuing a criminal case. Instead, he suggested they should focus on civil law, which would be extremely difficult and unknown territory. Wan, who eventually took the case to civil court, said, “This case was a first, there was not a single method I could learn from.”
China’s Civil Code came into effect on January 1, 2021. A historical legal milestone, this magnum opus built on the labor of countless lawmakers, lawyers, and other professionals who had been trying to compile a comprehensive code since the 1980s. But the code is still young, and with young age comes uncertainty, trial and error – and sometimes, successful experimentation.
Ultimately, Yue was sued in civil court for infringement upon Li ’s personality rights, namely the right to life, the right to corporeal integrity, and the right to health. Before deciding on this approach, Li’s lawyer held a long phase of consultations with legal experts from all over the country. Wan spoke to judges, public prosecutors, and lawyers from different provinces in China get the legal foundation right. She sought to communicate with all sides of the judicial system to get them to accept her argument.
“Achieving this success really relied on investing a huge amount of physical and mental effort,” according to Wan.
China’s new Civil Code initially also seemed to do Li’s suffering a disservice. Under Chinese civil law, a victim of childhood sexual abuse has three years to step forward after turning 18. When Li turned to civil court in 2020, she was in her late 20s.
And yet, in early May, the Intermediate People’s Court in Cangzhou, Hebei Province, held Yue responsible under civil law after the statutes of limitations had lapsed. Yue was ordered to pay Li over 300,000 RMB (almost $44,000) and issue a public apology. Both are national firsts.
In its ruling, the court followed the diagnosis of three separate medical experts that the molestation Li endured led to a recurrent and severe depressive disorder. As the mental consequences of the abuse only became apparent later, the court looked at the date of the formal diagnosis and used its discretionary power to hold the abuser responsible under civil law.
Yue’s court-ordered apology was eventually published in China News newspaper, buried on page 13 on May 17. It simply read, “To Li Xiaoran, apologies” (“向李小冉抱歉”). While the apology was ridiculed online for its lack of empathy and remorse, Wan explained the importance of those six characters: “Victims truly need an apology from the perpetrator to gain the courage to self-regenerate: this was his fault, and not mine.”
Indeed, Li sent her lawyer a short message on WeChat after the verdict came through: “Life is constantly moving forward.”
Unfortunately for victims of similar crimes, this verdict does not hold the same legal value in China as it does in judicial systems that work with case law. The hope is that the Supreme People’s Court will offer a guiding opinion on extending statutes of limitations on crimes against minors. “Statutory law, as opposed to case law, always has a lag,” Wan explained. “For criminal offenses against children’s rights, not only sexual assault, but also abuse, human trafficking, murder, and intentional injury, limited prosecution periods must be abolished.”
Online, netizens are calling upon others to seek out their representatives at the National People’s Congress to push for legislative change. Besides online advocacy, writing letters to representatives is one of the few methods citizens in China can use to try to influence policy, in the absence of democratic elections, free press, or freedom of speech. During China’s #MeToo Movement, activists succeeded with these methods. For victims of childhood sexual abuse, let us hope policymakers listen again.