Becoming Public: Anti-Domestic Violence (ADV) Activism as a Public Event

Domestic violence (DV) is a severe problem in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) with occurrence rates varying between 24,7% and 54,6 % depending on the conducted study (All China Women’s Federation, 全国妇联 2011: 4; Creasy et al. 2013). Since 1995 the problem slowly received more attention not only from the public but also from policymakers, and legal protection against DV slowly improved. Nonetheless China still has no specific DV law. In April 2013 the National People’s Congress (NPC) finally stated that ADV-legislation would be part of a review of important laws in 2013 (制定反家暴法)1 , prompting ADV-activists to speculate that an ADV-law would soon become reality. Against the background of slow improvements in the ADV legislation the ADV-organizations invented new strategies to overcome the static status quo. The latest of these innovations is the emergence of public interest performance art advocacy (街头公益行为艺术)2 . What are the benefits of this strategy for the mobilization process and why is it innovative?

This article is dedicated to the discussion of two cases of performance art advocacy conducted by ADV-activists: the Injured Bride’s Event (受伤的新娘行动) and the activism accompanying Kim Lee’s third court hearing3 . Based on the description of these two cases I will show the main common features of both activities and how they represent common components of performance art advocacy, e.g. the strong reliance on professional ADV-organizations. Furthermore, I will discuss how these advocacy practices represent a useful addition to the tactical mobilization repertoire of established ADV-organizations.

The Injured Bride’s Event (受伤的新娘行动)

In 2012 three women in Western style wedding dresses with red marks symbolizing blood stains paraded through the Qianmen(前门) pedestrian street in Beijing holding signs calling for an acknowledgement that love and violence are under no circumstance connected.

The Injured Bride’s event was the first known occurrence of performance art advocacy used in the Chinese women’s movement. Chinese ADV-activists had learnt about a similar activity conducted in Turkey in November 2011 (Wang 2012) and wanted to implement a variation of it in the PRC to raise awareness for DV.
To stress the symbolism, the Injured Bride’s activism was conducted on Valentine’s Day 2012. The day is widely perceived as special date (情人节) symbolizing the ideal of harmonious intimate relationships4 . During the event DV was portrayed as symbolizing relationship’s dark sides and therefore stood in sharp contrast to the idealized romantic image of love that is commonly propagated, especially on Valentine’s Day. By using a topic relevant to every Chinese – love and marriage – and by contrasting the ideal of harmonious intimacy with its possible negative manifestation in the form of DV, the activists hoped to draw attention and create support against DV.

The activists chose the famous Qianmen pedestrian street as the location for their event. Qianmen is known as the last remnants of the business center of old Beijing and is today one of the top locations for tourists to visit. Therefore the area’s footfall is high and such a performance has the potential to reach a substantial audience. Moreover, a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) organization conducted an activity promoting same-sex marriage on the same day at Qianmen. Having two taboo topics on display in such a public place was thought to increase media coverage and reduce potential risks of confrontation with authorities for the activists.

Activism accompanying the third hearing of Kim’s divorce case

On the occasion of Kim Lee’s third and final court hearing – regarding her divorce from her husband Li Yang due to violent abuse – a group of young activists supported her through dancing, singing, and the hand-over of 1000 supporters’ signatures.

Kim Lee posted her court date on her Weibo5 account only a week before the hearing. Some activists perceived this occasion as a great opportunity to raise public support not only for Kim but also for the fight against DV. Through the network of organization A6  they contacted other potential actors.

On the day of the court hearing the activists lined up in a row wearing T-shirts that displayed the slogan “Zero Tolerance for Domestic Violence” (家庭暴力零容忍). Against the background of Kim’s final court date the activists revitalized a signature campaign that had up to then only been moderately successful, widening its scope by publicizing it through organizations A and B. After Kim Lee’s arrival at the court the activists handed her a banner which displayed 1,000 signatures and the activists’ demands to the government.

Afterwards the activists performed a song that demanded the punishment of DV, a greater awareness for the issue, and for each individual to take greater responsibility for combatting DV. The performance took less than an hour, the hearing however stretched over several hours. Although they were not permitted onto the premises of the court, the activists waited until the hearing was concluded. Through this perseverance they aimed to show moral support for Kim and for the combat of DV in front of the media representatives. The activists’ main aim with this activism was to receive massive media attention that would mobilize greater public support for tackling the problem of DV.

Organizational support for both events

Both the Injured Bride’s activism and the activism accompanying Kim’s third court hearing were repeatedly framed as being initiated and carried out by independent volunteers with no affiliation to the established ADV-organizations. This strong emphasis on the activist’s independence originated in their fear of reprisals against ADV-organizations if they would be perceived as initiators of public disturbances. The activists were afraid of complications regarding their organizations’ registrations, limitation of their work freedom, and pressure against organizational members.

For both events, organization A, B and, C formed a dynamic but stable coalition. Regarding the organization and conduct of the Injured Bride’s activism only organizations A and B were involved, providing different kinds of resources. Organization A learnt about the event in Turkey, formulated an event strategy and provided a space to prepare the activity. Organization A contacted people in its network to enact the Injured Brides and provided the three actors with additional support during the event. Organization B provided informative material that was distributed to bystanders during the activism. They also provided, when necessary, a small budget for travel and food expenses for the activists.

The activists supporting Kim during her court hearing were backed by all three organizations providing different kinds of resources. Organization A again opened up its network to find potential activists, and contributed their media resources and expertise in conducting performance art advocacy. Organization B provided, again, a small budget for expenses of the activists, media resources, and information material. Organization C provided accommodation, its network of women’s rights experts, and a place to organize the event.

The activists most notable strategy to avoid creating the perception that the established ADV-organizations were coordinating the events, was to tell media and state authority representatives that they were attending the event as individual volunteers supporting the cause. Although the activists involved were not necessarily members of established ADV-organizations, they were all at least members of those organizations’ networks. Moreover, if the activism was not initiated and coordinated by a specific organization in the first place, it was at least supported by the coalition built by organizations A, B, and C.

Participating activists

As mentioned before, both events rested not only on the visible actors, but also on a crowd of people belonging to one of the three ADV-organizations.

The actors of both events were highly educated and were either attending university, or had work experience in related fields, such as law or media. The actors were all female and between 20 and 25 years old. Furthermore, most activists stated that their involvement was not motivated by a personal DV experience but by their awareness of gender inequalities. They perceived their engagement as natural consequence of their citizen’s consciousness, which was characterized for them by their willingness to go out on the street and stand up for their beliefs (to utilize their ‘power to act’ ’行动力’). With this dedication they would differ from self-centered individuals in China, following the slogan ‘the less trouble the better’ (多一事不如少一事).

Media Representation

Performance art advocacy is a good strategy to receive media attention and the media coverage of both events was huge – especially in the social media arena. Media representatives – both in print and online media – were contacted before both events. Traditional print media are reluctant to report on such events7 . However online media was important for dissemination and several ‘copy-cat’ events sprung up across China, mimicking tactics employed during the Injured Brides8 .

Performance art advocacy as an invented tactic in the ADV-organization’s mobilization against DV

Performance art advocacy centers on a live performance at public places for a public audience (CDB 2013).In that sense it differs largely from traditional advocacy tools such as lobbying behind closed doors. Performance art is an inclusive strategy, very well suited to receive broad media coverage and hence a great tool to raise public awareness and rally support for policy reforms. It is a cheap advocacy strategy based on creativity and individual dedication. Although activists in the events emphasize that they have no affiliations with established ADV-organizations, it is these organizations that provide the necessary resources to hold the events, such as accommodation, working space, expertise, financial funds, and networks.

The innovative aspect of this mobilization strategy is the conscious creation and usage of public disturbances. The activists initiate their advocacy events in public places, using topics that are traditionally perceived as ‘private’, ‘family matters’, or taboo. Both aspects are important for generating broad media coverage. Due to the ban for traditional media to broadly report on such events, new media has become one of the central dissemination tools for such activism.

Through its disturbing character, performance art advocacy is a useful addition to the ADV-organization’s mobilization ‘toolkit’, because, unlike traditional advocacy strategies, they can create broad media coverage and therefore potentially mobilize more people.

References:

All China Women’s Federation, 全国妇联 (Oct. 21st, 2011): Report on Major Results of the Third Wave Survey on The Social Status of Women in China. 第三期中国妇女社会地位调查主要数据报告. http://www.china.com.cn/zhibo/zhuanti/ch-xinwen/2011-10/21/content_23687810.htm, last accessed on April 24, 2014.

China Development Brief, 中国发展简报/北京公旻汇咨询中心 (2013): The Diversification of Public Advocacy in China, 中国公共倡导的多元化发展. 中国发展简报/北京公旻汇咨询中心. http://www.cdb.org.cn/upload/userfiles/files/AdvocacyReport-2013.pdf, last accessed on April 9, 2014.

Creasey, Daniel; Coventry; Miller, David (December 2013): A landscape analysis of domestic violence laws. Thomas Reuter Foundation, last accessed on April 24, 2014.

Heaney, Michael T. (2007): Public Interest Advocacy. International Encyclopedia of Social Science, 2nd Edition. In: International Encyclopedia of the Social Science. http://www-personal.umich.edu/~mheaney/Public_Interest_Advocacy.pdf, last accessed on April 24, 2014.

Wang Man (2012): Carrying Out Public Advocacy Through Performance Art. Ed.:中国发展简报/北京公旻汇咨询中心 China Development Brief (China Development Brief, 53). http://www.chinadevelopmentbrief.cn/?p=2190, last accessed on April 24, 2014.


  1. C.f. working plan of the NPC: http://www.npc.gov.cn/npc/xinwen/syxw/2013-04/27/content_1793635.htm, last accessed on Mai 4, 2014. 

  2. Advocacy is understood in this article according to Heaney as performed by organizations and individuals that exist primarily to promote a common good that extends beyond the narrow economic or sectarian goal of organization’s members and supporters or individuals (Heaney 2007). In that sense it refers not only to policy advocacy, but also to the setting of public agendas and hence the mobilization for public support. 

  3. Kim Lee is a US-citizen married to the celebrity Li Yang famous for his Crazy English language training centers all over China. In the autumn of 2011 she publicized Li Yang’s violent behavior towards her on her Weibo account. In the aftermath she filed for divorce in a Chinese court on grounds of domestic violence and applied for custody of their three daughters. The Beijing intermediary court granted the divorce, gave Kim full custody of their daughters, and decided that Li Yang had to pay alimony for their daughters in the summer of 2013. Both Kim Lee and Li Yang are perceived by the greater public as modern and open citizens living in urban developed centers. (Weibo: http://www.weibo.com/p/1005052254494161; Baidu: http://baike.baidu.com/subview/1205784/6889377.htm?fromId=1654201 

  4. At the same time Valentine’s Day is also V Day. V Day was initiated by Eva Ensler and was inspired by the reactions to her play The Vagina Monologues and encourages creative activities to raise awareness to end violence against women.C.f. http://www.vday.org/home

  5. Weibo is probably best characterized as the Chinese version of Twitter. To know about Kim’s court date implies that the person need either to follow with Kim in Weibo or with somebody who shared her original post or commenting on it respectively. That means the person needs to be a member of her network. 

  6. The organizations named in this article will all remain anonymous. The organizations will be referred to as organization A, B, C. Throughout the article these placeholders regard always the same organization. Organization A is a Beijing located NGO focusing on women’ s rights issues using new media and has an increasing expertise in performance art advocacy. Organization B is a Beijing located NGO, as well, specialized in ADV legal advocacy. Organization C is also a Beijing based NGO specialized in human rights advocacy. Only in 2012 organization C started to regard women’s rights issues. 

  7. According to one informant the department of propaganda issued a statement banning the large-scale reporting of such events, especially in traditional media. 

  8. Articles on copy cats: c.f. http://www.un.org/zh/women/endviolence/16days.shtml http://www.who.int/violence_injury_prevention/violence/global_campaign/16_days/en/

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