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A man stands at a window at a residential community in Jingzhou, after the lockdown was eased in Hubei province, the epicentre of China's COVID-19 outbreak, March 26, 2020.ALY SONG/Reuters

Zhu Xixi was sitting on the balcony of her apartment in the midst of the coronavirus lockdown of Hubei province when she heard the crying and screaming. It was “the sound of a young child being beaten by a parent,” she said.

Ms. Zhu lives in Jingzhou, a city some 200 kilometres west of Wuhan, the city at the epicentre of the COVID-19 outbreak. She called police, but when officers arrived they said it wasn’t possible to pinpoint the source of the screaming. Then they left.

For Ms. Zhu, the experience raised alarm that such scenes would be repeated across a country that sought to contain the virus with sweeping orders to stay at home.

In Wuhan, Sunday marked 66 days since the imposition of a lockdown that has kept millions of people largely confined to their homes, though it has begun to ease in recent days.

Victims of domestic abuse in China have traditionally preferred “to seek help from close relatives and friends,” said Ms. Zhu, an advocate for women’s rights who has studied domestic violence since 2012. “But after the lockdown was imposed, people’s connections with each other have diminished, and in this way their external supports have shrunk. They can’t leave the house.”

Now, as governments across the world follow Beijing’s lead in imposing similar orders to stay home, women’s groups have warned about the domestic dangers of such measures. In the U.K., Jenny Beck, a family lawyer, told Bloomberg that “women will die” if they are imprisoned in their homes.

China’s experience suggests those worries are well-founded. In southern Hubei province’s Jianli County, police reported triple the number of incidents of domestic violence in February, compared to last year. The Beijing-based Yuanzhong Family and Community Development and Service Centre, which operates a national telephone hotline, has seen a roughly 50 per cent increase in the reports of domestic abuse.

“Compared to normal times, the severity of domestic violence during the epidemic has also increased,” said Li Ying, the centre’s director. In one case, a woman was pushed down stairs by her husband and nearly paralyzed. In other cases, the victims of violence have grown more diverse. In the past, “we have tended to see domestic violence in the context of intimate relations and marriage,” Ms. Li said. “But during this time, we have seen violence taking place among all different sorts of relations and age groups. For example, between parents and kids, or adult kids and younger siblings.”

She cited a Chinese proverb: “it is distance that produces beauty and comfort.” With people locked at home, by contrast, she said, “the lack of necessary distance provides more opportunities for people to get angry at each other.”

It is difficult to accurately assess the scale of domestic violence that has emerged in locked-down Chinese households, in part because there has been little official willingness to address the issue. Police in Jianli County, for example, declined to say whether the trend has continued. Three other police in Hubei stations declined interview requests. The Under the Blue Sky Women’s and Children’s Rights Protection Association, a government-affiliated group that initially publicized the Jianli numbers, also declined an interview request. Several family law lawyers downplayed the problem. People are concentrating on survival, and have no time to consider domestic violence, said one.

Although at least one Chinese city has reported a surge in divorce applications, Peng Yang, a lawyer in Wuhan, downplayed that likelihood in his city. Instead, he expects divorce applications to fall.

In normal times, the demands of daily life can “lead to estrangement,” he said. During the lockdown, “family members have had more time to communicate.” This will “enhance affection” and boost family harmony, he said. “Every Chinese person is working hard for the country’s prosperity. China will only become stronger and better,” he said.

Those who have studied family violence in China expressed skepticism. “That view reflects the government’s priority to keep marriages intact regardless of the harm done to women with abusive partners,” said Leta Hong Fincher, author of Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China. The official priority, she said, is social stability.

The lockdown, however, has placed families in a crucible where uncertainty, job losses and lack of personal space have added to interpersonal pressures.

Negative feelings fomented by the virus outbreak have meant “people who struggle to control their emotions will more easily burst into rage. At the same time, those in vulnerable positions have been placed into even bigger danger,” said Guo Jing, a Wuhan woman who runs a legal advice hotline for women.

She has also seen evidence that authorities have not taken the issue seriously during the lockdown. In late March, she received a report of a woman who called police three times to report domestic violence. Officers eventually took the couple to a police station to negotiate a solution. But in the end, the conflict was not resolved until her husband and his family refused to let the woman into her own home, forcing police and local authorities to find her a place in a hotel.

”I think it’s fair to say that many police officials do not take enough action when handling cases related to domestic violence,” Ms. Guo said.

Groups like the Yuanzhong Family and Community Development and Service Centre have advocated a “knock on the door” movement, encouraging police and neighbours to bang on the doors of apartments as a warning to those inside. Ms. Li knows of at least one instance where officials in Hubei acted to remove a woman and her young child to temporary housing for their protection.

Ms. Zhu took matters into her own hands. She slipped a handwritten note through the door of her neighbour’s apartment, begging them to halt the violence and noting phone numbers they could call for help if needed. In the days and weeks that followed, the sounds of conflict diminished.

Still, her own experience led her to question the severity of the measures China imposed during the lockdown.

“We’ve seen the inconvenience and difficulties the lockdown has brought,” she said. “The fact that ordinary people are suffering from the lockdown means that their needs have not been fully considered.”

-with files from Alexandra Li

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