From the closest relatives and vows of eternal love to the bitter enemies and full of fits and lies of life, how does a relationship break down to the point where one parent abducts their own child?
Dai Xiaolei, 41, an art director who lives in Beijing, China, remembered being forced to flee their apartment when she saw her husband, a martial arts instructor Bailuo Bi, approach her with a wrench.
As the wrench hits televisions, decorations, washing machines, range hoods and dining tables, bits of glass and parts of household appliances scattered all over the floor. The love nest they had once decorated together was suddenly a ruin.
“I thought I might die if I didn’t leave him,” said Dai.
In August 2014, less than 15 days before her birthday, she officially filed for divorce in a Chinese court.
About eight months ago, their child was forcibly taken from Dai by Bi and his family, who prevented her from bringing the son back.
She did not realize what it meant for Bi to abduct the son, and not allow her to live with the child anymore before they divorce, until the first trial verdict gave her the answer: Bi was granted custody of the child.
Under Chinese law, judges tend to give custody to the person who is living with the child, and at that time, it was not explicitly illegal to abduct and hide children for custody, according to Jing Zhang, a leading Chinese lawyer in the marriage and family field.
“The visitation rights I have also not been granted at that moment,” said Dai. Having lost the two rights, she has spent only 25.5 hours with her child since 2014.
Plant the seeds of love
Dai moved to Canada from China with her parents at the age of six. After earning a master’s degree, she entered the film industry and returned to hometown in 2004. The following year, she met Bi and a relationship was established.
Bi grew up in a rural area of Hebei Province in north China, and learned Chinese martial arts at an early age. He had a completely different environment from Dai.
Apart from talking about movies, Dai felt they had little in common.
For Dai, her decision to marry Bi in 2009 was the seed of love. “But love is illusory, because it can change at any time,” she said.
She felt now that she had neglected compatibility in the relationship. “If two people have very different backgrounds and foundations, a lot of the gaps can’t be filled,” she said.
However, Dai, who was in love at the time, was not aware of these problems, and was completely immersed in the sweet illusion. “At first, he would do whatever I wanted,” said Dai. “He gave me a feeling of admiration for me.”
Before getting married, Dai told Bi that she wanted to have an equal status in the family relationship, and continue to do the work she loved. She said Bi promised her.
“It was all fake, completely changed after marriage, and he was not satisfied with everything about me,” said Dai.
In June 2014, their relationship reached a freezing point for her. But Bi could not be reached directly for comment.
Into a spiral of violence
According to Dai, at that time, Bi finished shooting Nirvana in Fire, a Chinese TV drama, and returned home, and was very excited. Because it would be a pivotal turning point in his career – the lead cast included many of Chinese top actors, which meant the show would be a big hit once it aired.
In fact, as the series turns out, the show ranked third in total viewing on the Internet in 2016, according to a report jointly released by Youku, a major Chinese video-sharing website, and EntGroup, a data analysis company.
“He felt he had made it, and began to look down on me,” said Dai. “He cheated on me, hit me, called me names. If I don’t want to accept it, that’s my business, not his.”
For no reason, he would hit her and kick her when he did not like her, according to Dai.
“I live every day on the edge – not knowing when I said something to upset Bi, and then being abused,” she said.
Based on evidence provided by Dai, the Beijing court found that Bi had committed domestic violence against Dai during their marriage.
As a result, the court ordered Bi to compensate Dai ¥5,000, about ￡560, for mental damage.
According to her, the first time she was beaten by Bi was six months after their wedding.
“He tripped me up with a broom, and then held a pillow over my nose to keep me from breathing,” she said. “I could have died in a few seconds.”
She felt very disappointed when she first discovered that her lover was a man who liked to use his masculine power to resort to violence against his wife.
“I didn’t expect him to treat me like this, and I never thought I would become a victim,” she said.
Dai can not stand domestic violence.
“When it first happened, I was ready to divorce him,” she said.
She changed the lock on the apartment, packed up all Bi’s belongings and delivered them to his home in Hebei province.
However, she hesitated later.
“I think I’ve put in so many years: worked so hard in China, bought my house, found a nice job, but what if I lost my family,” she said. “I should try again.”
Later, when she thought about her decision to give up the divorce, she regretted it.
“In fact, the more opportunities I gave the man, the more he saw me as an easy target,” she said.
In 2012, the baby was born. The bubble filled with happiness surrounds Dai, but then she suffered domestic violence again, and her son has been abducted by Bi.
“Maybe he did it because he thought he had fulfilled his duty as a Chinese male,” said Dai. Some Chinese are influenced by the traditional belief that men must have a child of their own, especially a boy, to complete the task of carrying on the family line.
A result of a dissertation in Journal of Women in Culture and Society shows that when most parents in rural China are asked about their ideal family, they say they would like to have two children, at least one of whom must be male.
“Many mothers, like me, whose children have been abducted by their ex-husbands suspect that these men are engaged in marriage fraud,” said Dai. Marriage is not the goal, but children are.
Marry a woman, have a child, abuse his partner and abduct their child if he wants. If true, this set of movements is flowing smoothly, as if this kind of man was playing a set of Chinese martial arts.
The bubble burst, and they went from lovers to enemies.
An untrustworthy relationship
At the same time Jia Liang, 34, from Beijing, China, had just given birth and discovered the unsightly side of her partner, Cao Liu, who had been having sex with four women at the same time during her pregnancy, according to Liang.
She decided to part company with him.
“What I can’t stand most is when he sent a photo of my newborn baby to one of his sexual partners, and asked the baby to call her ‘mom,’” said Liang.
The psychological and physical pressure made her not want to quarrel with Liang, just wanted to end the relationship as soon as possible. Liang suffered from depression during her pregnancy and was weak after the delivery.
She had a showdown with him. “He said the child should either be his or mine,” said Liang. “Finally, he gave up the right of custody and cut off contact with me.”
“I raised the child alone for four years after birth,” said Liang, until the child was deliberately taken to France by Liu in 2019 and prevented the mother and son from meeting.
Liu said he is currently engaged in legal proceedings with Liang in France. As a result, he cannot be interviewed at this stage of the trial.
“I think my biggest mistake was that I didn’t ask him to sign a legal document to clarify the matter after Liu confirmed that he was giving up custody,” said Liang. “This led to endless trouble for me afterwards.”
Liang, who does not speak French, was forced to leave her job and life in China in order to find her child, and live in another country.
Liang’s encounter with Liu sounds like something out of a romantic novel, but for her, “the process of falling in love makes me feel sick,” she said.
She first learned of his existence in a documentary, which follows the lives of freelance artists in Beijing. Liu is one of them.
Liang, who majored in media at University, joined a documentary studio as a volunteer. As luck would have it, Liu came here one day.
“We were chatting all the time and it felt good,” said Liang. Later, they kept in touch more and more, and finally became a couple.
According to Liang, despite Liu’s reluctance to marry, she became pregnant after about 4 years of dating and agreed to give birth to the child.
“He said he wanted freedom and didn’t want the piece of paper with the marriage certificate printed on it,” said Liang. “I was so young, and he brainwashed me so badly.”
Then, “he thought the child was a disaster,” said Liang, “but I decided to have the baby anyway.”
She thought the baby was innocent – she could hear his heartbeat, feel his movements. “I have no right to end a life,” she said.
Liang’s parents did not know from conception to delivery. “I was afraid to tell them,” she said. After her baby was born, she finally told her family.
Since then, she has been living with her child in Beijing, and Liu no longer pays attention to the child, according to Liang.
“I was young, and I had resilience,” she said. “I felt like I can earn enough money to raise a child alone, and I won’t be worse off than anyone else.”
The sudden disappearance
At the end of 2018, the child developed symptoms of pediatric hernia: stomach pain. Liang took him to a hospital for treatment. “After that, he didn’t have any discomfort,” said Liang. Doctors had recommended surgery in two to three years.
“His father may have felt that the opportunity came then, and he was firmly opposed to the child having surgery in China,” said Liang.
According to Tang, he claimed he had to take his child to France for surgery, citing poor medical conditions in Beijing, and took away the child’s passport. “I believed it,” she said.
On April 4, 2019, Liang found that the child who went out with Liu had not returned for a long time.
“Liu said that the child had fallen asleep after eating, and he would bring him back tomorrow,” she said.
“I didn’t think he would abduct my kid, because he didn’t take any of the child’s personal belongings with him, just the person.”
That night, she could not get through to Liu.
The next morning, Liang received a message from Liu. “He said the child was already in France,” she said.
Liang could no longer contact Liu, because he moved her number into the blacklist.
Since then, Liang has started a series of transnational trips to retrieve the child.