Lacking Support, China’s Autistic Adults Search for Love


GUANGDONG, South China — Zhuojun first became curious about sex at age 21. Her school — an institution for young people with special needs in the southern city of Guangzhou — had arranged a sex education class for the students, and the lesson left her with all kinds of questions.

Soon after, she saw two classmates kissing in the stairwell. She asked her teacher what they were doing. The teacher said they were “falling in love.” Zhuojun wanted to know whether there was a designated age for that, and the teacher replied, “20.”

“Ever since, she’s been telling people that she’s ready to fall in love,” says Zhuojun’s mother, Guo Fengmei, who requested her daughter’s full name not be used for privacy reasons.

Zhuojun is one of many young Chinese with autism spectrum disorder trying to navigate the world of romance — a challenge made all the more daunting by the lack of support services available for autistic adults in China.

There are more than 10 million people living with autism in China, with 200,000 new diagnoses every year, according to a 2017 report. Around 8 million of them are adolescents and adults.

Though adults with autism often have difficulties communicating with others, the majority share the same desire to socialize and form intimate relationships as neurotypical peers. Many, however, struggle to find long-term companionship. International studies suggest over 85% of adults with autism are single.

In China, life for people with autism can be even more complicated, due to the nation’s comparatively smaller social safety net. While multiple programs exist to support children with autism — especially in areas such as inclusive education — services for adults are often lacking, experts tell Sixth Tone.

“The services (for autistic people) in adolescence, adulthood, and retirement age are far from enough in China,” says Chen Jingjie, a director at Inclusion China Parents Network, a Beijing-based nongovernmental organization that works for people with intellectual and developmental disorders.

Families are largely left to care for adults with autism by themselves, and they are often reluctant to support their autistic relatives’ love lives — fearing the extra burden of care a romantic relationship might bring.

Lu Ying, vice president of Yang Ai, a Guangzhou-based nonprofit for families of special needs children, estimates that more than 80% of the organization’s 2,000 registered parents wouldn’t even consider allowing their children to get married. In the rare cases when people with autism do tie the knot in China, the match tends to be arranged by a wealthy family — and almost always pairs the autistic adult with a neurotypical person, she adds.

“Most of these parents are rich,” says Lu. “They think their children feel lonely, or they’ve shown a strong sexual desire and really need a partner.”

Yet young people with autism studying together at institutions such as the Guangzhou Children’s Palace — a popular hub for extracurricular activities — are often attracted to one another. When this happens, most parents’ instinct is to discourage a relationship, according to Lu.

“When they spend so much time together, they’ll develop feelings for each other,” says Lu. “But then parents force them to separate or only let them play together for a few hours during the daytime. Marriage is absolutely out of the question.”

Chen — a financial manager from Guangzhou whose 22-year-old son, Xianzai, has a moderate form of autism — tells Sixth Tone she is completely opposed to her son dating another person with autism.

“It’s already so tiring taking care of one autistic child — how am I supposed to take care of a couple?” says Chen, who has no relation to Chen Jingjie and declined to give both her and her son’s full names for privacy reasons.

Xianzai has shown an interest in marriage and childbirth since he attended an etiquette class at Guangzhou Children’s Palace when he was 17. His mother, however, worries about him possibly passing on his autism to future children. There is no conclusive proof that autism has a genetic cause, but researchers have found patterns toward the disorder in certain families.

“If getting married would cause more trouble, why do it?” says Chen.

Guo, the mother of Zhuojun, is one of the minority of parents who wants her child to start a family. She hopes Zhuojun can have a child to take care of her after the 59-year-old is gone, though she worries a partner might abuse or take advantage of her daughter.

“I asked her if she wanted to give birth abroad via artificial insemination, but she refused right away,” says Guo. “So, I stopped asking and will try again later, otherwise she’ll be mad.”

When asked whether she wants to get married and have children, Zhuojun — who is now 26 — says “no” without hesitation. She has, however, become infatuated with one of the teachers at Guangzhou Children’s Palace, where she has attended special education classes since 2014.

“She fell in love with Mr. Cui, the painting teacher, at first sight,” says Guo. “She didn’t even know what painting was, but she insisted that she sign up because she thought Mr. Cui was so handsome.”

Every Tuesday and Friday afternoon, Zhuojun immerses herself in the painting classes. When she’s home, she spends most of her time painting dogs — her favorite animal. She will often paint until her parents order her to go to bed. “She wants to get better to impress Mr. Cui,” says Guo.

Mr. Cui often makes time for Zhuojun outside of class. He takes her shopping and to the mall — accompanied by Guo and his girlfriend.

“We tell her that Mr. Cui has a girlfriend, and that’s why she can’t have him,” says Guo. “She can see him as her brother and best friend, but she can’t be his girlfriend.”

Zhuojun, however, struggles to understand the situation, and she often tells others that she’s Mr. Cui’s “first girlfriend.” When she has dinner with Mr. Cui and his partner, she deliberately sits in between the couple.

Several parents of adult children with autism tell Sixth Tone they feel uncertain how to handle their offspring’s romantic lives. Zhuojun has learned to turn down the advances of men she doesn’t find attractive, says Guo. But when she likes someone, she often throws herself at them, hugging them and asking to connect on messaging app WeChat.

“I stop her when I see it and constantly remind her that it’s dangerous, and she must tell me or her dad who she’s met,” says Guo.

A 2015 study conducted in the United States found that the most common concerns among adults with autism were courtship difficulties and sensory dysregulation during sex. But research on the sexual experiences of those with autism is scarce, even more so in China.

A few parents at Yang Ai have organized a program to help their children learn about dating by practicing with volunteers. The pairs go out for dinner and to the movies together. Guo, however, is against the initiative.

“The volunteers know it’s fake, but the autistic children think it’s real,” says Guo. “Once they really fall for it, it’s hard to get them out, and it’s devastating for them. There’s a boy in our circle who’s now always saying he had a girlfriend but she dumped him.”

Since graduating from vocational school three years ago, Xianzai has been working at a coffee chain outlet in Guangzhou, cleaning tables and mopping the floor. He is often attracted to female customers and colleagues. When he sees someone he likes, he will look straight at them, touch their hair or shoulders, or try to kiss them, according to Chen.

His mother has received complaints about her son’s inappropriate behavior on several occasions — especially during Xianzai’s first few weeks at the café — and she worries about the consequences if he continues such actions.

“Although his mind is like a child, he’s big and tall and doesn’t look like he’s autistic sometimes,” says Chen.

To solve the problem, Chen turned to a local sex education nonprofit named the Nurturing Relationship Education Support Center for advice. She was inspired to ask Xianzai’s manager to write up three fake official warning letters.

“He cares about this job a lot and is afraid of being fired, so he calmed down after that,” says Chen. She keeps in close contact with staff at the café to check on her son’s behavior.

Xianzai has asked out almost all his female co-workers, but Chen doesn’t think he is capable of maintaining a long-term relationship. She also believes he doesn’t really want to get married.

“He can read, but it’s difficult for him to read between the lines,” says Chen. “And he doesn’t know how to say beautiful words to make girls happy.”

Guo is still undecided about whether to seek a match for Zhuojun. Several people have made inquiries. In December, a relative wanted to set up Zhuojun with a 23-year-old autistic man who lives in Hong Kong, but she declined.

“His family owns a big business, but I can’t take the risk of Zhuojun having an autistic child,” says Guo.

According to Guo, one of her friends recently secured a neurotypical wife for her 30-year-old autistic son after agreeing to pay the young woman 10,000 yuan ($1,450) per month and buy the couple a large house.

“She does housework and listens to him,” says Guo. “He doesn’t know how to have sex, so his father is teaching him how to do it, hoping they’ll have a healthy grandchild soon.”

Chen, for her part, simply hopes that Xianzai can do well at work and live a happy life. She worries about what might happen if her son endures a breakup, which she believes might cause him anxiety, depression, and other emotional disorders.

“If he’s lucky enough to find a ‘normal’ girl who can accept him, I’ll do my best to help them spiritually and financially,” says Chen. “But as long as he has something he enjoys doing and I have enough money to support him, I don’t think being single is a bad thing.”


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

Silent No More: How China’s Domestic Abuse Victims Spoke Out


SHANGHAI — The video appeared on Chinese social media platform Weibo Nov. 25 — the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.

Posted by He Yuhong, the popular beauty influencer known as Yuyamika to her over 1 million followers, the 12-minute piece included shocking surveillance footage showing a topless man dragging He through the doors of an elevator as she struggled to free herself.

Accompanying the video, the star wrote a short message: “I’m a victim of domestic violence. I seemed to be living in a nightmare the past six months. I need to speak up about domestic violence!”

Yuyamika’s post generated an enormous response. On Weibo, a related hashtag received over 2 billion views within 24 hours of the video going live. It also sparked an intense debate over China’s continued failure to crack down on domestic violence, which affects nearly 1 in 3 married women in the country.

Three years ago, China implemented its first anti-domestic violence law, which covers physical and psychological abuse toward spouses, children, and the elderly. It also grants courts the power to issue personal safety protection orders, banning abusers from contacting victims.

Yet the reforms have had limited impact in practice. Low public awareness, lenient punishments, and failures in the justice system have undermined the law’s effectiveness and discouraged victims from reporting abuse to the police.

Supreme People’s Court data suggests that in the vast majority of cases, victims of domestic violence are not attempting to obtain personal safety protection orders. Chinese courts granted a total of 3,718 such protection orders between March 2016 and December 2018.

Experts say the low number of protection orders reflects a failure to publicize the rules, and that the penalties for breaking a protection order are inadequate. Violations typically result in a fine of up to 1,000 yuan ($145) and a 15-day detention. As a result, many victims doubt whether a protection order would successfully deter abusers.

When victims do come forward, meanwhile, they often struggle to obtain a protection order. In 2019, Weiping, a Beijing-based nonprofit that focuses on women’s rights issues, analyzed Shanghai’s handling of personal safety protection order applications between March 2016 and September 2019. The study found that Shanghai courts accepted just over half the applications, with 34% rejected and 12% withdrawn.

Insufficient supporting evidence was the most common reason cited for an application’s rejection, but Weiping also found multiple examples of judges refusing to grant protection orders based on personal value judgements with no legal validity. Cited grounds for rejection included the applicant and the respondent not living together, the low frequency of the violence, and the abuser’s active admission of wrongdoing.

Lin Shuang, a researcher who worked on the Weiping report, tells Sixth Tone the deficiencies of China’s legal system are driving women to social media to speak out about their abuse.

“A lot of times you go to the police and you can’t even get a receipt (confirming the victim has reported a crime),” says Lin. Failing to obtain a police receipt makes it difficult for victims to apply for a protection order or a divorce, she adds. “It lets the perpetrator know it’s useless for you to go to the police.”

In the days following Yuyamika’s expose on Weibo, other women spoke up online about their experiences of abuse. On Nov. 26, Julieta Benavid accused Chinese actor Jiang Jinfu of assaulting her — a charge the star denied. In 2018, Jiang was detained in Japan after admitting to abusing his then-girlfriend Haruka Nakaura.

Campaigners hope the enormous public attention generated by the Yuyamika case will prompt authorities to fast-track reforms making it easier for victims of domestic violence to obtain justice. There is a precedent for this. In 2011, Kim Lee, the then-wife of celebrity English teacher Li Yang, accused the Crazy English inventor of beating her and filed for divorce, sparking public outrage against Li.

“Li Yang’s domestic violence, which was widely discussed by the public, directly contributed to the formal implementation of the anti-domestic violence law in 2016,” says Fang Gang, founder of White Ribbon, a Beijing-based advocacy organization campaigning to end violence against women. “Anti-domestic violence campaigners had been arguing for this legislation for years before that, but little progress had been made. If it wasn’t for Kim’s act, the legal process might have been delayed for several years.”

Lee, however, was heavily criticized for her response to the Yuyamika video. On Nov. 28, the U.S. national wrote on Weibo: “I will always love my husband. Domestic violence is wrong and intolerable. These two facts exist at the same time, although they seem to contradict each other. Why? Because of forgiveness.”

The post received more than 18,000 comments, most expressing disappointment and anger toward Lee. “Your self-righteous reasons and love will mislead many people who are hesitant to get out of marriages full of violence,” wrote one Weibo user. “There are so many difficulties in enforcing the law … You saying, ‘we are family’ will just cause the precious little progress made to reverse itself,” commented another.

Yet progress appeared at the local level in 2019, as several Chinese provinces adopted new policies designed to fix problems with the existing anti-domestic violence law.

In March, the central Hunan province introduced a reform enabling the provincial branch of the All-China Women’s Federation — a quasi-official women’s rights group — to help both male and female victims of domestic violence secure personal protection orders.

Then, Guangdong province drafted a new domestic violence regulation in December expanding the scope of abuse and adding measures to protect minors from such acts. The draft rule has defined humiliation, slander, privacy violations, threats, stalking, and harassment as non-physical forms of domestic violence. It has also classified minors who witness domestic violence as victims of such acts.

In interviews with local media, Guangdong officials made clear they considered domestic violence a priority issue. Xu Guang, chairman of the Social Construction Committee of the Guangdong Provincial People’s Congress, told reporters there was “an urgent need to solve the outstanding problems in Guangdong’s anti-domestic violence work” — characterizing the problems as “large in number, wide in range, and various in form.”

Guangdong’s proposed regulation also attempts to prevent situations in which victims have no way to report abuse. The rules would introduce a “first responsibility system” that would effectively prevent public institutions from handing off cases to another department.

Authorities were, at least, quick to respond to Yuyamika’s case. Three days after she published the video, local public security officials stated the blogger had been granted a personal safety protection order and her attacker had been put under administrative detention for 20 days.

For anti-domestic violence campaigners, the goal is to ensure every victim receives similarly swift support. The 2016 law was a first step toward that, but there is a long way to go. “At least you can tell the police there is a legal basis (for action) now,” says Lin. “You have some room to argue with them.”


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

Dogs’ Lives: Rescuing China’s Growing Pack of Strays


SHANGHAI — The dogs running around Qin Kong’s downtown office couldn’t appear more at home. Clean, curious, and obedient, the two pooches behave as if they’ve lived with the 33-year-old for years. Yet just three weeks ago, the animals were in a rescue center.

“They were trembling on the way here,” says Qin. “When we were holding them, they wet themselves in fear.”

Qin and his friend, Zhao Baiyang, picked up the dogs from a shelter in southern Fengxian District on Nov. 19, and since then they’ve spent hours each day training them. But Qin and Zhao don’t plan to keep the former strays; they’re simply preparing the animals to start new lives as family pets.

“Many adopters, especially first-time dog owners, end up returning the animal to the rescue center after the dog attacks someone or damages their home,” says Qin. “What we need to do is to make the dogs behave better so that people find it easier to be pet owners.”

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A Petform dog trainer plays with two pooches in Shanghai, Dec. 11, 2019. Fan Yiying

The two dogs are the first pupils of a program Qin and Zhao’s pet services company, Petform, set up in July to train and rehome abandoned animals. It’s a solution to a rising problem in China: Millions of newly middle-class city-dwellers are becoming pet owners for the first time, but they’re often completely unprepared for the challenges of caring for domestic animals.

The result has been a huge rise in the number of abandoned pets roaming the streets of China’s cities. The country now has nearly 100 million pet dogs and cats, up 8.4% compared with 2018, according to an industry report published in August. But it also has 40 million stray dogs — around one-fifth of the world’s total.

The spike in abandonments not only causes untold suffering for the animals, it’s also fueling public health concerns. Each year, Chinese doctors administer 60 million to 80 million doses of rabies vaccines, mainly to treat dog-bite victims.

There have been signs in 2019, however, that public awareness of the problem is rising, as a growing number of social organizations, companies, and government-led projects have emerged to promote adoption and provide support for first-time pet owners.

For Petform’s co-founders, education is the key to reducing the number of abandoned pets. The firm can only train up a couple dogs per month, Zhao says, but he believes they can make a greater impact by changing the owners’ mindsets. Zhao continually tries to teach people that getting a dog — like getting married — is not simply a matter of money and impulse.

“It’s like sex and marriage,” says Zhao. “Sex can happen quickly, but marriage can’t. There’s a series of follow-up issues that need to be solved.”

Another challenge is convincing more people to adopt an animal, rather than buy directly from a pet store. Only 11.8% of China’s pet dogs and 19.9% of the country’s pet cats were adopted, according to a 2018 report — far below the average adoption rates in developed countries. But here, too, campaigners are starting to make progress.

“The adoption rate is increasing year by year, especially for cats,” says Yang Yang, founder of Beijing Pet Adoption Day, a group that has helped nearly 10,000 rescued dogs and cats find new homes in 24 Chinese cities over the past eight years. “It’s very gratifying.”

In October, the animal welfare movement received a boost with the opening of the Animal Welfare Training and Education Center — an enormous new complex built on a former air base 30 kilometers northeast of central Beijing.

Founded by the nongovernmental Capital Animal Welfare Association, the center can house up to 130 strays and will also serve as a platform for promoting adoption, providing medical treatment for strays, and educating the public on animal welfare issues. It has already rehomed more than 60 animals, received around 1,000 visitors, and partnered with dozens of livestreamers to encourage young people to take part in adoption events.

“Before, Chinese people thought that they had to buy a pet to own one,” says Yang, of Beijing Pet Adoption Day. “We now tell young people that adoption is an attitude in life. When they choose to adopt a stray, they not only get companionship and fun, but they also demonstrate their personal values at the same time.”

Until recently, animal welfare groups received little support in their attempts to find new homes for stray animals. Now, however, local governments across China are setting up animal shelters and organizing adoption events.

In August, Shanghai’s public security bureau partnered with French pet food company Royal Canin to capture street cats and dogs, provide them with shelter and vaccinations, and then rehome them through local adoption organizations. Importantly, the program will also ensure the strays are neutered, preventing the animals from multiplying to the point that local security officials are forced to cull them — a common issue in Chinese cities.

China’s central government, meanwhile, gave the clearest indication in years that it is moving forward with plans to pass a national law to protect all animals from abuse. A draft version of an animal protection law was first submitted for public comment in 2010, but was never implemented. In September, however, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs announced it would work with the National Forestry and Grassland Administration on new legislation, which it called “difficult and long-term work.”

More than 100 countries have a comprehensive animal protection law, according to Yang, and the introduction of such legislation could be a game-changer for China’s animal welfare campaigners.

“(At the moment,) activists can only use other laws and regulations, such as food safety and illegal transportation rules, to rescue animals, which puts us in an awkward situation,” says Yang.

“We hope that through our efforts we can achieve an 80% adoption rate in China in 80 or 100 years,” says Yang. “It’s not impossible; it’s just a matter of time, because we’re dealing with the natural laws of human development.”

Back in Shanghai, Qin and Zhao hope it won’t take so long to find homes for their two rescues. They have decided to call the dogs Melon Seed and Peanut, after popular Chinese Lunar New Year snacks. The names express their hope that the dogs can be adopted before the festival in late January and also that they can become an integral part of their new family.

“I’m not worried about whether they’ll find a new home,” says Qin. “We’ve already had so many people asking about adoption after seeing how well-behaved they are on social media.”


This article was published on Sixth Tone.