Lhamo, a Tibetan farmer in southwest China, lived her life mostly outdoors and shared it online. She posted videos of herself cooking, singing, and picking herbs in the mountains around her village. By that fall, she had around 200,000 followers, many of whom praised her as cheerful and hardworking.
Over 400 of them were watching each other one evening in mid-September when Ms. Lhamo, 30, broadcast a video live from her kitchen on Douyin, the Chinese version of the TikTok app. Suddenly a man burst in and Mrs. Lhamo screamed. Then the screen went dark.
When Ms. Lhamo’s sister Dolma arrived at the hospital a few hours later, she found that Ms. Lhamo was having difficulty breathing and her body was full of burns. Police in Jinchuan County, where she lived, are investigating Ms. Lhamo’s ex-husband on suspicion that he doused her with gasoline and set her on fire.
“It looked like a piece of charcoal,” said Ms. Dolma, who shares a name with her sister and many other Tibetans. “He burned almost all of her skin.”
In July, a man was arrested in eastern Hangzhou on suspicion of killing his wife after her dismembered remains were found in a communal septic tank. At the end of last month, video material appeared to show a man in Shanxi Province beating his wife to death in front of bystanders.
Beijing Equality, a women’s rights group, said more than 900 women have died at the hands of their husbands or partners since the Chinese Domestic Violence Act came into effect in 2016.
The Domestic Violence Act promised police investigations and easier access to restraining orders, but enforcement is incomplete and penalties easy in a society that stigmatizes divorce and pressures victims of abuse to remain silent. Activists say many police officers are not trained enough to handle domestic violence cases. In the rural areas where Ms. Lhamo came from, victims often lack social support networks and are less informed about their rights.
Just one day after Ms. Lhamo’s death, China’s political leader Xi Jinping declared at a UN women’s conference that “protecting the rights and interests of women must become a national obligation.”
The Chinese internet took advantage of the speech. And soon people were calling for stronger enforcement of the Domestic Violence Act using the hashtag #LhamoAct. Within a day, the hashtag on Weibo, one of China’s most popular social media platforms, was censored. Other hashtags condemned police failure to prevent Ms. Lhamo’s murder, including #StopNotActing and #PunishNotActing.
Wan Miaoyan, a women’s rights attorney in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan Province, said she hoped the backlash from Ms. Lhamo’s case would lead to better enforcement of the law.
“But why does it take a tragedy and a sacrifice to sacrifice yourself so bloody before we can make progress on law enforcement?” She said.
Ms. Lhamo was from a remote village in the Aba region known as Ngaba by Tibetans. Born in poverty, she made her living picking herbs in the mountains. As a child, she was kind and optimistic, her sister said. When Ms. Lhamo was 18 years old, she met a man named Tang Lu from a nearby village. It wasn’t long before they were married and Ms. Lhamo moved in with his family and gave birth to two boys, now 3 and 12 years old.
Ms. Dolma said she had seen bruises on her sister’s face and body many times over the years. Ms. Lhamo often fled to her father’s home to recover from her injuries, which Ms. Dolma said included a dislocated elbow.
Mr. Tang did not reply to several messages on his Douyin account and asked for comment. Ms. Dolma said she had no phone numbers for him or his relatives.
Ms. Lhamo divorced Mr. Tang in March. But he immediately urged her to remarry, said Mrs. Dolma, and threatened to kill her children if she refused. Ms. Lhamo called the police twice, but she ignored her requests for help, her sister said. The couple remarried.
Two weeks later, when Ms. Lhamo went to the police again after Mr. Tang tried to injure herself and Ms. Dolma, since she had chosen to remarry him, the authorities said “this is your personal family matter.” The officer said there was nothing they could do, according to Ms. Dolma.
The Jinchuan County Police Department did not respond to a request for comment.
In May, Ms. Dolma said, Mr. Tang tried to strangle Ms. Lhamo and threatened her with a knife.
She sought help from the local chapter of the All-China Women’s Federation, the government agency responsible for protecting women’s rights. Ms. Dolma said her sister later cried when she said that an officer dismissed her injuries and said other women were doing worse.
A staff member from Jinchuan County Women’s Association confirmed that Ms. Lhamo had visited the office and that an investigation was ongoing.
Ms. Lhamo refused to give up, Ms. Dolma said. She filed for divorce again and went into hiding with relatives while waiting for court approval.
In early June, Mr. Tang went to Ms. Dolma to find Ms. Lhamo. When Mrs. Dolma didn’t tell him where her sister was, he hit her in the left eye. Ms. Dolma was hospitalized for nearly two weeks with broken bones, according to a copy of the New York Times medical report. She said she reported the incident to the police, but they only questioned Mr. Tang briefly and let him go.
A few weeks later, a court granted the couple a second divorce and granted Mr. Tang custody of their two sons. Ms. Lhamo spent most of the summer deep in the mountains picking herbs. On September 12, two days before the attack that would kill her, she posted a video saying she would be coming home.
Mr. Tang, who was also badly burned, is being investigated on suspicion of murder. That is cold consolation for Mrs. Dolma.
“It’s too late to talk about these things now,” she said. “If they had taken it seriously back then and had disciplined or punished him, we wouldn’t be in this situation today.”