A Chinese PhD student attacked his wife and threatened to send her back to China all because she did not refuel his car, a court has heard.

Guangbing Xiao (31), at present studying computer systems networking and telecommunications at the University of Otago, pleaded guilty to a charge of male assaults female yesterday.

He had asked his wife to fill his car with petrol because he had noticed it was running low.

However, when he was in the vehicle running errands, he found the tank was empty when he stalled in traffic.

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When he returned home, Xiao packed his wife's suitcase, and put it at the front door, telling her to go back to China.

He then grabbed a handful of her hair and the collar of her clothing, and the attack only stopped when the couple's flatmate intervened.

Xiao also demanded his wife give him her work visa but she escaped the property without doing so.

The defendant told his lawyer he had been angry that the victim disobeyed him and was worried he "could have been killed" when the car ran out of fuel.

The court heard Xiao would apply for a discharge without conviction at sentencing before the Dunedin District Court next month.