Breaking the Chain


汉语世界(The World of Chinese) 2022年2期


Video of a chained woman revives conversation on female trafficking

Photograph from VCG

On January 26, vlogger “Xuzhou Brother Ikkyū” stumbled into a nightmare when he visited a small village in Fengxiancounty, a rural area administered by Xuzhou in China’s eastern Jiangsu province.

He had come to help a man surnamed Dong raise funds to support his eight children, attracted by videos Dong had posted on social media sites showing his large family. But while livestreaming around the home, the vlogger stumbled across the children’s mother in an open-door shack, chained to the wall by a dog collar and wearing thin clothes that would not have been enough to protect from the bitter cold.

The topic generated an estimated 5.2 billion clicks on Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter, despite many posts and articles on the subject later being removed by censors. The news cast a long shadow over the Beijing Winter Olympics.

The incident shocked many educated and privileged Chinese women, showing that there are still parts of the country that view them as nothing more than “birth machines,” a feminist scholar specializing in Chinese gender studies tells TWOC, preferring to be addressed only by her surname, Li. It’s a reminder that despite the government’s poverty eradication initiatives and the advancement of women’s rights, there is a “strong contrast between the modern coastal south-eastern cities and the underdeveloped rural areas.”

A preference for male offspring, still sometimes seen in rural and conservative parts of the country, has led to a gender imbalance. According to China’s 2021 national census, the country now has close to 35 million more men than women. This surplus of men facing little prospect for marriage, yet pressured to start a family by tradition, has fostered a market for trafficking women from impoverished western regions to China’s eastern provinces.

In the weeks after the first video aired, local authorities from both Fengxian county and Xuzhou city investigated and issued four contradictory statements that failed to placate netizens. Initially, they denied the woman had been trafficked, alleging she was a “homeless” person “given refuge” by Dong’s father, that she’d married Dong of her own free will (providing a marriage certificate as proof), and been chained up due to violent behavior.

But on February 23, the authorities announced their final verdict. The chained woman was identified via DNA testing as Xiaohuamei, a villager from China’s southwestern Yunnan province, who is believed to have been lured away by a human trafficker in 1998 and had been sold twice before being bought by Dong’s father in 2000.

The Jiangsu authorities said they have arrested the alleged traffickers in the case, punished 17 local officials in Fengxiancounty, and housed the woman at a local hospital for medical and psychiatric treatment.

The case has motivated others to come forward with stories about human trafficking. On March 1, a WeChat article offered proof of a woman being locked in a cage in Jiaxiancounty, Shaanxi province. Chinese media outlet Caixin reported another human trafficking case in the same village as Xiaohuamei on February 8, but the article was later deleted.

Human trafficking was also a popular topic in China’s “Two Sessions” legislative meetings in March. Over 20 delegates made proposals to curtail the trafficking of women and children, including making buyers (and not just traffickers) punishable by the death sentence.

But the collusion of village neighbors in Fengxian in imprisoning Xiaohuamei, and the local authorities in falsifying her identity papers, have disheartened many netizens, who believe social attitudes around male-preference and the treatment of women still need big changes. “There is still a long way to go before any radical improvement can be made,” reckons Li.


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