Dearth of Official Information on Xuzhou’s Shackled Woman Spurs Citizen Journalists and Online Sleuths

Managing the outcry over the shackled woman in Xuzhou, Jiangsu Province, has proven to be a difficult task for China’s censors. Weeks after video of the woman first showed her shackled by her neck and chained in a freezing shed, while her husband lived in a nearby house with eight children of varying ages, Chinese citizens from all walks of life continue to demand answers and accountability. Frustrated by the lack of transparency from local police and government officials, and by the paucity of coverage in official media the story, many people have turned to citizen journalism and online sleuthing to fill in the gap.

Four conflicting official statements have failed to quell public anger or present definitive proof of the woman’s identity or whether she was trafficked and held against her will. Officials in Fengxian [Feng County], Xuzhou, Jiangsu Province, where the woman currently lives, have identified her by two names: Yang Qingxia, the name given to her by her husband Dong Zhimin, and Xiaohuamei, a nickname traced back to a small village in Yunnan Province, her alleged birthplace. Some social media posts have also referred to her as Li Ying, due to her strong resemblance to a girl by that name who went missing from Sichuan over two decades ago.

In a now-deleted post archived by CDT Chinese, one commenter expressed their frustration with the blatantly contradictory “information” contained in the four official statements:

First announcement: There was no trafficking.

Second announcement: No evidence of trafficking was found.

Third announcement: We cannot rule out trafficking.

Fourth announcement: Suspicion of illegal detention.

(Does the formula seem familiar?) [Chinese]

On Thursday, February 17, a terse fifth official statement was released, announcing that the investigation would now be led by the Jiangsu provincial government, rather than by county and local officials. The Weibo hashtag associated with the fifth announcement has been viewed 440 million times and garnered over 70,000 comments. (By comparison, the original hashtag about the woman in Xuzhou has received a staggering 3.6 billion views.) The most recent statement has been translated by CDT editors:

[#Investigative Team Formed to Investigate Fengxian Mother-of-Eight Incident#] 

The Jiangsu Provincial Party Committee and the Jiangsu provincial government have resolved to establish an investigative team to conduct a comprehensive investigation into the “Fengxian Mother-of-Eight Incident,” to thoroughly investigate the truth of the matter, and to severely punish any related illegal or criminal acts in accordance with the law. Those responsible will be held strictly accountable, and the results [of the investigation] will be announced to the public in a timely manner.  [Chinese]

The announcement was also covered by state media, which had all but ignored the story up until this point. An article from the Global Times briefly detailed some of the background to the case, recognized public dissatisfaction with the previous investigation, and struck a note of optimism about the newly announced investigative effort: 

The Thursday decision of a provincial-level investigation soon topped the hot search lists on Sina Weibo, with many welcoming the intervention by the provincial authorities in order to get [to the] truth of the case. 

Zhu Lijia, a professor of public management at the Chinese Academy of Governance, told the Global Times on Thursday that in addition to legal punishment for those responsible for Yang’s case, the provincial probe team will also inspect problems in local governance and make sure Yang’s case won’t be common. [Source]

There are now calls for the Jiangsu Provincial investigative team to release the names of its investigators to the public in order to ensure greater transparency and accountability. It is uncertain whether the team will adopt this “real-name” policy, or remain anonymous like the previous local-level investigative team.

Over the past three weeks, the dearth of official information on the case has inspired many ordinary netizens and citizen journalists to engage in a bit of sleuthing of their own, both online and off.

In a deleted report archived by CDT Chinese, former investigative journalists Tie Mu and Ma Sa visited Yagu Village, Yunnan Province, and interviewed Xiaohuamei’s surviving family members and neighbors, who were unable to confirm whether the woman in the viral video was the missing woman from their village. But another story, published by former journalists Li Hualiang and Su Weichu, claimed that several villagers did identify the woman in the Xuzhou video as Xiaohuamei. Other questions being repeatedly raised by netizens include the woman’s age, which has not yet been confirmed by authorities, and whether she was indeed the birth mother of all eight children. 

The mystery of the woman’s identity deepened on February 15, when former investigative journalist Deng Fei shared a photo of what appeared to be Yang Qingxia and Deng Zhimin’s marriage certificate on Weibo. Deng suggested that the woman in the marriage certificate photo bore little resemblance to the woman seen in the video. Caixin (Chinese)/Caixin Global (English), one of the only major Chinese media outlets covering the story in any depth, cited Deng Fei’s photo of the certificate and raised a number of questions about the investigation into the woman’s identity. In a response to Caixin, officials in Fengxian said that the marriage registration was completed “in violation of the rules” and that “investigations are being carried out.” Authorities have yet to confirm or deny the authenticity of the marriage certificate.

In an editorial published the day before the marriage certificate surfaced, Caixin Global highlighted the need for stricter laws against the trafficking of women and girls

The suffering of this woman, who had been abducted and abused, has crossed a line with the public and has brought shame to every honest Chinese citizen.

The incident is one of the reasons for all the recent attention paid to proposed amendments to the Law on the Protection of Women’s Rights and Interests. The revised draft of the law received more than 420,000 comments while it was available for public review from Dec. 24 to Jan. 22. That’s 100 times more than the number of comments about the revised draft of the Company Law over the same period.

The widespread interest in the revisions in part mirrors China’s weaknesses in protecting women’s rights, even though the law has been in effect for three decades. [Source]

Online sleuths have unearthed a trove of news reports, some dating back to 2011, about unidentified female corpses being discovered in and around Fengxian, prompting speculation that the women were abused and/or murdered:

@筷子手贰柒柒:The more I think about this, the more chilling it is. Odds are, they committed suicide after being abused.

@盼盼-的糖果:I suspect most were tortured to death. [Chinese]

绿毛水怪夜奔ing:These unfortunate women will probably always remain “Jane Does.”

@我知那天涯路窄方寸都为碍:Some escaped, some died, some went mad. [Chinese]

Fengxian county court records reveal numerous verdicts denying divorce petitions by women who were victims of human trafficking. A post by China Economic Weekly showing images of these verdicts had its comments section disabled by Weibo censors. In one case from 2014, a trafficked woman filed for divorce after living apart from her husband for more than five years, only to be denied by the court on the grounds of “maintaining family unity.” The verdict read:

The plaintiff, from Mianyang, Sichuan Province, was trafficked to Fengxian County in September 1984. She and a man surnamed Yin conducted a marriage ceremony in accordance with village customs, after which they began living together as a couple. The plaintiff has asked the court to grant divorce on the grounds that she and the defendant shared a weak marital bond. She alleged that they failed to cultivate an affectionate relationship, had been separated for more than five years, and that their relationship had irretrievably broken down.

[…] The plaintiff and the defendant began living together as a couple in 1984. Although they did not register for a marriage certificate, the two were in a de facto marriage. Both parties should cherish their long-standing relationship as husband and wife, support and keep one another company, and maintain family unity. [Chinese]

Despite the furor her story has aroused among regular citizens, few public figures have spoken up for the woman in Xuzhou, leading some netizens to express their disappointment with celebrities, societal elites, and those tasked with representing the interests of women:


  1. Celebrities: They could have at least reposted the official statement and said something to the effect of “I am saddened by this,” or “I will continue to pay attention.” After all, many celebrities are local or regional ambassadors for women and children.
  2. Public figures: They attract the spotlight, and their words and actions can easily generate press. But few have spoken up, aside from Director Li Yang who made his film “Blind Mountaincopyright-free.
  3. Businesspeople: It shouldn’t be a big deal for them to promise to pay for [the abused woman’s] medical treatment, or for tuition, or to cover the cost of searching for her relatives. But we haven’t seen anything of this sort yet.
  4. Lawyers: We have hundreds of thousands of lawyers. Only a handful have publicly commented on Yang *xia.
  5. Women’s Federation: No comment.

@好吃佬一号:But we haven’t given up on her.

@超爱喵喵哦:So, what’s the purpose of the Women’s Federation? Window dressing? Scarfing down food?

@余季塘:A prosperous China, but for whom? [Chinese]

The All-China Women’s Federation and its local chapters have come under scathing criticism for their silence and inaction on the matter. When the Xuzhou Women’s Federation posted the first two official statements about the woman’s case with no additional information or commentary, its Weibo account was flooded with angry comments. Likewise the All-China Women’s Federation, which simply shut down comments on its posts about the case.

Among the few public figures who have spoken up is prominent Chinese-American author Yan Geling. Her name became a sensitive word after the 63-year-old novelist and screenwriter called Xi Jinping a “human trafficker” during an interview last week. Earlier this month, Yan Geling’s poignant essay about the woman in Xuzhou went viral on Chinese social media, before being deleted by censors. CDT has translation a portion of the essay:

I, Yan Geling, have been a daughter and a soldier, as I have always been a writer. But today, I am only a mother. My neck is shackled to the other end of that iron chain. I can feel the frigid iron leaching the heat from my body. I can feel the hardness of that bowl of frozen gruel. And on the other end of that iron chain, for the mother with only two teeth in her mouth, her porridge is even harder than the concrete floor of her captivity. I can also hear the faint sounds of her children jostling and playing in another room, another world, where there is enough food and warmth, where there is joy and laughter. But no, the mother has no place in these things—and that is why I feel with her the wretched chill of her body under those thin clothes. [Chinese]

A search for Yan Geling’s name on Weibo now returns the message, “In accordance with relevant laws, regulations and policies, the search results cannot be displayed.” Her name has also been scrubbed from Douban, a popular online platform about books and films, and her Baidu Baike encyclopedia entry has been deleted.

Also being censored are open letters from students and alumni of several top universities demanding more accountability from authorities. In an open letter dated February 15, one hundred alumni from Peking University called on the Chinese Communist Party and the State Council to conduct further investigation into Yang’s identity and situation. The letter also called for revisions to China’s criminal law to impose harsher punishments on human traffickers. Mimi Lau of the South China Morning Post reported on the censorship of this letter and others like it:

“The tragic case and suffering of the Xuzhou woman has aroused widespread compassion, concern … as well as unsettling distress and anger,” said the [Peking University students’] letter, dated February 15.

Dozens of graduates of another elite institution, Tsinghua University, posted a similar petition on Twitter.

The petition was swiftly deleted after being posted on Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter, on Tuesday evening.

[…] Numerous photographs of people holding messages calling for a top-down investigation were also posted online, only to be wiped from mainland Chinese cyberspace soon afterwards. [Source]

At least two people who sought to confirm the woman’s safety were placed in detention. On February 4, Weibo users @我能抱起120斤 and @小梦姐姐小拳拳 drove hundreds of miles from their respective hometowns to Xuzhou, hoping to visit the woman in the psychiatric hospital where she is reportedly receiving treatment. According to Weibo posts shared by the duo, the hospital was heavily guarded by police, who turned them away, but they were able to deliver a bouquet of flowers. A week later, when the two went to the police on February 11 to report a stolen cell phone, they were summarily detained for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” a catch-all offense often used by Chinese police against human rights activists and dissidents. By Friday, it appeared that both activists had been released by the police, and were posting to their Weibo accounts once more.

A now-deleted viral Weibo post of unclear authorship mocked the government’s swift action against well-meaning activists, in contrast with its inability or unwillingness to protect abused women:

Some people say the government has failed to take any action on the case in Xuzhou. I must come to the government’s defense here: if it had indeed failed to take any action, then the woman would have been freed a long time ago, and the two volunteers wouldn’t have been arrested. [Chinese]

In December, China’s state-owned Xinhua News Agency named Xuzhou “China’s Happiest City” for 2021, a designation that has since prompted widespread mockery online.

Cindy Carter contributed to this post.


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