The Xuzhou mother-of-eight who appeared in a viral video shackled and chained in a freezing shed now has a name and a hometown … or does she? On Thursday, the authorities in Xuzhou, Jiangsu Province, reported that the woman could be a victim of human trafficking, a finding that flatly contradicted earlier official reports.
In two separate statements released on Tuesday and Thursday of this week, the authorities said that they had identified the woman as “Xiaohuamei” (“Little Plum Blossom”) and traced her origin to a village in Yunnan Province. Previous official statements from late January had identified the woman as Yang *xia [the asterisk represents the middle character of her name, elided to protect her identity], and said that she was legally married to a man named Dong *min, with whom she had eight children. The earlier statements also insisted that “no human trafficking was involved” and that the woman lived apart from her husband and children because she was mentally ill and violent, claims that were met with derision online.
The most recent statement confirmed that Xiaohuamei’s husband is under investigation for false imprisonment, and that two other people connected to the case are under investigation for human trafficking.
The Tuesday statement contained more detail about Xiaohuamei’s disappearance from her hometown, and how she ended up in a village over 2,000 miles away. According to the statement, Xiaohuamei’s relatives in Yunnan had not heard from her since 1996, when a fellow villager took her to Jiangsu Province for medical treatment. Xiaohuamei first got married in 1994 to a man in Yunnan Province, and began to display “abnormal behavior” after she returned home after her divorce in 1996. Her mother reportedly asked a fellow villager, a woman surnamed Sang, to take Xiaohuamei to Jiangsu for psychological treatment and help “find a good family to marry her off to.” Shortly after arriving in Jiangsu, Xiaohuamei went missing, and Sang never reported her disappearance to the police. According to the statement, Xiaohuamei’s parents are deceased.
Despite its inclusion of new details, the Tuesday statement was still too vague and contradictory to quell public furor over the woman’s treatment. Many who had been following the story on social media demanded that the authorities carry out a proper investigation to determine whether the woman was a victim of abuse and human trafficking, a practice that China has attempted to crack down on in recent decades. The following netizen comments about the Tuesday statement were compiled and translated by CDT editors:
@阁楼上的安妮：// @徐州发布 In response to your statement, please continue with the investigation and provide more facts. If this was meant to be an investigative report, please be advised that more investigation is needed.
1. Xiaohuamei? Is her full name “Xiaohuamei” or is it simply a nickname? When was she born, and to whom?
2. Regarding her first marriage, could you confirm who her husband was? Would he be able to clarify when she began to suffer from mental health issues? When did they divorce? Did they go to court? Did they have any children?
3. Even if her name is indeed Xiaohuamei and her parents have passed away, does she have siblings? Can their DNA be compared with hers?
4. If it’s true that she went missing and that neither her parents nor the police were alerted, then how did you find this Sang woman? Is Sang a human trafficker? Is Sang in police custody? Is she believable?
5. If Dong found “Xiaohuamei” by chance, then how did you find Sang?
6. In the past 24 years, Dong *min and a mentally-ill woman gave birth to eight sons [Editor’s note: They have one daughter and seven sons.] without using contraception. Did they ever kill or sell their baby daughters?
The Xuzhou Fengxian County government does not realize the seriousness of the matter. The civil servant who wrote this statement failed to get the facts and the logic straight. The statement was incoherent and poorly written, and does nothing to resolve the serious public opinion crisis that Fengxian County faces. I suggest that the writer be punished for their incompetence. Please investigate further and have someone else rewrite the report.
@小菠菜拌粉条儿：Three statements tell three different stories. Each one of them is an “authoritative report.” Which one should we believe?
@Timetraveler077：Eileen Gu is a hero enjoying her moment in the sun, while the Fengxian woman is ignored, tossed in a dark corner like a piece of garbage. Everyone wants to chase the sun. It’s only natural for people to pursue beautiful things. But don’t forget that everyone has the right to breathe freely in the sunlight. It’s 2022 and there is a woman shackled by her neck, chained up by a man who forced her to give birth to eight children! And the man suffers no consequences. This isn’t normal. This shouldn’t be something that is acceptable in our society! [Chinese]
In China, selling women for marriage has long been outlawed, and convicted traffickers can face the death penalty. However, paying for a wife was not criminalized until 2015, and even now carries a maximum sentence of three years in prison.
Some legal experts maintain that showing leniency to bride-buyers may encourage them to return women to their homes, an argument that Luo Xiang, a professor of criminal law at the China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing, disagrees with. In an essay that went viral on Chinese social media, Luo suggests imposing harsher penalties for purchasing a bride. Under current Chinese law, both buyers and sellers of illegal firearms and counterfeit currency are subject to the same punishment. Luo argues that buyers and sellers of brides should be treated the same:
In the current state of justice, buying an endangered animal for the purpose of releasing it or improving its welfare likely does not constitute grounds for leniency. Why should buying a bride with the intent of loving her for the rest of her life be treated any differently?
[…] When it comes to governance, criminal law is the last resort. Very few problems can be resolved by criminal law. It is impractical to hope that imposing harsher sentences on individual criminals will put a stop to the problem of buying and selling women and children. However, criminal law still has to do something.
[…] The fact that we cannot draw a perfect circle does not mean that it does not exist. We should strive for perfection even though we may never achieve it. [Chinese]
Xiaohuamei’s husband Dong *min is currently under investigation for false imprisonment, a crime punishable by up to three years in prison. Many netizens believe that he should be charged with more serious crimes. Others, skeptical of the official conclusions regarding Xiaohuamei’s identity, pushed for further investigation. CDT has collected and translated comments made in response to the fourth and most recent official statement on the case:
创造我是谁2013：Why is Dong only being investigated for false imprisonment? How about rape and torture?
@玲玲Peter和四只猫：How old is Xiaohuamei? How can she give birth every year at the age of 52 under such horrendous living conditions? Does illegally imprisoning a mentally-ill person and having sex with her constitute rape? Was she being abused when she lost her teeth, and when she was chained by her neck in a freezing shed with no door, and when she ate cold meals? Who approved her fake household registration, her national ID, her children’s birth permits and household registrations? Should they be held accountable? Please answer. Thank you.
@____是肥鸽鸽鸽鸽啊：Oh, you finally came to this conclusion, but only after everyone started demanding DNA testing. Whoever Xiaohuamei really is, she is anyone but Li Ying, right? [Chinese]
Since the story broke, many social media users have been sharing screenshots comparing Xiaohuamei’s photo to that of Li Ying, a young woman who went missing from Sichuan Province more than 20 years ago. Some netizens believe that Xiaohuamei could be Li Ying, due to their uncanny resemblance. According to Chinese-language media outlet The Paper, police told Li’s mother that her missing daughter was not a DNA match to Xiaohuamei. There is also a letter circulating online, purportedly written by Li’s uncle Li Dacheng, demanding that police collect new samples from the two families, retest them, and make the results public.
Social media censorship of the story has been heavy-handed at each step of the way. On February 8, CDT Chinese reported that the hashtag #官方通报徐州丰县生育八孩女子情况# (#Official statement on the situation of the mother-of-eight in Xuzhou, Fengxian County#) was taken off of the Weibo hot topic list, a common censorship method used to tamp down a story. By the time it was downgraded, the hashtag had garnered more than 2.4 billion views.
Looking for a place to vent their displeasure about the censorship and the tepid official response to the case, snarky netizens flooded the comments section of a months-old post in which Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Zhao Lijian criticized human trafficking in the United States. Some of the comments are translated below:
@我是精神病你不要挑战我：Now I can get a green card without having to leave my country.
@河野尾：Xuzhou, Fengxian, is in which American state?
@矫情的霓霓：The state of Xuxas.
@安提戈涅_WhiteBlade：So this is how we catch up with the West.
@此人已死有事烧纸_：Strike hard against America while turning a blind eye to China. Keep reminding Americans to pay attention to these various social issues. You truly are a contemporary American Lu Xun.
@苦闷月亮：You’re absolutely right. Looks like you are well aware that “human trafficking is closely tied to deliberate disregard by the government.” [Chinese]
Some netizens have compared Xiaohuamei’s plight to that of Bai Xuemei, the protagonist of the trafficking-themed “Blind Mountain,” a 2007 film directed by Li Yang. Li has been praised for his recent decision to make the film copyright-free to encourage public discussion of the issue.
A smaller number of activists have pushed for accountability via offline actions. 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 Xiaohuamei 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. The activists also suffered retaliation: the former had their Douyin account shut down after posting videos of their activism, and the latter’s Weibo account was suspended.
In addition to anger and skepticism directed at the authorities, Chinese citizens have expressed deep empathy with Xiaohuamei. CDT has translated a poem by an anonymous author that was widely shared on Weibo and WeChat:
They say you were lost
But you were clearly chained up
Wearing clothes too thin for winter
They say you’re a mother of eight
That there are no raped wives or mothers in this world
That you’re just an abandoned daughter
Yagu Village, Fugong County, Yunnan Province
To Huankou Town, Xuzhou City, Jiangsu Province
You wandered from abyss to abyss
They robbed you of your name, your intellect, your speech
They say those who suffer are fools, and those who resist are mad
You were the victim
The rebel who never quit resisting
Anyone who doesn’t admit that
Is covering up the crime
Do you know about Li Ying,
Another girl who disappeared?
We thought she might be you
But it turned out to be
Two separate tragedies
There are thousands of similar tragedies
In Feng County, in Xuzhou, in the whole country
Women abandoned, bought and sold, raped
But then they say
Oh, they’re lawfully wed wives and mothers
You walked into the void and never escaped
You must be exhausted
It’s your time to rest
Let us take up the fighting
And carry on the battle
We must liquidate this phase of history
This complicity in women being abandoned and abducted
Bought and sold as wives and mothers
It’s a war we can’t retreat from
January 28th, the day you were seen
Commemorates the history of women’s suffering in this Republic
We need to take back what was done to you
We need to say we are not by nature madwomen or fools
We need to identify murderers within the patriarchy
We need to reclaim our own destiny as women
We cannot help but cry out your name
Your name is our history [Chinese]
Hugo-award-winning author Hao Jingfang recently weighed in with an essay about the broader issues behind the Xiaohuamei case, and the national female awakening that it portends. The author of “Folding Beijing,” Hao Jingfang also holds a Ph.D. in economics and has conducted extensive research into economic inequality. In this CDT-translated excerpt from her essay, she addresses a well-worn economic argument often used to defend the practice of “buying wives”:
Some internet discourse seems deliberately obscurantist, designed to muddy the waters of public opinion. One formulation goes thus: “But the poor also have the desire to marry and have children. If they are not allowed to purchase wives, what are they to do?” This essentially hijacks the discussion by shifting the topic from the violation of women to the issue of income inequality. Were I to employ the same logic to refute it, I could say: “But poor women also have the desire to choose their own spouses. And if impoverished women wish not to marry, they should also have that choice.”
The fundamental difference between these contrasting arguments lies in whether one views the issue from the female perspective or not. It has nothing to do with rich versus poor. And just because some elderly bachelor desires children, why should others be forced to satisfy his desire? [Chinese]
Xiaohuamei is not the only abused or trafficked woman in Fengxian to make the news recently. In a now-deleted video posted to TikTok’s Chinese counterpart Douyin, another woman in the same county is seen lying on a dirt floor. She appears to be confused and incoherent. Xiao Hui and Li Hang, reporting for Chinese media outlet Caixin, identified her as Zhong *xian, a mother of two, one of whom is now an adult. The woman’s husband allegedly bought her for 1000 yuan (approximately $150), and paid a fine of the same amount to the village authorities. According to the vlogger who posted the video, the woman has been lying on the floor for 20 years. The Chinese version of the Caixin report has since been deleted, although the English version remains on the site.
Additional translation by Cindy Carter.