On International Women’s Day on March 8, Chinese citizens are continuing to draw attention to the everyday issues of women’s rights and gender equality, as well as specific cases of criminal trafficking and abuse of women, despite heavy censorship of these topics online and off.
Sustained public outrage over viral videos of trafficked women being shackled, chained and/or caged has put pressure on the Chinese government, law enforcement, and legislators to take the problem of human trafficking more seriously. And although Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has somewhat eclipsed the discussion of these trafficking cases on Chinese social media, many feminists, citizen journalists, legal and mental health experts, and ordinary citizens have vowed—sometimes at great personal cost—to continue paying attention to such cases and exerting pressure on the government for better enforcement and stricter laws against trafficking.
On March 2, the Chinese Ministry of Public Security announced a strike-hard anti-trafficking campaign that promised to go deep into rural communities to ferret out cases of abduction and trafficking, to improve investigations and DNA testing, and to coordinate with women’s federations and government departments to provide welfare assistance, health services, and other support to the victims of trafficking. The campaign appears intended to assuage public anger about perceived official indifference to the trafficking problem, and to ensure “political security and social stability” ahead of the CCP’s 20th Party Congress later this year.
Yew Lun Tian of Reuters noted the timing of the announcement, which preceded the March 5 opening of the annual dual meeting of the National People’s Congress (NPC) and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC):
The Ministry of Public Security announced the crackdown ahead of Saturday’s opening of an annual session of the rubber-stamp parliament, at which at least seven delegates have expressed interest in raising the topic.
The operation will run until Dec. 31 in a politically sensitive year.
[…] The ministry, which oversees the police, said on the Weibo social media app that it would run checks on women and children lacking identity details who live on the streets, suffer mental illness or are intellectually or physically disabled.
The ministry vowed to “resolutely eradicate the breeding ground for abducting and trafficking” women and children, it added in Wednesday’s statement. [Source]
There are also a number of legislative proposals from NPC delegates, as reported by Agence France-Presse:
Fan Yun, an NPC representative, proposes an amendment to the criminal law that would punish buyers and traffickers equally — buyers currently face a maximum sentence of only three years in prison versus 10 years for traffickers.
The case has also highlighted a lack of mental health services in China, prompting NPC representative Sun Bin to call for a system that offers treatment and free drugs to rural patients. [Source]
Erika Na of South China Morning Post detailed some of the proposals to increase criminal penalties for trafficking:
In recent weeks, NPC and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) representatives have proposed legal amendments to take on trafficking.
Fan Yun, an NPC representative, proposed that buyers should face the same punishment as traffickers. Current criminal law dictates that buyers are liable for a three-year maximum jail term, while traffickers face penalties of five years to life, or even the death penalty.
Jiang Shengnan, a deputy to the NPC, proposed that anyone involved in detaining, coercing or abusing a victim should be considered complicit in the abduction, trafficking and buying. Anyone who hinders the rescue of human trafficking victims should also be prosecuted, Jiang said. [Source]
These proposals by law enforcement and legislators mark a step in the right direction, but many people, including legal scholars and mental health experts, are skeptical, given the prevalence of trafficking and the apparent ease with which women are sold and imprisoned in remote rural areas. The February 22 Jiangsu provincial investigation report noted that the woman in Xuzhou (identified in the report as Xiaohuamei, although proof of her identity was not made public) was trafficked multiple times, sold from one man to another, until she was eventually brought to Xuzhou in Jiangsu Province.
Sustained attention and pressure from the Chinese public after the first video surfaced in late January almost certainly forced the hand of local law enforcement, and prompted the initial investigation. Citizens fearing for the woman—a mother to eight children, who was seen shackled and chained in an outdoor shed—inundated the local police with reports about her plight. “I really hope you will handle this seriously,” one concerned citizen wrote in a text message to the police. “The situation is getting a lot of attention now, and sooner or later it’s going to blow up—I’m guessing that a lot more people are going to be reporting this to the police. We’re a society ruled by law, and the public isn’t going to stand for this sort of thing happening in our country.”
After initial reports by county investigators failed to provide answers about the case or assuage public anger, the investigation was taken over by a provincial investigative team, which conducted a speedy investigation and released a report of its findings, announcing that six individuals were being investigated for trafficking and that 17 local officials had been punished for misconduct or dereliction of duty. The limited information in the report, however, failed to allay doubts about the woman’s true identity, what she had suffered, or her current health and whereabouts.
The case inspired renewed public discussion of societal issues such as human trafficking, domestic abuse, treatment of the mentally ill, rural poverty and the rights of women. It also inspired activism. Frustrated by official media silence on the case, internet sleuths and citizen investigators stepped into the breach, sharing information, digging up facts, and conducting on-the-spot interviews. Many have since been punished, detained, or threatened, and almost all have had their social media accounts suspended or banned. Investigative reporters Tiemu and Massa, who traveled to Yunnan to interview Xiaohuamei’s family and neighbors, have been reprimanded and silenced. Wuyi and Quanmei, two women who traveled to Xuzhou and attempted to visit the woman in the hospital, were harassed by local police, detained, and mistreated during detention. Since their release, they have had their social media accounts blocked and there are reports, as yet unconfirmed, that Wuyi has been detained a second time. The father and uncle of Li Ying, a girl who disappeared in Sichuan many years ago (and who some suspect might be the woman seen in the Xuzhou video) have been harassed by public security for demanding DNA testing. The official harassment, censorship, and punishment of those who have spoken out for the woman in Xuzhou stands in stark contrast to recent government promises to take human trafficking more seriously. One commenter on Weibo’s Li Wenliang Wailing Wall lamented:
Doctor Li, I heard that comrades-in-arms of Li Ying’s father have been reprimanded and told not to speak any more. Tiemu and Massa, the reporters who went to investigate the case, seem to have also been reprimanded and silenced. Many parties involved with the case have had their social media accounts banned or suspended. Dr. Li, can we really not save the shackled woman? [Source]
Nor have high-profile public figures been immune from account bans. Famed novelist and screenwriter Yan Geling, who wrote a moving essay about the woman in Xuzhou and gave an interview critical of Chinese official complicity in the trafficking of women, has had her name search-blocked on Weibo, and links to her literary and film work have been scrubbed from informational sites such as Douban and Baidu Baike. CDT has archived her original essay in Chinese and translated a portion of it:
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. [Source]
Legendary transgender dancer, choreographer, actress and television hostess Jin Xing has also her Weibo account banned, following this post she made:
The most horrifying things in 2022 are: a Chinese woman with an iron shackle around her neck saying, “This world doesn’t want me!” and a crazy Russian man saying, “If you won’t let me continue being president, I don’t want this world!” (And judging by the color of the CCTV anchorwoman’s clothes, she supports Ukraine.) Stop the war and pray for peace! [Chinese]
The silencing and punishing of those who express concern for Xiaohuamei, if that is indeed her name, continues unabated. Last week, two young artists in Tianjin (@Jorsin- and @revos_one) created a mural on the side of an abandoned building in her honor. The red, white and black mural recreated Xiaohuamei’s facial features using the characters “自由,” meaning “freedom,” and featured the words she clearly spoke in one of the videos: “这世界不要俺了” (“This world doesn’t want me.”) Photos and videos of the mural were widely shared on social media before the mural was painted over by local authorities, leaving only a faint outline of Xiaohuamei’s face. Afterward, despite intense censorship, netizens continued to spread photos of the mural, with many commenting that its erasure simply proved the artists’ point about Xiaohuamei’s voice being silenced.
CDT Chinese has archived a now-deleted Weibo post by @五五五五五5个五, who knows the artists and also lives in Tianjin, that explains some of the background to the mural. The author notes that a video of the mural was deleted, @Jorsin-’s Weibo account has been banned, and that the two artists “are under a lot of pressure,” but promises to provide real-time updates if either of the artists is detained by the police. CDT has translated some of the comments below that post:
@九肆一柒：Although I think it is very likely that I will be asked in for a little “chat” with the police, this Women’s Day gift is truly meaningful. (disappointment)
[…] @我什么时候才能有双速17, replying to @屁股蓁: Yesterday, I received an unusual warning message about my account, just because I’d reposted a few things about the incident in Fengxian … chilling.
[…] @天南七：If “the world doesn’t want me,” what’s the use of all those fine slogans and grandiose narratives? If the motherland that I fought for has abandoned “me” and hunted down, one by one, the people (also women) who tried to convince me to remain in this world, then what on earth is the point of a government and country such as this, so full of self-aggrandizement and braggadocio?
[…] @123幻觉-：This is the most expensive chain in the world, for it cost the conscience of an entire nation. [Chinese]
Yet another case of a woman being imprisoned and abused has surfaced, this time of a caged woman in Yulin, Shaanxi Province. The now-deleted WeChat post, archived by CDT Chinese, documents the extreme mental and physical abuse inflicted on the woman by her husband, who posted videos about her mistreatment on the video-sharing platform Kuaishou. (The man’s account has now been deleted.) He reportedly even bragged to his Kuaishou followers that he had “built high walls with barbed wire around his home to prevent his wife from escaping [… and] stockpiled dynamite at his house to scare off people wishing to rescue the woman.” Caixin Global reporters Sun Liangzi, Feng Huamei, Wan An, and Cai Xuejiao covered the investigation that ensued:
Police in the city of Yulin said in a Tuesday statement that an investigation team was looking into allegations circulating online about the woman’s situation. A viral article on Chinese social media alleged that the woman had been mentally and physically abused by her husband, surnamed Li, speculating that she could be Wang Guohong who went missing from Datong county in Qinghai province in 2009.
According to the article, Li, who has 100,000 followers on short video platform Kuaishou, claimed during a livestreaming session that his daughter with the woman had been sold to a neighboring village. [Source]
There has also been robust legal debate on Chinese social media about the current state of trafficking laws, and the need for better enforcement and stricter punishments. The new PSB anti-trafficking push and NPC proposals are being covered by official media outlets, as well. A recent article by Caixin’s Zhou Dongxu highlights important research by Chinese experts in the field:
A review of studies and reports on human trafficking going back almost 40 years shows that Xuzhou in Jiangsu province, site of the notorious current case of the shackled mother of eight children, has long been known as a human trafficking center. In the 1980s, several market towns in Xuzhou and nearby Huaiyin even opened underground human trading markets where buyers could pick out abducted women like goods.
[…] Wang Qiliang, then a professor at the Law School of Yunnan University, conducted a field investigation of the phenomenon of trafficking of women in Ping County in southwest China’s Yunnan Province. He found that from 1995 to 2000, most of the trafficked women were from the Miao, Hani and Yao ethnic minorities, accounting for more than 80% of victims. In addition, there were about 1,500 women whose whereabouts were unknown and who could have been trafficked.
[…] All the analysis pointed to one conclusion: The seriousness of the trafficking of women in China is probably far more complicated than the official data has shown.
[…] Huang Zhongliang, Weng Wenguo and Zhai Binxu published an article in the Journal of the Public Security University in 2019 detailing the trajectories of abducted women. The researchers combed through 1,038 court verdicts and divided the source and inflow locations of victims into three types: rural areas, townships and cities. They found that rural areas account for 71.7% of sources and 91.5% of receiving locations — making clear that rural areas were predominantly the source and the destination of victims. [Source]
The trafficking cases have also brought renewed public attention to the treatment of people with mental disabilities and mental illness, and the fact that these individuals are at greater risk for abduction, trafficking and abuse. A 2019 study of 1038 cases of female abduction and trafficking, published in the Journal of the People’s Public Security University of China (Social Science Edition), found that more than more than one quarter of the trafficked women suffered from developmental disabilities or mental disorders such as schizophrenia, depression, or epilepsy.
Attorney Xiao Yan conducted a review of 400 trafficking-related legal judgments dating from 2014 to 2021 and found that approximately 18% of the victims suffered from a developmental disability or mental illness. Data from Chinese counter-trafficking groups indicates that developmentally disabled or mentally ill women are eight times more likely to be victims of abduction and trafficking than members of other groups.