‘Chained Woman’ Spurs Social Media Movement in China

The Chinese government faces a quandary: how to convince its people that what it said about a chained woman is true.

Since a short video of the woman chained in a doorless shack went viral in late January, the Chinese public has taken the matter into its own hands to find out who she is, whether she is a victim of human trafficking and why the apparently mentally ill woman had eight children.

The public thought it couldn’t trust a government that was not truthful about her identity and that was acquiescent when it came to forced marriages involving human trafficking.

On Chinese social media, users dug up a marriage certificate with a photo of a woman who was identified by the government as the chained woman but looked different from her. They dived into court documents that showed the region where she lived has a dark history of human trafficking. Long-retired investigative journalists traveled to a village deep in the mountains, knocking on each door, to verify the government’s claim that she grew up there.

“No social events have ever had the same effect on netizens like the one of the chained woman,” a user called “Xudiqiuziyuanku” wrote on the social media platform WeChat. “It forced us to become detectives, analysts, A.I. image in-painting technicians, data mining engineers and Sherlock Holmes.”

The Chinese public staged a rare online revolt because it felt that the government had failed to prioritize the personal safety of women, despite its claims that women “hold up half of the sky.”

It’s one of the biggest credibility challenges Beijing has faced in recent years. The chained woman became a symbol of injustice that brought together liberals as well as nationalistic digital warriors and apolitical moderates. Many of them are worried that the chain on her neck, in a literal and figurative sense, could fall on them or their loved ones.

The video of the chained woman has led to a kind of #MeToo movement on the Chinese internet, in which many people stepped forward to share stories of mothers, daughters, sisters and classmates who were abducted or simply disappeared.

“We’re not bystanders, but survivors,” goes a popular social media quip. “We’re not rescuing the chained woman. Instead, she’s rescuing us.”

The top three hashtags about the chained woman on the Twitter-like social media platform Weibo have accumulated more than 10 billion views, rivaling those about the Beijing Winter Olympics, which were heavily promoted by Weibo and official media outlets. And the topic continues to hold people’s attention online amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Even some of Beijing’s most devoted supporters expressed their sympathy toward the woman. They’re also worried that the poorly managed crisis could challenge the government’s authority. “Politically this is tragic,” Hu Xijin, the retired editor in chief of the official Global Times, wrote in February. “It’s a clear warning that the government’s credibility has been weakened significantly.”

The outpouring resembles the one in 2020 over the death of a Chinese doctor who was reprimanded by the police for sharing his knowledge about the coronavirus outbreak. In this highly censored society, it’s rare for ordinary Chinese to express critical views of the government. Many people are willing to speak up because they feel vulnerable — and guilty for not being aware of the problems already.

“If justice cannot be served in this case,” Zhao Jianfeng, an internet entrepreneur in Hangzhou, wrote on his WeChat timeline, “this place will fall into a very long and very dark night.”

“I felt that if this case isn’t resolved,” wrote a science writer with the Weibo handle @Luka, “happiness will be superficial and many things will be meaningless.”

Hundreds of graduates from some of China’s most prominent universities signed petitions, urging the central government to investigate the case.

Several bookstores set up sections for books that could help readers understand the case, including “Masculine Domination” by Pierre Bourdieu, “Men Explain Things to Me” by Rebecca Solnit and “Jane Doe January: My Twenty-Year Search for Truth and Justice” by Emily Winslow.

Lawyers, academics, former journalists and many bloggers helped give the Chinese public a crash course on human trafficking, forced marriage and demographic statistics. They resurfaced books, films, documentaries and news reports about abducted women.

The public learned that China’s legal system was set up to protect the men who paid for abducted women. Buying a woman could subject someone to up to three years of jail time, a prominent legal scholar said in a viral video, the same as the sentence for buying 20 frogs. When victims of human trafficking filed for divorce, the courts often ruled against them, saying that having stayed with the men sufficed as evidence of a good marriage.

They learned how easily women, even well-educated ones, could become victims of human trafficking.

Some of the unearthed stories, based on official media reports and court documents, hit home for the Chinese middle class: A graduate student from Shanghai was abducted on a field trip and sold to a hunched man. She was rescued after 71 days. A 13-year-old girl in Beijing was kidnapped on her way to school and sold to a man who constantly beat her up. She had a son at 15 and couldn’t escape until she turned 19. A young woman from Hangzhou was abducted on a business trip and spent the next two decades in a remote village. She was rescued after her son went to college and informed her parents.

But a vast majority of human trafficking victims came from the poorest corners in China. Few were rescued. It was nearly impossible for the women to escape because whole villages kept an eye on them. They would be beaten and locked up after being caught.

Court documents showed selling and reselling mentally ill women was common in some parts of China.

A 2020 verdict showed that a woman with schizophrenia in Hubei Province was sold three times in less than two years. A 2017 verdict showed that a woman with mental illness was sold to a man in Shandong Province and was beaten to death by him and his mother.

The more people learned about what victims of human trafficking had gone through, the more furious they felt about the government’s conflicting statements about the chained woman. They wanted to know who she was, how the government would prosecute the people responsible for her miserable conditions and what it would do to help many other women like her.

The chained woman, who is 44, has led a tragic life, according to a statement the Jiangsu provincial government issued Feb. 23, the fifth since late January.

Named Xiaohuamei (little flower plum), she grew up in a remote village in a southwestern province, Yunnan. She showed signs of mental illness after she was divorced at 20. In 1998, a couple smuggled her to eastern Jiangsu Province. She was sold twice within a year, the second time to the family of a man named Dong Zhimin.

She and Mr. Dong had a son in 1999, the statement said. Then between 2011 and 2020, she gave birth to seven other children. After she had the third child, her mental illness deteriorated. Since 2017, Mr. Dong had bound her with ropes or chained her neck when she was ill.

Xiaohuamei was diagnosed with schizophrenia and was hospitalized, the statement said.

Mr. Dong has been charged on suspicion of abusing a family member. The couple who smuggled her were charged with human trafficking, and 17 low-level local officials were disciplined.

But many people remain skeptical or have reservations about the statement. It was hard to trust it, they said, because there was only one source of information — the government — and journalists from relatively independent outlets were barred from investigating.

They were disappointed that Mr. Dong was charged only with abuse, instead of rape and false imprisonment, and that the woman was denied the opportunity to speak for herself. They took issue with many facts the government presented, and many still want to know how and when the woman was married and especially whether she’s the woman in the marriage certificate.

The government said Xiaohuamei didn’t resemble the woman in the marriage certificate because she was now older and had lost most of her teeth. But some social media users were doubtful. The changes seemed too drastic.

The public is most disappointed with the government’s lack of a serious plan to eradicate human trafficking and forced marriage. Instead, it seems to be more interested in taking back control of the narrative.

Two women who tried to visit the chained woman were detained and beaten by local police officers in February. Their posts and social media accounts were deleted. Some social media users who shared their posts said they had gotten calls from the police.

The bookstores were told to take down their special sections. Professors were warned not to discuss Xiaohuamei’s case with their students.

The government didn’t seem to care whether it was being truthful or not, many people said online. Government officials were promoting the version of truth they wanted the public to believe.

Some social media users shared a short video of compiled footage of Hollywood movies with different characters saying, “I don’t buy it.”

Liu Yi contributed research.

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