The World of Chinese



- – ANITA HE (贺文文)

On January 26, vlogger “Xuzhou Brother Ikkyū” stumbled into a nightmare when he visited a small village in Fengxian county, 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 Fengxian county, 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 Jiaxian county, 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 maleprefer­ence 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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