Sentencing in China’s ‘Chained Woman’ Trafficking Case Revives Online Outrage

A Chinese court on Friday sentenced six people to prison for human trafficking and abuse of a woman found chained to a wall in a shack last year, in a case that has provoked public outrage, dealt a blow to government credibility, and reopened debate about the status of women in China.

Many questions remain about the woman and her situation, in part because the government has offered conflicting explanations and censored many people raising doubts about the official narrative. In announcing the jail sentences, the authorities may have hoped to end the discussion.

But the punishments, ranging from eight to 13 years, only revived public fury. On Chinese social media, where multiple hashtags related to the case quickly topped the list of trending topics, commenters criticized them as too lenient, particularly the sentence of Dong Zhimin, the man who officials said had purchased the woman and fathered eight children with her. He was given nine years.

“Only nine years?” read many comments under a state media post about the case; some noted that the sentence was not even enough time to give birth to eight children. The comments were “liked” more than 10,000 times on Weibo, a Twitter-like platform, before being censored less than an hour later.

Users also demanded to know where the woman was and how she was doing. She has not been seen publicly in more than a year, since shortly after the video of her chained in the shack surfaced on social media.

The case, one of the most hotly discussed topics on Chinese social media in recent years, for many people, encapsulated the near-impossibility of openly discussing sensitive social issues. As the government’s account of the woman’s plight shifted, some Chinese journalists and amateur sleuths had tried to piece together their own explanations, only to be censored or physically sent away. Even usually nationalist voices had called on the government to offer a clearer explanation.

During other times of public dissatisfaction — after a videotaped gang beating of women last summer, or during coronavirus lockdowns — social media users have invoked the chained woman.

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“It has almost become a metaphor,” Ting Guo, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong who studies gender and politics, said of the woman’s case. “It reminds the ordinary people that we are in some way living under a chain of some sort.”

The video that brought the woman to the public’s attention was posted in January 2022 on Douyin, China’s version of TikTok, by a blogger in Xuzhou, a city in eastern Jiangsu Province.

In the footage, a middle-aged woman stands in a doorless brick shack, looking dazed, and wearing no coat despite the season. A metal chain around her neck shackles her to the wall. Eight children, along with a man who said he was their father, live in a house next door.

As the video spread online, the local authorities initially said that the woman, who they said was surnamed Yang, had been diagnosed with mental illness and was not a victim of human trafficking. They did not mention any investigation of the man, who they said was her husband.

Public anger and skepticism continued to mount, and officials issued four more versions of events.

In the final one, which followed a provincial-level investigation, the authorities said the woman’s real name was Xiaohuamei — little flower plum in Chinese — and that she had been smuggled to Jiangsu from southwest China in 1998. (Online doubts as to whether this is her true identity have also emerged and been censored.)

The provincial report said Xiaohuamei was sold twice within a year, the second time to the family of Mr. Dong, the man living next door in the video, and gave birth to eight children in the years after. She had shown signs of mental illness even before being trafficked; after she was discovered last year, she was diagnosed with schizophrenia and hospitalized, according to officials.

Mr. Dong was found guilty of abuse and illegal detention, according to a statement from a Xuzhou court that was shared by Chinese state media. (He was not charged with buying a trafficked woman, because the statute of limitations had lapsed, state media said.) The court said that he had tied Xiaohuamei up, often left her hungry and cold, denied her water and the use of electricity, and never sought treatment of her mental illness.

Five other people were sentenced for abduction and trafficking of women.

Soon after the sentences were announced, Xinhua, the state news agency, gave an account of an interview with a doctor at the hospital where the victim was being treated. The doctor said she had been undergoing psychological counseling and drug therapy, and that she could communicate simply with medical staff, according to Xinhua.

The case drew attention not only because of its horrific nature, but also because it highlighted several longstanding issues in Chinese society. Human trafficking became a widespread problem after the Chinese Communist Party’s one-child policy led families to abort female fetuses, causing a shortage of women and demand for brides. Mental illness has long been viewed as shameful, and treatment resources are limited.

And protections for women in China, including against sexual assault and domestic abuse, remain weak. Feminist activism has been a target for Beijing, which is wary of any independent organizing.

China has tried to crack down on human trafficking in recent years. But to many observers, the Xuzhou case has exposed holes in both enforcement and how the crime is understood.

On Friday, many online commenters, outraged about what they saw as too short a sentence, pointed out other cases that had prompted longer sentences: for example, a writer given more than 10 years in prison for writing and selling “perverted” gay erotic novels. They reminded officials that they had at first denied — twice — that the chained woman was a victim of trafficking.

In addition, officials had not mentioned other potential crimes against her, such as rape, said Huang Simin, a lawyer in mainland China who has worked on cases of gender violence. (The presiding judge in the case told Xinhua that Mr. Dong had “continuously caused her to become pregnant regardless of her physical condition.”)

Ms. Huang noted that the sentences were actually heavy compared to other trafficking cases in China. But that was because so many cases were never prosecuted or sentenced too lightly, without taking into consideration other related offenses, she said. She added that some women who have sought divorce after claiming they were trafficked have had their petitions rejected by the courts.

“Dong Zhimin’s more than 20 years of violence toward Xiaohuamei destroyed a person’s normal life, but he needs to pay the price for only nine years,” she said.

Some commenters also criticized the government’s focus on controlling the narrative around the chained-woman case, rather than addressing the root of the problem itself. Others asked about the whereabouts of two female activists who were detained after they tried to visit the woman last February.

Censorship efforts surrounding the case continued on Friday. Despite the main hashtag associated with the sentences being viewed more than 580 million times on Weibo a few hours after their announcement, it soon disappeared from the top trending list. And five hours after the sentences were announced, the only comments under the state broadcaster’s post about the sentences were those supportive of them.

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