China: outrage as woman with 8 children found in chains

Since 28 January, uproar has swept across China after footage emerged that showed a woman chained up by the neck in Xuzhou, Jiangsu, having been forced to bear eight children. The video was originally made with the intention of capturing heartwarming acts of charity to the rural poor.

The woman in the video is very likely to have been a victim of human trafficking. While the local Feng County government maintains that “human trafficking does not exist” in the area, the public has refused to accept the state’s explanation in light of these revelations. The question of human trafficking and the oppression of women in capitalist China is once again in the spotlight.

What happened?

The series of videos in question were uploaded to TikTok before 28 January. Initially, the content creator had intended to record a philanthropist as they went to Dengji village, Xuzhou, Jiangsu in order to donate supplies to an impoverished family with eight children. As is known, the CCP regime has instituted draconian population control policies and it has severely restricted the right of women to give birth (the so-called ‘one-child policy’).

The fact, therefore, that a family had managed to have no less than eight children was itself notable, and it quickly attracted attention. The initial videos in the series did not feature the mother of the children, known as Yang. But when she did make an appearance, it sent shockwaves across Chinese society.

chained woman footage Image DouyinThe videos showed that Yang was chained by the neck and locked in a mud hut / Image: fair use

The videos showed that Yang was chained by the neck and locked in a mud hut. Despite the fact that the temperature was approaching zero degrees Celsius, Yang was only wearing a thin sweater. The conditions in the hut were grotesque and littered with garbage. Yang’s ‘family’ claimed that she had to be housed that way because she is mentally ill.

As videos of Yang’s conditions of life began to spread, there was outrage on the Chinese internet. Why had she been chained up in the first place? Even if she had a mental illness, she ought to have been sent to a hospital instead of being shackled in a hut. Many quickly concluded that she is a victim of human trafficking. In China, particularly during the 1980s and 1990s, large numbers of women were tricked or kidnapped by traffickers, who took them elsewhere as prisoners, where they have endured rape, forced marriage and forced childbirth at the hands of their captors. It was not until the 2010s that this wave of human trafficking started to subside. Nevertheless, to this day, many victims are still forced to live in the household of their captors.

From 28 January, the outcry over Yang’s situation was in full swing. The Feng County government hastily issued a lacklustre statement that did nothing to allay the fears of the public, claiming that “after an initial investigation… human trafficking does not exist here,” and that “Yang is mentally ill.”

The case had opened the unhealed wounds in many families, whose experiences of having their loved ones kidnapped and trafficked were shared online. Some even launched their own investigation to find out if Yang matches the descriptions of any reported missing persons. On 30 January, the Feng County government issued a more detailed report, yet still concluded that there was no sign of human trafficking in this case, although it failed to provide any convincing evidence to back up its conclusions.

After the second official statement, Yang was said to have been hospitalised for treatment, while the Dong family’s hut is being repaired. But at the same time, news of the incident began being suppressed online. The regime wishes to project an image that the entire issue has been neatly resolved, and that all is well, except for Yang herself. Yet the masses have continued to discuss this incident. They aren’t being fooled by anyone, and are continuing to call for a serious resolution of this incident.

The opening of the Beijing Winter Olympics failed to draw attention away from the case, and on 7 February, the state issued a third statement claiming that Yang was originally from the faraway Yunnan Province, and that she had previously gone by a different name, but she was brought to Jiangsu by her family member to treat her mental illness. This would appear to be an attempt to claim she was not trafficked, but these strange details only added to the suspicion around the situation. Some internet users even took it upon themselves to visit Dongji Village, only to be turned away by the police.

Finally, on 10 February, the Xuzhou City government announced through Weibo that Mr. Dong and two other individuals – one from Jiangsu and from Yunnan – are now in custody. Mr. Dong is being charged with ‘illegal detainment’ while the other suspects have been charged with human trafficking offences.

The criminal passivity and negligence of the state

This is still a developing situation. However, events have clearly exposed the eagerness of the government to sweep such incidents under the rug. Had it not been for the level of national attention on the case, it’s certain that the state would have failed to investigate it seriously.

In the first report on the incident, the state asserted that Yang was not a victim of human trafficking, because there was no matching record in the national missing person’s DNA database. And yet, after weeks of public pressure, the government now miraculously claims that this is a human trafficking case… after a DNA investigation!

Despite the fact that the state is finally prosecuting the suspects, it’s role in creating an environment that allowed Yang to fall into such a situation is not under investigation. For example, how was Yang, who we are told suffers from serious mental illness, able to officially marry Mr. Dong? Stranger still, Mr. Dong claimed that he met Yang while the latter was wandering the streets, and that he brought her home in order to take care of her. It is strange indeed that, under the Hukou regime in which every household is strictly monitored, that the local police were not alerted to the fact that Mr. Dong brought someone permanently into his household. This has led to much speculation online about corruption in the local bureaucracy and police force.

Yang’s own history of mental illness, at least as it has been presented by the Dong family and the state in earlier reports, also provoked many questions. It is not uncommon for victims of human trafficking to suffer from mental illness on account of their hellish conditions. One internet user, who is in contact with other residents of the village, claimed that when Yang arrived in the village, she seemed to be of sound mind, to be well-educated, and could even speak English.

Meanwhile, the report admitted that Yang has been chained by the neck for years, and that most of her teeth had fallen out. The state’s second report claims that the Dong family chained her up on account of her “unstable behaviour”, and in the third report explains that Yang’s teeth fell out due to severe gum disease. But basing themselves on the experiences of other victims of human trafficking, many have claimed that it is much more likely that Yang attempted to escape and was beaten and shackled by her captors. Now the state has admitted that there is suspicion of human trafficking, questions are being posed as to why clear signs of physical violence by Yang’s captors had been so lightly explained away.

An isolated case?

Were the horrifying and barbaric conditions in which Yang was being held an isolated case? Of course not. The status of women in China – which was significantly elevated after the 1949 revolution – has been severely undermined since the CCP bureaucracy embarked upon its long march to capitalism. Networks of nepotism, organised prostitution, and a host of other reactionary institutions and cultural trends that serve to oppress women made a comeback. The social status of women has once more been denigrated.

In the course of capitalist restoration, human trafficking became a highly profitable business. Many women from rural and impoverished areas were tricked from their native villages in groups, in order to be sold off elsewhere. As early as 1989, a study published by the Zhejiang Literature and Arts Publisher entitled Ancient Evil – a Report on Women Trafficking (《古老的罪恶—拐卖妇女纪实》) indicated that between 1986 to 1989, over 480,000 women were trafficked to and sold in Xuzhou, Jiangsu.

return to captors Image Weibo The CCP bureaucracy largely plays the role of condoning these atrocities, and has even stepped in to blame the victims / Image: Weibo

Even by the 2000s, human trafficking continued to be a regular occurrence. Women who were kidnapped and sold into conditions where they face violence and rape, often find it difficult to escape. While traffickers tend to prey on women with mental or physical disabilities, there have been many victims who were otherwise healthy, and many who had ever received good educations. Victims would often be sent to other rural areas, regions that border other countries, or areas where the local government is known to be particularly corrupt.

According to a statistical report issued by People’s University’s School of Journalism Public Account RUC, most of the victims of trafficking were sold for less than 10,000 RMB (around $1,570 USD). This illustrates how the lives of women have literally been ‘priced’ at dirt cheap levels since the restoration of capitalism. Indeed, under this system, human life in general has become little more than fodder for the profit-making of the ruling class.

The Yang incident has inspired widespread discussion of other people’s experiences with human trafficking. Some related how women they knew personally, and even their own mothers, had been kidnapped and trafficked. Some shared stories about how they had narrowly avoided falling victim to traffickers. These kidnappings could happen anywhere: at the station, in the streets, even outside the school gates. Nowhere in China was spared from the scourge of human trafficking at its height, which shows the depth of this horror.

Even when some victims were fortunate enough to have been found by the police or by their family, they would often face fierce resistance from the captors and their cohorts in the same village.

The 2007 film, Blind Mountain, and the 2009 film, The Story of an Abducted Woman, vividly portrayed these experiences. Blind Mountain told the story of a female university student who was abducted but managed to escape. The Story of an Abducted Woman portrayed a similar situation, but in the latter case, the victim ended up being forced to become an elementary school teacher in the place she was kept. This kind of ‘adaptation’ of victims to their captors and the environment in which they are imprisoned has actually been reported on with scandalous approval by the media.

For instance, the individual on which the main character in The Story of an Abducted Woman was based upon – the real-life trafficking victim, Gao Yanmin – was actually nominated as one of the “Top 10 Most Inspiring Hebei People of the Year”! How Gao’s tragic and horrifying saga is in any way “inspiring” is anyone’s guess. Had her case not been discovered by the wider public, she would not have received any attention at all. And whilst being the subject of national attention for a time, her life has not changed at all since. She lives just as those victims who were not discovered. Their interests continue to be neglected.

Indeed, cases in which the trafficking victims are found but nothing is done to help them are common across the country. The CCP bureaucracy largely plays the role of condoning these atrocities, and has even stepped in to blame the victims. A 2015 People’s Daily article reported on a “motherless village” in Shaoyang, Hunan Province, where over 100 children were left behind by mothers who ran away or remarried. The People’s Daily called on these “irresponsible mothers” to return and take care of their children. It turned out that most of these mothers were victims of trafficking who had managed to escape.

Under the reactionary capitalist regime of the CCP, such tragedies will never receive justice. Those children, and the victimised women who are their mothers, are almost wholly deprived of ‘rights’. The children are likely to be left without care, unable to receive education and a proper upbringing, while many of the victims who managed to escape were either sent back to those who captured them, or were even sold a second time.

This unspeakable barbarity faced by women and the poor is the product of the restoration of capitalism, led by the CCP. A thousand-and-one forms of oppression have made their comeback because capitalism is a system that serves a few rulers who enrich themselves from the exploitation of the majority. Only by overthrowing capitalism in China and establishing a genuine socialist democracy will there be any hope of permanently eradicating these evils.