The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Plight of Chinese mother of eight chained outside in winter causes public outrage despite official explanations

Clothes dry outside houses in Jiangsu, the Chinese province where a mother was chained inside a shed. ( Noel Celis/AFP/Getty Images)

The video of a mother chained by the neck inside a shed outside her home in China’s Jiangsu province in the middle of winter has spurred a wave of public anger and suspicion directed at authorities for failing to protect vulnerable women.

Vague statements from the local government, the most recent on Tuesday, with claims about an investigation, have failed to quell the rising furor over a case that has broadened into a wider discussion of the treatment of women and of bride trafficking, especially in rural areas, as the proportion of women in society has declined.

The video, posted online late last month by a blogger visiting the family of eight children in Fengxian county to advertise charity efforts in rural areas, showed a woman standing in a corner of a small shed. She wore a thin sweater and was shackled with a metal brace locked around her neck and connected to a chain attached inside the hut. In the video, a young boy says he takes food to her every day.

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Appalled Internet users asked whether the woman — who appeared unable to communicate with the blogger, suggesting a degree of cognitive impairment — had been forced to have so many children or had been trafficked into her circumstances. Others noticed her loss of teeth and asked whether she was a victim of abuse.

Her husband was previously celebrated online for the enormous size of his family as China moved away from its restrictive child policy. Reports, however, never mentioned his wife.

Some Internet users called for boycotting products from Fengxian, where the video was taken. On Weibo, women posted photos of signs in support on their cars. One read: “The world has not abandoned you. Your sisters are coming!”

One woman wrote in a post that she tried to visit the mother, who local officials said had been sent to a hospital, but was stopped by police. Another wrote in marker on the outside of her car, urging people to pay attention to the case. “This relates to every single woman.”

Such activism is likely to worry authorities that have cracked down on feminist groups and a domestic #MeToo movement.

Discussion has turned into a broader debate about mistreatment of women, the ineffectiveness of local authorities in fighting trafficking, and poverty in rural areas. Bride trafficking — which includes Chinese women often from poor, rural areas, as well as women from Southeast Asia — is a problem in China after decades of family planning, combined with a traditional preference for boys, resulted in a shortage of women.

Under Chinese law, purchasing a trafficked woman or child carries a sentence of no more than three years in prison, less than the penalty for selling a few protected parakeets, one law professor observed.

“The video really was too frightening. Everyone is paying attention because we can imagine ourselves in this situation, and then it’s quite scary. Is it the case that every day we have to be afraid that we too may be trafficked?” said Liu Ruishuang, deputy director of the department of medical ethics and health law at Peking University.

Discussion has become so heated that social media platforms have begun to censor some comments and articles. The account of the blogger who first uploaded the video has been deleted from Douyin, while accounts of those who reposted it have been barred from publishing new content.

A popular WeChat account, Slave Society, urged the public not to forget the woman’s plight, overshadowed by news of Chinese American skier Eileen Gu’s Olympic gold medal win for China on Tuesday. The post disappeared after being shared widely.

“The systemic and structural shackles that Chinese women face have not changed. The vast majority of women have no chance of becoming Eileen Gu, but the tragedy of the woman in Fengxian can happen to anyone,” it said.

Clumsy attempts by local authorities to contain the outpouring of criticism have been met with derision and further suspicion. An initial statement from the Fengxian propaganda department misstated the woman’s surname and dismissed concerns. “There was no abduction and trafficking,” it said, adding that the woman suffered from a mental illness and was receiving medical treatment and “further assistance so that the family can enjoy a warm Lunar New Year.”

A second statement a few days later explained that the use of chains was to restrain the woman when she was mentally unstable, while a third statement clarified her name, Xiao Huamei, and said her family had sent her to Jiangsu province from Yunnan province with a fellow villager to find a husband. Once in Jiangsu, Xiao went missing. Her lost teeth, the officials said, were simply the result of periodontal disease.

The statements, Internet users said, ignored key details including whether the woman was a minor when she married or why she was restrained. “Are you saying that being chained up is not illegal?” one user wrote. When state broadcaster CCTV visited the hospital of Xiao, online commentators wondered whether the interviewed doctor was reading from a script.

“It has long been the case that unless there is a strong public outpouring, the protection of individual rights is not important,” Chinese writer Wei Zhou wrote on WeChat. “This is not just a case of ‘ignorance and backwardness,’ nor is it an abnormal event.”

Lyric Li in Seoul, and Vic Chiang and Pei-Lin Wu in Taipei, Taiwan, contributed to this report.

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