When shocking videos emerged in China of a mother of eight chained by her neck to the wall of a shack, later suspected to be a victim of human trafficking, 56-year-old Zhang Xiuhong felt torn between two possibilities.
Zhang, whose teenage daughter went missing after leaving home for school 14 years ago, hoped for a moment that the woman in the videos was her long lost girl, Yao Li.
“If she was Yao Li, at least I had found her,” Zhang, who lives in the northern Chinese province of Hebei, told VICE World News. But she quickly changed her mind. “I didn’t want to see her living like this. How much pain she must have suffered.”
Zhang studied the face of the woman in the videos closely—she had the same square-shaped face as Yao, her only child.
But she was not the one. Zhang’s daughter would be 28 years old today. The chained woman is believed to be 44.
Like many parents with missing teenage daughters, Zhang suspects Yao had been abducted and sold either as a sex worker or a wife to a rural man away from home. A traditional preference for sons has led to sex-selective abortions and a heavily skewed sex ratio in China. In some rural places, the demand for brides has fueled trafficking businesses, as criminal gangs take women, often from even less developed areas, and sell them to bachelors unable to find local matches.
In late January, one victim became the face of such exploitation that spurred a national outcry. In TikTok-style videos filmed from a village in the eastern province of Jiangsu, the woman was seen shivering in a doorless shed, standing with a chain around her neck and a lock hanging below her chin. She appeared mentally impaired and struggled to talk. She had lost most of her teeth. A bowl of cold food was left on a dusty bed next to her.
The videos also revealed that the woman had given birth to seven sons and one daughter. In one clip, Dong Zhimin, the father of the children, casually said he had many children to earn respect from fellow villagers. He gave them auspicious names such as “gold mountain,” “bank,” “space travel,” and “Hong Kong.”
The abuse of the woman incensed millions across a country that has for the most part emerged from poverty and moved on from dated practices such as forced marriages. And it broke Zhang’s heart to think that her daughter could have met the same fate 14 years after she left home for school with a ponytail and never returned.
One afternoon in April 2008, several months before China hosted its first-ever Olympic Games in Beijing, Zhang received an unexpected phone call from her daughter’s school.
Zhang worked at a family-run restaurant near her home in suburban Beijing. She had said goodbye just an hour ago to her daughter, Yao, who headed out on a bicycle to go to school. It was Saturday, but like many students in China, Yao attended a weekend tutoring session at her junior high school to prepare for demanding exams.
But the teacher called and asked why her 14-year-old daughter was absent.
Anxious that Yao had gotten into an accident, Zhang and her husband searched every spot on the teenager’s way to school and asked every person who might have seen her. In the late afternoon, Zhang spotted Yao’s white sneaker—by the cornfield, next to a pile of trash and weeds. Her stomach lurched.
Some 14 years later, Zhang has held on to the shoe as the last sign of her daughter’s existence, and she holds out hope of seeing her again one day, like some have in tearful reunions frequently celebrated on Chinese television and even turned into hit movies.
But those reunions are also a reminder of a history of human trafficking once prevalent in large swathes of the country, a phenomenon sociologists say is not unique to China and which they attribute to a mix of economic and social factors. Official data on the trafficking of women are scarce in China. Globally, more than half of human trafficking victims were trafficked for sexual exploitation, according to a 2020 United Nations report. Of every 10 victims detected worldwide, five are adult women and two are girls.
And as China held its second Olympic Games earlier this year and projected itself as a prosperous and confident country, the videos of the chained woman shattered any notion that human trafficking was a thing of the past in the rising power. While the authorities were mindful of managing its global image as the spotlight fell on sporting spectacles in the Chinese capital, citizens openly questioned just how many trafficked Chinese women are subjected to inhumane abuse today and whether the authorities are doing enough, if anything, to address their plight. They have battled with internet censors to vent their anger and petition for change.
Police in China record a few thousand trafficking cases involving women and children every year. Chinese court records and anthropological studies showed female victims of human trafficking were typically brought from Vietnam, Myanmar, North Korea and China’s southwestern border to bachelors in the populous inland provinces, where the male-to-female ratios are highly disparate and economic development stagnated.
In exchange, the women’s parents receive cash payments and the often-false promise that their daughters would live a comfortable life with their future husbands. Many other victims were deceived with promises of job opportunities away from home.
But the official data likely only account for a small fraction of the trafficking, forced marriage, and sexual assault committed against women, as many who are living with violence, stigma, and poverty are unable to pursue a criminal investigation.
The chained woman in Feng county, Xuzhou city, Jiangsu province could be one of the numerous women who have been suffering in silence.
What is fueling the outcry is not only the inhumane treatment of the chained woman, but also the authorities’ years of negligence of the cruelty committed to her, and their perceived attempts to cover up the crime.
At first, the local government denied accusations of trafficking. In an official statement issued on Jan. 30, days after the videos went viral, Feng county said Dong’s father found the woman when she was begging on the streets in 1998. Dong started putting chains on her because she, supposedly afflicted with mental disorders, was smashing objects and beating up family members, government investigators said.
The official story changed later. In a third statement on Feb. 7, officials said the woman was someone nicknamed Xiaohuamei, or Little Flower Plum, from a remote village on the Chinese-Myanmar border populated by ethnic minorities. She allegedly got lost when a fellow villager took her to eastern China to get medical treatment.
These inconsistent explanations, coupled with internet censorship, did not ease public anger, as people continued pushing for an investigation into nationwide trafficking networks and a chance for the woman to speak for herself.
With most state-controlled media outlets silent on the controversy, former investigative journalists went to the woman’s hometown to look for her relatives. People who sympathized with the woman handed out flyers on the streets of Shanghai to advocate for her. Two young women embarked on a journey to visit her in hospital, a mission cheered on by tens of thousands of internet users, although police soon detained them and accused them of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” one of them wrote on the microblogging site Weibo after she was released.
Meanwhile, more evidence of the prevalent bride trade surfaced and began to garner public attention. The court of Feng county was found to have rejected at least two women’s requests to end their forced marriage and ordered them to treasure their families. A photo album documenting the lives of mentally ill women sold into sex slavery went viral.
People are again sharing the 2007 drama film Blind Mountain, which depicts the kidnapping and trafficking of a female university student. Its director, Li Yang, said people could share his film to support the campaign against trafficking and he wouldn’t pursue copyright charges.
“Women are so commonly viewed as commodities.”
A 32-year-old woman surnamed Ke told VICE World News that videos of the chained woman prompted her to pursue an investigation into the trafficking of her own mother, a school teacher who was also sold to Feng county in the ‘80s from the northwestern province of Shaanxi, after an agent told her family she would find a better job in a bigger city.
Ke said her mother was locked up by another household and gave birth to a daughter. She escaped in around 1988, before marrying Ke’s father. In 2008, Ke’s mother made a report to police, but it was dismissed due to a lack of evidence. She ended her life by jumping into a river the same year.
“When I saw that woman, I was reminded of my mother,” Ke said. Ke recently made a new report to police requesting an investigation. “I was thinking whether or not she was also treated like that, forced to have children, and prevented from having a life she had wanted.”
In its most recent report, released in late February, the government said DNA tests confirmed the chained woman is Little Flower Plum from Fugong county, Yunnan province. After one failed marriage, the woman, born in 1977, was lured to Jiangsu province in 1998 and sold three times to different men, before ending up in the shed. Three people, including the father of her eight children, have been arrested for trafficking, while 17 local officials were given penalties.
State media also released a video showing the woman receiving schizophrenia treatment in hospital. She lost her teeth due to severe gum infections, the hospital said, but internet users doubt this.
This week, the Chinese Ministry of Public Security said it would conduct a campaign against the trafficking of women and children and pay special attention to those with mental or physical disabilities.
The trafficking of women was common in imperial China before it came under crackdown in the early days of Communist Party rule, but the trade was revived under a thriving market economy following China’s economic reforms, according to researchers. For some villagers in the more developed eastern China, it is cheaper to buy a bride from remote mountains or neighboring countries than to pay dowry gifts to a local woman, and local cadres sometimes turn a blind eye.
“Women are so commonly viewed as commodities,” said Feng Yuan, a co-founder of Equality, a Beijing-based non-government group that assists victims of gender-based violence. “Buying and selling women has become prevalent because of this breeding ground.”
China’s skewed sex ratio at birth, itself a result of selective abortion of female fetuses, is often blamed for the bride trade. But activists say the root cause is the view that women are properties of their fathers, brothers, and husbands without their own free will. While trying to preserve stable families and boost birth rates, authorities are failing to protect women from trafficking, sexual violence, and other domestic abuse, the activists argue.
Zhou Xiaoxuan, a leading figure of China’s #MeToo movement, said while the chained woman’s mental illness, poverty and ethnic minority background had contributed to her extremely cruel exploitation, her fate—forced to produce offspring but stripped of freedom—reflects a struggle shared by the broader female population.
“The government wants women to enter a family and take up their sexual and childbearing duties, and they are not allowed to get out no matter what they experience in the meantime,” Zhou said. “Our demand is for the government to respect women’s basic human rights, so that they can survive in this society not just as a mother or a wife.”
Among child victims of trafficking, girls are much more likely than boys to be sold as spouses or sex workers after they were abducted or deceived with fraudulent job offers. The idea that missing girls would one day be found in a forced marriage like the chained woman has been a tormenting hope for their parents.
“We are suffering every single day,” said Xu Xiaoqin, whose 12-year-old daughter, Yang Ziyi, disappeared on her way to school in a mining town in the eastern province of Jiangxi in 2011. Yang should be 23 now.
“We are so scared our babies have been sold, married to someone, and forced to have children,” Xu said as she sobbed. “We dare not to even think about that. If we think that way, we would not be able to fall asleep at night.”
Zhang, the mother of the missing teenager Yao Li, moved to Beijing from the northeastern province of Heilongjiang, after she lost her job at a steel company amid massive layoffs at state factories in the ‘90s. She washed dishes and chopped ingredients at a restaurant run by her sister, while her husband took up gigs as a cleaner and security guard near the Beijing railway station.
Yao had been a quiet, obedient girl, Zhang recalled. She used to listen to songs by Taiwanese girl group S.H.E. on an MP3 player gifted by a relative. She loved roller skating but the family could not spare the money to get her a pair of skates—a decision Zhang now regrets. Yao dreamed of becoming a flight attendant, but she had never boarded a plane. “If I find Yao Li, I must take her onto a plane to check out the stewardess’ work,” the mother said.
Zhang had been a victim of domestic violence herself. After Yao disappeared, she said, the beating by her husband worsened. After he punched her in the face and wielded a meat cleaver at her about a year ago, Zhang moved out. Now she takes care of her own parents, while doing livestreams on social media to spread the word about Yao—the cheapest way to gather help.
Like other parents in search of their children online, Zhang repeats the same story over and over again during her daily livestream. “Good evening everyone, I’m looking for my only daughter,” Zhang, sitting in front of Yao’s photo, would explain every few minutes to viewers who just joined her channel. “My baby disappeared on her way to school in Beijing on an afternoon in 2008. She was 14 years old then.”VICE