In its submission to the 85th session of U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which is to be held in Geneva on Friday, China boasted about its accomplishments in combating the trafficking of women and girls. But the story of the “Chained Woman” belies Beijing’s claims.
In late 2021, a story began circulating locally about a 50-year-old man named Dong Zhimin who was raising eight children in Xuzhou, in China’s Jiangsu Province. The news caught the attention of citizen-journalists. On January 27, 2022, a Chinese blogger visited Dong’s residence and then posted footage on the video-sharing platform Douyin. The video showed a woman – the mother of Dong’s eight children – with a chain around her neck in a dark, dilapidated hut. She was sitting on a tattered bed, dressed inadequately for the cold winter weather. There were a few moldy steamed buns scattered around. The woman had been reportedly locked up like this for more than 20 years and was forced to give birth to eight children in these inhumane living conditions.
The video was quickly spread by concerned netizens, who dubbed the woman the “Chained Woman.” The Chinese authorities repeatedly attempted to minimize the incident and redirect public attention, claiming that the Chained Woman was lawfully married to Dong with no human trafficking involved. As for the chain, the claim was that it was necessary to restrain the woman, who suffered from mental illness.
With growing appeals from angry Chinese citizens for accountability, the government finally had no choice but to respond. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Committee of Jiangsu Province launched an official investigation. The investigation established the Chained Woman as a victim of several human trafficking offenses.
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On April 7 of this year, a court sentenced Dong to nine years in jail for torture and unlawful confinement and five others to eight to 13 years’ imprisonment for human trafficking. Despite public scrutiny, however, Dong was not charged with a single count of rape – even when the situation was ripe for such charges.
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The identity of the Chained Woman, her real name, her background, and her current whereabouts remain unknown today.
Contrary to China’s claim in its submission to CEDAW that “there is no reprisal against cooperators with human rights treaty bodies,” the CCP arrested the human right activists and citizen journalists who went to the village to try to investigate the incident and help the miserable woman. Famous intellectuals have also been silenced for commenting on the matter.
The Chained Woman is by no means an isolated case. The draconian one-child policy implemented by the CCP from 1979 to 2015 caused a severe imbalance in the ratio of males and females in China. Many villagers bribed medical personnel to reveal the sex of their unborn child, and aborted the fetus when it was found to be a girl. Today men in China thus outnumber women by nearly 30 million. This has generated a huge demand among single men to “buy” wives, leading to the widespread trafficking of women in rural China.
In its submission to CEDAW, China asserted that it has legislated “to eliminate discrimination against women, protect women’s freedom of marriage, and achieve gender equality.” But in practice China has done little to address the problem. Documents from the verdicts database China Judgments Online show that courts across China have denied many petitions for divorce filed by trafficked women, even after they have endured years of domestic abuse at the hands of their “husband.”
The precise scope of China’s human trafficking problem is unknown since the Chinese government has not published comprehensive law enforcement statistics for five consecutive years, nor does it have an official record of human trafficking victims. However, one study uncovered that between 2017 and 2020, Chinese courts heard the cases of more than 1,250 women who were victims of trafficking, sold as spouses to men in different regions of China.
Regardless of the precise figures, it is clear that every year, many young girls are abducted by human traffickers and taken to China’s remote countryside, where they will endure a miserable existence, often for the remainder of their lives. The case of the Chained Woman is just one incident that happened to be uncovered and exposed before the news could be crushed by the heavy artillery fire of China’s censorship machine.
The fact that Chinese women who are trafficked and sold into marriage rarely have any feasible legal recourse can be partly attributed to the indolence, indifference, or moral cowardice of a handful of negligent judges. But the majority of the blame for the gross mishandling of these heartbreaking cases reflects, directly or indirectly, the autocratic CCP regime’s wanton disregard for human rights, especially the rights of women in China’s patriarchal society. It is clear that the CCP values “social stability” over serious actions to address social problems.