By Cheng Rui 成睿
NANJING, CHINA — 25 years after Li Yang’s award-winning film “Blind Mountain” exposed the problem of human trafficking in China, the tragic reality depicted in the film is once again rearing its ugly head. The Chinese public has learned about Yang Mouxia, a woman who was sold like chattel, chained with an iron collar, and forced to give birth to at least eight children over the course of two decades.
The female protagonist in “Blind Mountain” eventually escapes from captivity with the help of the police; in the international version, she also knifes her captor to death. In 2022, Yang Mouxia only escaped her imprisonment thanks to a terrifying video which went viral in late January 2022 as the Lunar New Year approached.
The video, shot by a local blogger, was originally an investigative piece seeking out a local eight-child family in Feng County, Xuzhou. But when the video pans to a corner of the house, the mother of the eight children is seen disheveled, slurring, and shivering in thin clothes in zero-degree weather. Most worrisome were the iron collar around her neck and the chains behind her, cold reminders to women and parents of girls in China that the line between freedom and enslavement can be thin as a strand of silk.
Who is she? Why was she in chains? Why are her teeth gone? How could she give birth to eight children amidst China’s family planning policies? As the video went viral and speculation fermented, netizens unanimously concluded that the mother had been trafficked and forced to give birth, and that the chains on her body were to prevent her from escaping.
After the video began to cause a major stir on the Internet, local authorities began to strictly control all kinds of media coverage on the issue. Yet public concern continued to rise, so the Feng County government released a statement on January 28 which claimed that the chained woman, Yang Mouxia, is in a legal marital relationship with Dong Moumin and that no trafficking occurred. The statement continued that Yang Mouxia often beat children and the elderly for no reason, so her husband had no choice but to put his wife in chains. The statement also said that Yang Mouxia was diagnosed with a mental illness by a medical institution.
The public was not satisfied with the official response. Even if Yang Mouxia suffered from a mental illness, Dong Moumin had no excuse to chain her up. And if Dong Moumin and Yang Mouxia are legally married, then why has the Family Planning Commission — the governmental body which is supposed to assure compliance with China’s family planning policies — not intervened in the process of Yang Mouxia giving birth to eight children?
Under public pressure, Feng County officials released a second statement on January 30. This updated statement contradicted the first one, saying that Yang Mouxia had been a beggar living on the streets when Dong Moumin’s father found her and took her in to stay under the care of his son, with whom she has lived ever since. The statement implied that the Dong family had done her a favor by taking in her, and that she was chained because she often smashed things at home.
The public received this statement right as the Spring Festival arrived, but the festive atmosphere did not dull the heat surrounding the incident. People still could not believe the explanation given in the official statement, and the topic got hundreds of millions of hits per day on Weibo. The Feng County government issued a third statement on February 7, saying that Yang Mouxia, formerly known as Xiao Huamei, is a native of Yunnan Province’s Fugong County. According to the statement, Xiao Huamei was taken to Jiangsu in the late 1990s to see a doctor but was lost during the trip before being taken in by Dong’s father.
At this point, due to the government’s extensive public opinion control and news blackout, netizens no longer believed the official story and tried to discover the chained woman’s origin through private investigations. Some independent journalists went into Fugong County to visit the woman’s hometown. Bloggers Wu Yi and Quan Mei drove to Feng County to speak out but were soon arrested on charges of provocation and nuisance. After they were released from the police station, they posted about the abuse they had suffered at the hands of the Feng County authorities, but those posts were soon blocked.
Netizens found photos of the chained woman’s marriage certificate and discovered that both the photo and the name — which was handwritten on the original certificate — differed from the woman shown in the video. At the same time, many netizens found that the woman’s features and age were similar to those of Li Ying, a girl who was lost many years ago.
A wave of discussion was set off on the internet, eventually drawing the attention of higher-level political leaders. The Jiangsu provincial government organized a special investigation team, and on February 23 the government released its fourth, and so far final, public notification on the situation. In this statement, the government finally admitted that the woman in chains had been abducted and sold.
After the fourth official statement was issued, the topic seemed to vanish from public overnight. All doubts about the official announcement were blocked on the Internet, the information gathered by netizens over the past month was no longer available on social media, and some bloggers who had released key exhibits (e.g., the marriage certificate) during the investigation were banned from posting. From late January, when the original video was released, to the end of February, when the last official statement was issued, there was almost no media coverage of the incident, especially in the official media. Only two outlets, Sohu and Caixin, conducted relatively in-depth news investigations. Even the 2007 film “Blind Mountain,” whose popularity was revived after this incident came to light, was removed from Chinese streaming platforms.
Today, Yang Mouxia, known colloquially as the chained woman, is living in a mental hospital in Xuzhou. The public still has not heard her voice from any source except for her barely-audible whispers in the original Douyin video. Dong Moumin was arrested, and some officials in Feng County were removed from their positions. Relevant messages can no longer be seen on social media platforms such as Weibo, Douyin, and WeChat. People who care about the chained woman are once again back in an information vacuum.
Netizens continue to speculate about the reason for the official censorship. Some people noticed that a large number of high-level bureaucrats in Feng County are surnamed Qu (渠), and the attending doctor of the psychiatric hospital where Yang Mouxia is now located is surnamed Qu. Qu is a very rare surname in China, and now many believe there are family ties between these bureaucrats. Is there a ruling family in Feng County that tacitly approves of abduction and even secretly manipulates it? There are also many rumors that high-ranking officials and prominent entrepreneurs were involved in various cases of female abduction and trafficking, but due to the lack of evidence, these speculations can not be confirmed.
The case of the chained women is by no means an isolated tragedy. The investigative report “Black Vortex,” published in 1988, documented a major trafficking case in Xuzhou that year. From August 1987 to January 1988, a 43-person criminal gang, in collusion with more than 40 cab drivers in Xuzhou, abducted more than 100 women from Yunnan, Guizhou, and Sichuan and sold them in Xuzhou. The youngest of these women was only 13 years old.
In the three decades since “Black Vortex” was released, trafficking has not disappeared; to this day, there are still a large number of trafficked women in Xuzhou’s rural areas, and people are not surprised to hear of purchased wives and imprisoned women. Even in the Yangtze River Delta, the most developed region in China, it is not uncommon for poor rural bachelors who are unable to afford the gift money for marrying a wife to buy or abduct a wife. The regularity of this behavior is why the chained woman’s fellow villagers did not call the police.
Of course, trafficking occurs not only in Xuzhou. In addition to organized crime like that which is depicted in “Black Vortex,” there are also many people who go to other parts of China to work, abduct local women, and bring them back home as wives. Some of the abducted women reluctantly accept the reality; others resist and try to escape.
Another layer of the harsh reality is the difference in how trafficked boys and girls are treated. Trafficked boys are often treated as treasures and family heirs by buyers’ families, while trafficked girls are generally reduced to fertility tools and lust-satisfaction machines. Even more appalling is the fact that in some poorer areas, there are sometimes multiple buyers who share a single woman.
Patriarchy and the preference for sons over daughters underpin the phenomenon of human trafficking in China, leading poor families to sell their daughters in exchange for some money and buyers’ families to treat the victim with contempt and abuse. An imbalance in the gender ratio has arisen as many families abandon or even kill female babies at birth. The gender imbalance has gradually led to higher and higher gift money requirements for men to marry a wife, and there are inevitably men who cannot afford to get married. As a result, there is a market for human trafficking as poor bachelors can get a wife at a low price. When the next generation is born, they continue to keep male babies and discard females, perpetuating a truly vicious cycle.
The Jiangsu provincial government took over a month to admit an obvious truth, changing the official explanation from legal marriage to being “taken in” and finally to trafficking. The public has been infuriated, not only by the chained woman’s situation in and of itself, but also by the official embargo on information and suppression of public opinion. According to an anonymous government official, government employees were asked to post pro-government comments under the government statements on social media and send screenshots for verification to their superiors. As the government ramped up its information suppression, the people became more angry and their speculations more negative.
According to one anonymous Chinese HNC student whose views reflected common concerns, “We can’t count on the government’s investigation report. Because back then, when registering the [woman’s] marriage, and when the government did the family planning screening, it was the same group of people who turned a blind eye to the trafficking and abuse. For those involved in trafficking, many of them may have even infiltrated the local government. They naturally won’t give the truth of the matter as they will protect each other as officials.”
From the poor mountainous areas in the west to the eastern coast, any woman could be a target of trafficking. Once trafficked, women are plunged into an abyss in which they are unable to save themselves or even ask for help. Their buyers, who are able to legally marry them through official channels, rape them and use their children to get more social assistance from the government. How easy is it to traffic a woman? Maybe it’s a smothering hammer; maybe it’s a little ecstasy mixed into her drink; maybe it’s taking advantage of her kindness to lure her to a deserted place.
“The Distance Between Us and Her” (Photo Credit: Weibo ID “TiAn咸鱼安”）
China has very strict laws against trafficking and has conducted numerous special operations against this crime, but the punishment is heavy only on sellers, not buyers. As long as the demand exists, there will always be people willing to take the risk for the high profits.
Some deputies to the National People’s Congress and members of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference have suggested that buying and selling human beings should have the same penalties. In 2021, the General Office of the State Council issued the “China Action Plan Against Human Trafficking (2021-2030),” which calls for harsher penalties against the “buyer’s market” for human trafficking and further refines the reporting obligations of health care workers and people registering for marriage. However, this plan has yet to be tested by time.
The fight against trafficking can’t just be conducted via legislation. Trafficking, especially female trafficking, has a deep and seemingly unshakeable social foundation. Without a fundamental change in mainstream attitudes, prohibition of trafficking will not be effective.
To this day, millions of netizens are still deeply concerned about the plight of the chained woman. Chinese women with happy lives are not bystanders; they are survivors who were fortunate enough to avoid infanticide and trafficking. Continued attention to the chained woman case not only gives some semblance of justice, or at least recognition, to this woman who has endured torture and pain for decades. More fundamentally, it’s about the hope that women everywhere will have a basic sense of dignity and the right to be free from fear.
Cheng Rui is reporting from Nanjing, China.