When a video of a woman chained to a wall went viral in China, it ignited a battle for the truth between the people and the state
6 June 2022
1 August 2022
Why this story?
It’s hard to ignore the imagery – and the symbolism – of a woman in chains in the 21st Century. When the video of a woman in rural China chained by the neck went viral around the world, it kicked off a campaign by citizen journalists to find out who she was. When their investigations brought them into conflict with local officials, it seemed like the people won the battle – and forced the government to listen to them. We wanted to investigate how true that was, and uncovered a new story about democracy in modern China. Claudia Williams, producer
Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, narrating: It’s freezing across most of China in January – it’s the depths of winter. And this year, 2022, there’s snow on the ground in Beijing.
It’s as though the weather is complying to set the perfect scene, because Beijing is getting ready to host the Winter Olympics.
Fireworks, laser shows and ice displays are in the works. Robots are being programmed to make and deliver lunch to the world’s sports reporters.
Everything is highly stage-managed.
Lizzi Lee: So the winter Olympics was definitely the number one thing on people’s mind. It’s this moment of glory for China in many ways.
Poppy, narrating: But with a week to go… things are tense.
Apart from Vladimir Putin, most major Western leaders are boycotting the Games.
Lizzi Lee: China sort of brands the winter Olympics as this moment of glory… while China’s human rights records are under scrutiny internationally, especially in the United States and also in western countries, including the UK.
Poppy, narrating: Plus the Chinese Communist Party is trying to wipe away the international concern for Peng Shuai, a tennis player who accused a former senior Party leader of sexual abuse… and then went missing in November.
Lizzi Lee: So it’s a very delicate time in terms of the national narrative.
Poppy, narrating: So far the CCP – China’s Communist Party – is styling it out. And they’ve got everything under control.
Until a new story explodes on China’s social media. One that changes the mood for many from celebration to shock and outrage.
Dong Zhimin and his family live 400 miles south of Beijing, in a remote village in Feng County.
He’s a middle aged father of eight: seven boys, and a girl.
Abigail: He had a video broadcast channel and he constantly posts videos of his eight children. And he had all the good luck – that’s what people thought.
Poppy, narrating: In any country they’d be unusual, a modern-day brady bunch… but in China, a country with a one-child policy until six years ago… they’re even more of a spectacle.
The father has a growing douyin or tiktok following
Abigail: And he was given quite a lot of money to support his family, and his children were fed with donations from all over the place. His children had tons of toys and clothes, shoes.
Poppy, narrating: Eight is a lucky number in China. And this famous family has become a destination for local tourists and social media influencers.
Abigail: And that was his past life… until the video came out.
Poppy, narrating: Just a week before the Olympics… a local vlogger goes to visit the family to report on this “good news” story.
I’m watching his video now. One of Dong Zhimin’s sons tells the vlogger that he takes food each day to his mum. The vlogger walks over to a ramshackle outhouse…
Clip: Original video of vlogger and the chained woman runs underneath.
Poppy, narrating: He’s calling out hello, are you cold?
A dishevelled woman is standing in the corner of a doorless hut.
It’s around zero degrees but she’s wearing a thin pink jumper.
Clip: Original video of vlogger and the chained woman runs underneath.
She’s shivering… and from her face I can see she looks scared, and cold and alone.
As the camera gets closer… I can see something around her neck.
A padlock and a chain. She’s standing so very still because she’s chained to the wall.
This is Dong Zhimin’s wife. The mother of his eight children.
The vlogger runs to a room crammed with childrens clothes donated by Dong Zhimin’s tiktok followers and searches for a jacket big enough to keep her warm.
He finds one that will do…
Clip: Original video of vlogger and the chained woman runs underneath. You can hear both of them speaking.
Poppy, narrating: The woman speaks in a strong accent that’s hard for the vlogger – and for me – to understand. She seems to be asking him for help moving the chain as he puts the jacket on her.
Later, he posts this video online, and it goes viral.
People are demanding answers: who is this woman? Why is she chained to a wall? And why does nobody in her village seem to care?
As the outrage builds, digital sleuths take matters into their own hands. Quickly a theory spreads.
A worry, that the chained woman is being kept against her will, and that she’s a victim of bride trafficking (a practice with a long history in China).
The local officials disagree. They say she hasn’t been trafficked.
But – it’s too late.
A “metoo” movement about the abduction and selling of women into marriage takes off across the country.
It is the last thing the CCP needs right now. Just days before their big moment – the Olympic opening ceremony…
I’m Poppy Sebag-Montefiore and in this episode of The Slow Newcast, from Tortoise, I’m investigating the battle for truth about China’s chained woman. And I’m asking… who won: the people or the state?
Lizzi Lee: In modern society you don’t see a chain or a dog’s collar anymore. To see this chain on a woman’s neck… it’s just so revolting.
Poppy, narrating: Lizzi Lee is a video journalist based in New York. She watched the video of the chained woman spread online.
To date the chained woman hashtag has been viewed over 10 billion times. The concern for her united people of all ages and sexes and politics.
Poppy: How, how was it, how did people respond? What were the kind of responses that you saw?
Lizzi Lee: Right. So I think people primarily responded with outrage. What is, what is actually going on there? And people shared the videos on different platforms asking for an answer.
Poppy, narrating: Abigail was one of those people. You heard from her earlier – she’s an author based outside China, but heavily involved in Chinese digital life.
We’re giving her a pseudonym to protect her identity.
Abigail: We wanted her to be rescued and demand the government to interfere and send her to a proper hospital and give her proper treatment.
Poppy, narrating: The video revealed a glimpse of rural life and poverty that many urban Chinese citizens don’t normally see. And people outside China rarely see at all.
Over the past eight years there’s been a crackdown on independent and investigative reporting in China. And in the last couple of years, an emphasis in the news on what’s known as positive energy stories…
Abigail: The gap between the city and the rural area is so huge. And to the point we kind of forget, how is the real situation there, in the rural area. In the city you see all these high rises and big cars and beautiful apartments and fashion stuff, you know. And all of a sudden this image came out – everything just seemed so incoherent. It’s really hard to swallow.
Poppy, narrating: The idea of a woman in chains undermined the national narrative of development… and the image of modern China that the CCP presents to the world (and its own people).
Abigail couldn’t look away. And there was so much material to spool back through, this doting father bringing up all these children on his douyin channel.
Abigail: However, one person was missing and that was the children’s mother
Poppy, narrating: Sometimes she’s there at the edge of the frame, feeding chickens. And watching the videos, I can see how this angered people even more. There she is, in the background. Nothing to hide.
People online were convinced that she was being kept against her will. But Lizzi tells me… the local government didn’t agree:
Lizzi Lee: And the same day, the video came out, officials in Feng County where the woman resides actually published a statement about the woman. But the initial statement really just fanned the flame even further.
Poppy, narrating: In the middle of all this concern and anger the local government denies she’s been trafficked. Their statement says she’s a woman with severe mental health problems (as if that somehow made things better).
Lizzi Lee: And the father Dong Zhimin apparently had been profiled on multiple Chinese social media outlets before. And Dong Zhimin was portrayed as a model father sort of providing for his kids with a mentally ill wife and with parents over 80 years old. And the father Dong Zhimin had received government assistance and, you know, charitable donations. So the official explanation was very much in favour of the husband and portraying the woman as someone who’s really violent and mentally unfit to raise the eight kids they have.
Poppy, narrating: The village is sealed off to visitors and reporters. A couple of women who try to visit her with flowers are detained.
Lizzi Lee: China’s internet users just don’t buy it. They push back against the official explanation and ask all kinds of questions. Was the woman abused or trafficked? Was the woman sold as a bride under coercion? So people were asking all kinds of questions which the officials was not able to give a convincing answer to.
Poppy, narrating: It might seem surprising that people are so quick to jump to trafficking as the explanation for this woman’s situation… but not if we see it in context.
According to the UN, human trafficking is a 150 billion dollar global industry. Most of that is forced exploitation for sex or labour.
Back in China in the 90s, child trafficking was a big story. After the one child policy was brought in 1980, many families wanted their one child to be a son because boys continue the family line.
There were cases of female infanticide, and selective aborition. And a market place emerged for boys.
I remember when I was in Sichuan in the late 90s, a couple of friends of mine with young boys were terrified of taking their eyes off them. They were so worried their sons might be stolen.
Now, those longed-for baby boys have become men. Today there are 34 million more men than women.
Since the nineties, young people have been moving from the countryside to the cities. So for many of the men who remain in the villages to work the land… there’s nobody for them to marry at all.
In one of his family videos, Dong Zhimin, the father of eight, mentions that he was looked down on until he married, late, in his mid-thirties.
Lizzi Lee: So the case really sort of brought attention to the issue of trafficking and people immediately connect the dots.
Poppy, narrating: A grim reality was creeping in.
The old worries about child trafficking that have now subsided, were morphing into a new awakening about rural bride trafficking.
And people were scared. Abigail tells me that the reality of bride trafficking, which has happened in China’s past, was suddenly clear to her in a way she’d never thought possible in the 21st century.
Two of the women really leading the campaign on this issue had been trafficked themselves, and they started speaking openly about what happened to them.
Other women began to talk about their experiences of being trafficked, or moments when they felt they’d just escaped abduction…
Abigail: And then you, you look it up and it’s not a single case. It’s possibly thousands of them. And then you realise what you actually live in is possibly quite unstable because supposedly if you are a city girl, you could be trafficked into somewhere like this area, like this rural area. And no one would hear you. And no matter how hard you cry, no one would like to listen to you. And for years you were there and you’d be forced to give birth to eight children.
Poppy, narrating: Stories were pouring out. Not just about trafficking now – but general discrimmination against women in China.
Lizzi Lee: So why is the image of the chained woman so unifying? I think in many ways the chained woman has become sort of a symbol of injustice to women. In China, especially females, are subject to gender norms that are not in their favour. The brutality the woman experienced and the way the Feng county officials portrayed the woman, which is very much in line with blaming the victim, really, you know, frustrated them and made them angry.
Poppy, narrating: Digital campaigners were still trying to find out for themselves who this woman was. Some used accent analysing software to try to detect which part of the country she came from.
Did she sound Sichuanese…?
Suddenly, they think they have an answer. A woman called Li Ying.
Li Ying went missing aged 12 in 1996 on her way home from school in Sichuan, a poorer province in western China, 1000 miles away from where the chained woman was found.
Abigail: Li Ying had a picture left before she went missing. You look, these two people, you find the resemblance of every bit on their face. Their eyebrows, eyes, the shape of their nose, especially her lips are exactly the same. I mean, it can’t be coincidence.
Poppy, narrating: I’m looking at the images now – and Li Ying and the chained woman do look extraordinarily alike.
When Li Ying went missing in the nineties, it was a high profile case.
Her father was a CCP General in Tibet who died of heartbreak, or so the story goes, after years of searching for her.
Now, her uncle writes to authorities asking for a DNA match test with the chained women.
And the feeling online was: if the daughter of a CCP General could potentially end up in a village chained to a wall… this really could happen to anybody.
I started speaking to young people inside China, and some really did now feel that bride trafficking could happen to them.
I wanted to know: how realistic was that fear? But getting close to this story has been so much harder than I imagined.
Since 2018 people in China have been increasingly wary about speaking to foreign journalists.
They’re worried that if they do they’ll be branded agents of hostile foreign forces by online trolls or be in trouble with authorities. And this year is especially sensitive because, in November, Xi Jinping will try to secure an unprecedented third term as Party Chairman.
Now it feels like almost nobody is able to talk. This story is simply too risky.
Yaqiu Wang, a senior China researcher from Human Rights Watch, is based outside China. She’s been researching a growing phenomenon of bride trafficking in China.
Yaqiu Wang: In the domestic trafficking, it usually involves women – usually in southwest China… get traffic to the more prosperous area in Eastern and coastal China – they then got sold to men. Or you know, families willingly sold their daughters or their nieces to other families in other locations
Poppy, narrating: But it’s hard to get accurate data.
Yaqiu tells me that according to the CCP, there are around 1000 women and children trafficked each year. She thinks that’s a vast under-estimation.
Yaqiu Wang: I mean, I came from a rural area in China. You know, growing up in the village, we were people in the village who were obviously aware, you know, this woman is from another province. She doesn’t speak the local language. She doesn’t know the local culture practices and the family paid to have the women married to a man in the village. But people just don’t think there’s something wrong because they… People have the value that, you know, family having a family having offspring is so foundational to your life. So buying a woman is okay because people view women as property, as a tool for, you know, continuing the line of the family.
Poppy, narrating: Since the chained woman case people inside China have been working to reveal whatever data they can beyond the anecdotal.
One journalist in Shanghai – Luo Yahan – analysed the 2010 census data from the region where the chained woman was found. She discovered a pattern: in Feng County there are 120 boys for every girl up to the age of 14… but then after that age, the gender gap balances out.
She found that’s because a huge majority of migrants into the area are women. All come from poorer areas, and 80 percent of them say their reason for migration is marriage.
Her data doesn’t reveal what proportion of those women were trafficked into marriage… but anecdotal evidence from former residents of Feng County backs up the idea that bride trafficking is widespread and has become an accepted practice there since the 1980s.
In my own reporting I’ve come across evidence of trafficking continuing to take place.
Recent court documents in China show women with mental illnesses have been sold into marriage over the last few years.
I asked Yaqiu how the one child policy has impacted the problem.
Yaqiu Wang: It definitely exacerbated the problem. You know, China has 30-40 million more men than women today. Especially for men in rural areas, you know, the only way you can get married is to have, you know, to buy women,
Poppy: Because there’s just a shortage of women?
Yaqiu Wang: Yes. So especially for poor men. For men to marry women in China involves a man’s family giving a dowry. Especially if you’re a poor man it’s hard to supply this kind of money to have a woman willingly married to you. So you start to buy women.
Poppy, narrating: There’s such demand for brides, that women are now being trafficked into China from beyond China’s borders.
I’ve seen reports of women being abducted in every single one of China’s neighbouring countries and sold into marriages in China’s villages.
Pakistani investigators have listed 629 girls they think were trafficked to China between 2017 -2019. A study from 2018 estimates that over 7,400 women and girls were victims of forced marriage in four districts in Myanmar and from Yunnan province, just inside China’s border.
Across these 9 countries, we’re talking about at least tens of thousands of women. And that’s the ones we know about.
Chau is a psychotherapist and project manager who works at Blue Dragon in Vietnam, an organisation which helps women escape and recover from trafficking.
Chau used to work with street children, but around ten years ago she shifted her focus because of the growing need for help by victims of bride trafficking.
She’s busy right now – because the covid restrictions between China and Vietnam have been relaxed.
Chau: So the gap between Vietnam and China are open a little bit. So we start to welcome new survivor, come back to Vietnam. So it’s quite busy now.
Poppy: How many women have you worked with since then?
Chau: Uh, recently in our, in our emergency emergency accommodation, we have five.
Poppy, narrating: In the first six months of this year alone, Blue Dragon has assisted, or rescued, 49 Vietnamese women trafficked to China.
Chau tells me about a typical case…
Poppy: How did it happen to her?
Chau: She grew on the streets to support the family, to earn money.
Poppy, narrating: The 16-year-old girl was working on the streets in Hanoi, selling food to support her parents and five siblings. Chau tells me that this girl was confident and smart – she was aware of the dangers of trafficking.
But still she was groomed. There was one woman who’d visit her stall every day, and slowly built up a relationship with her.
Chau: She still remembers the trafficker talk to her like I treat you like my daughter because I’m very care about you and love you.
Poppy, narrating: She promised the girl a better paying job in China. Only, when she got to China the girl was sold to a family as a wife.
Chau: And she is very nervous and very afraid, but she cannot escape, because she… it’s difficult for her because she didn’t know language, she didn’t, she didn’t know anything in China.
Poppy, narrating: She didn’t know where she was, she didn’t speak the language. She was raped. When she didn’t get pregnant she was taken to a hospital for IVF. She was suicidal, and beaten after multiple attempts to escape.
It’s so difficult to hear.
And I could picture how impossible it must be to find a way out.
Many of China’s villages are remote. Even if you did manage to break out and avoid the neighbours, you might have to walk for days to get anywhere, along a single mountain road.
After a year the young girl was able to make contact with her family and finally leave…
Poppy: So when she arrived back into Vietnam and she arrived into your office, what state was she in at that point?
Chau: I still really remember about like, she, she says she’s, she’s alive again. She recognised: now I can live again.
Poppy, narrating: The girl blamed herself for what happened. It’s something Chau sees a lot from other survivors.
Chau: And with the symptom of the PTSD or the impact of the anxiety or stress, they cannot be better without the support. They all flash like what happened in China. Yeah.
Poppy, narrating: In total Blue Dragon has helped around one thousand three hundred women since 2007.
They’re generally groomed with the same promise – work in China. Often the first person in the trafficking chain is someone local and known, or someone trusted.
But now, Chau tells me, traffickers are using social media too. Trawling sites such as Facebook to look for vulnerable people and entice them.
When we approached Facebook for comment they told us that they have a zero tolerance policy for human exploitation on their platform, and work closely with experts to tackle this issue.
Stories about bride trafficking had been in the background in China.
Once the video of the chained woman goes viral… they start to bubble up from under the surface.
Suddenly the huge disjuncture between some of the values and marriage practices in China’s countryside and cities becomes stark.
In the cities there’s a rise in feminist consicousness, and a resulting ‘phobia’ among women about marriage. Last year marriage rates in the cities were 40 per cent lower than a decade before.
Whereas in the countryside, marriage often still involves a bride leaving her own family to become a childbearing asset to her husband’s.
Chau tells me that some Chinese men who are buying wives have no idea that they’ve been trafficked. They might think they’re paying a traditional matchmaker, or a bride price.
People online become angry about the blurry line between these patriarchal marriage practices and bride trafficking.
In the online uproar about the chained woman, people start to point out that both villagers and the legal system are turning a blind eye.
Sentences for buying a bride are just three years, the same as buying endangered wild animals.
One Chinese lawyer publishes extracts of divorce case judgements brought about by women who were trafficked into marriage… and were refused divorces on the grounds that they had children, and that the couple should work on themselves and their relationship and keep the family intact.
And so now with this issue burst open in China – people, including Abigail, are pushing for change.
Abigail: The real dissatisfaction for most of the Chinese people, they just don’t want to live in such a reality. They want protection from the government and we demand protection, in short, because we don’t want to up in her situation. It’s too hard to swallow.
Poppy, narrating: And then… a week after the video went viral… and with the Winter Olympics underway… there’s an update on the chained woman, and who she is.
Lizzi Lee: And what’s really surprising was, you know, in this kind of David versus Goliath style fight between a bunch of citizen journalists and the all powerful Chinese state, eventually the local government actually, you know, admitted that the woman was indeed trafficked.
Poppy, narrating: The people are proved right… partly. Provincial level officials say yes: the chained woman was trafficked and bought by her husband Dong Zhimin.
But no, she’s not Li Ying, who went missing in the 90s. They say DNA tests requested by her uncle didn’t match.
Instead, officials say she’s Xiao Huamei… a woman from Yunnan province with no living relatives apart from a half sister who doesn’t remember her. They say Xiao Huamei is mentally ill.
Finally, the organs of justice seem to kick into action. Police charge the husband with illegal detention, track down and arrest the alleged traffickers and also charge local government officials with negligence.
The way it’s framed in the statement is that officials investigated the case in response to the widespread concern online.
A month later, in March, the ministry of public security announce a 10 month special operation to crack down on trafficking.
And that week, Premier Li Keqiang – the second most important politician in China – speaks directly about the trafficking of women at the close of the annual National People’s Congress.
English voiceover as clip Li Keqiang plays underneath: … those criminal acts of abducting and trafficking in women and children must be severely cracked down upon and punished. People’s safety and people’s livelihood are inseparable. Governments at all levels must make every effort to benefit the people’s livelihood and ensure their safety as their basic responsibilities. Thanks.
Poppy, narrating: The narrative is that the people’s outcry online has broken through and made this issue a national priority.
One of the things that really interested me about this story was that some of the people I was speaking to in China – people I might usually expect to be slightly sceptical – were impressed. The people had been listened to. Their concerns were driving policy.
But this is where the story splits.
Because some of the people who were convinced that the chained woman was Li Ying, still believe that’s true. And now they’re being silenced and censored.
Abigail, who was involved in the online campaign for truth, isn’t buying the Party’s verdict at all…
Abigail: In Chinese phrase, in old saying, and we said kill the chickens, scare off the monkeys. Meaning you see some small insignificant figures and trying to scare off the big disasters or big waves coming. And to me, this was very obvious… The government wanted to silence the public.
Poppy, narrating: Journalists I spoke to in China can’t report on trafficking now, or investigate what’s being done in rural areas to rescue victims or change attitudes. It’s too sensitive.
So how do we know if the authorities are really listening?
Jeremy Daum: One of the things about being a one party system is you try really hard to get the credit for everything. But as the only game in town, you absolutely get the blame for everything.
Jeremy Daum is a Sr. Research Fellow at the Yale Law School Paul Tsai Center, and runs a website translating Chinese laws into English. I asked him about the way the government responded – and the focus on listening to the uproar online.
Jeremy Daum: And so to show that they’re a legitimate government that is responsive to the people – what they like to call “Whole Process Democracy” of having people participate in every aspect of rule making – is they try to show that they’re always responsive to this sort of public feedback or public oversight of government action.
Poppy, narrating: Whole Process Democracy is the model of governance that Xi Jinping has been promoting in China. And he pits it against Western democracy – which he says only listens to people at the polls.
According to Xi Jinping, China might be run by only one Party – but the system of Whole Process Democracy means that the Party listens and responds to the people all the time.
For people who believe that public opinion forced the CCP to change its tune, this case of the chained woman shows that China’s model works.
But Jeremy says… it’s not that simple.
Jeremy Daum: It’s about the idea of seizing on this moment, that might be an uncomfortable incident for the government and using it to teach and show that the government is doing something or trying to do something. And that doesn’t preclude additional changes being made. But it does mean that they have a way of trying to sort of do a jiu jitsu move and seize the momentum amongst the public and put it towards things that are already happening or, uh, that the government hopes to be making happen.
Poppy: When you say jiu jitsu move, what, what do you mean by that?
Jeremy Daum: I just mean that they, they take the momentum that might be currently being channelled into anger at the government and they try and channel it into something more productive for the government’s work.
Poppy, narrating: In this case, promoting a countering-trafficking action plan that was… already in place. … A year before. In 2021.
One of the points in that plan is to…
Voiceover: “actively respond to societal concern, and fully utilise internet and new media tactics for publicity, carrying out publicty and education through multiple channels and multiple forms on countering trafficking and sexual assault.”
Poppy, narrating: For the CCP the chained woman story became a way to publicise a crackdown on trafficking that they’ve already thought through and enacted.
I’ve been reporting on China’s social media at Tortoise for the past year, and this case has helped me to understand these viral moments of online outrage more fully.
For a moment the case of the chained woman made it seem like people in China were able to overwhelm the censors and get the official lines to change. That they had taken on the government in a battle for the truth – with the world watching.
And those who believed that the chained woman was Xiao Huamei, as the officials said, felt like they’d won.
But beneath the surface, on this issue, the CCP’s interests and the people’s concerns were aligned.
What the chained woman shows is that – on subjects where the CCP wants to make change – the Party sanctions and uses these viral cases to publicise and explain work they’re already doing.
So the people were allowed their power.
And that power was limited. Critics were still detained. The police turned up at people’s doors. The original video was removed from the internet and the vlogger’s channel has been shut down.
It turned out not to be much of a battle for truth after all. The CCP was a step ahead.
I’m left thinking about the woman who started all this. Whose image has become synonymous with trafficking in China.
Did the online outrage help? Will it help others?
China’s 2021-2030 counter trafficking plan looks like it’s been well thought out by civil servants.
Still, the question remains of how successfully it can be implemented in a top down system where people often can’t investigate, report, or speak freely.
I asked Abigail how she felt after all her campaigning.
Abigail: It’s a very sad story, and it’s very tragic. And she was, she was chained to a wall in her poorly made hut. And now she’s still in a chain in a hospital, in a madhouse.
Poppy, narrating: The chained woman was taken by state officials and placed in an asylum. After all these months… we can’t really be sure of her real name or what happened to her.
Abigail: And the last video was posted by the local government in her area. Trying to convince the audience that she was healthy, and she was happy, but we didn’t see any of this.
Poppy, narrating: In all the anger she’s been left without a voice…
Abigail: We don’t want to listen to the government. We want this woman to tell us who you really are.
Poppy, narrating: … it’s unclear whether that’s her choice, or someone else’s.
Thanks for listening to this episode of the Slow Newscast. It was reported by me, Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, and produced by Claudia Williams. The editors were Jasper Corbett and Ceri Thomas. Original music by Tom Kinsella.
How we got here
For the past year I’ve been reporting on social media moments in China – stories that went viral, or ones that were so tightly censored that they barely had a chance to be circulated. The chained woman story was one of the biggest online viral moments this year and the hashtag on China’s social media platform Weibo was viewed over 10 billion times. I watched as online outrage grew into a type of “metoo” movement about bride trafficking across the country, with people calling on the government to rescue victims and prevent trafficking. I wanted to understand why this story in particular stimulated such widespread concern. How big was the problem in China? What did people want the authorities to do about it? And why were there some elements of the story that the China’s Communist Party seemed to make a priority of and others that were shut down? With trafficking experts and journalists in China ever-more wary of speaking to foreign journalists it was hard to get inside the story. But our reporting revealed a more complicated picture of the relationship between social media, the people, and the Chinese state, than might first appear. Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, reporter
- Lizzi Lee, who is interviewed in the podcast, made a short video documentary about the chained woman.
- An English translation of China’s 2021-2030 counter trafficking plan by Jeremy Daum.
- The Chinese-language film Blind Mountain was released in 2007 and follows a story similar to the real-life story of the chained woman, and was referred to by many Chinese netizens online following the video’s release.
- The novel Broken Wings, by Jia Pingwa, is about rural bride trafficking in China and is translated into English by Nicky Harman.
- You can see more updates from the CCP, and the documents which show their plans to use social media moments to inform and educate their people, on the website of the Ministry for Public Security.
- To read more about the chained woman, read this piece from What’s On Weibo.
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In November, athlete Peng Shuai accused a senior Chinese politician of sexual assault. Then, she vanished. Poppy Sebag-Montefiore investigates her disappearance – and the silencing of China’s #MeToo movement
School 49: An explosion in China’s high-pressure education system
China’s transformation into an economic powerhouse has come at a cost to its children, under enormous pressure to succeed. Now the country is wondering if the price has been too high
Hero of the financial revolution
Can the Chinese Communist Party learn to live with Jack Ma?
Xinjiang: The China Problem
China stands accused of committing crimes against humanity, and possibly even genocide, against the Uyghur population in Xinjiang. Yet Beijing compares its system of “re-education camps” to the West’s war on terror and says it’s entitled to protect its citizens from domestic terrorism. This is the sharp end of the China problem; exhibit A of Xi Jinping’s authoritarianism and the West’s impotence to defend human rights within China’s borders
Universities: The China Problem
Universities in the UK rely heavily on students from China, and on Chinese money and academic collaborations. But does it all come at a price? A chipping away of academic freedoms and a gagging order on discussing sensitive issues? It’s a dilemma which brings the China problem much closer to home
Hong Kong: The China problem
China’s national security law has dismantled freedoms and silenced dissenters in Hong Kong. What does the strangling of freedom of speech reveal about Xi Jinping’s China?
Wuhan: The China problem
What does the story of the difficult search for the origins of Covid-19 reveal about China? The unresolved question of whether the virus occurred naturally or escaped from a laboratory, and the contortions of the Chinese authorities under scrutiny are a parable of our times
Taiwan: The China Problem
How dangerous is China? Are the growing fears that China might attack Taiwan justified, or are the two countries facing an eternal standoff; a prolonged state of fear?
TikTok: The China Problem
In the technology great game there are plenty of battlefields, but TikTok has been the most public, and the most revealing. This addictive, Chinese-owned video-sharing app has exposed a paranoia from governments in both the east and west over who controls access to information and the power of social media. What does this mean for the future of the internet?