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China silences trafficking debate sparked by ‘chained woman’ scandal

  • Academics and journalists say they have been told to stop talking about the case and some social media accounts are suspended

  • Official media outlets have fallen silent on the issue since a thorough investigation was promised by provincial authorities

by Mimi Lau

22 Feb, 2022

The plight of a woman found chained in a shed in eastern China sparked nationwide anger over women’s rights and trafficking. Photo: Weibo

Chinese censors have moved to control public discussion about the case of a chained woman in the east of the country by silencing influential intellectual commentators and gagging media reports.

A month after the woman’s treatment came to light, a number of academics reported they have been told to stop talking about the mother of eight – who was chained by the neck in a shed, apparently by her husband, in Xuzhou’s Feng county in Jiangsu province.

The woman’s plight came to light when a video of the dazed-looking, middle-aged woman was circulated on Douyin, China’s version of TikTok, sparking nationwide outrage. A number of former journalists who worked to trace her identity, which is still uncertain, cast doubt on the credibility of local government investigations – after initial conflicting official accounts over the woman’s circumstances which fuelled the anger.

Dozens of lawyers, artists, writers and academics poured their thoughts into online articles, live-stream videos and art works to express their discontent. As of this week, the topic had attracted views in their multibillions on social media platform Weibo, with tens of millions of comments from hundreds of thousands of people. Official media reports on the scandal have fallen silent since the Jiangsu provincial government pledged last week to launch a thorough investigation. Several mainland journalists said they were told to stop sharing, commenting and reporting on the incident.

Now the social media accounts of at least two prominent intellectuals have been suspended after they commented on the scandal.

Lao Dongyan, a former prosecutor and professor in criminal law with Tsinghua University in Beijing, had her WeChat channel and a newly registered Weibo account suspended after expressing concerns about the incident.

Wu Bihu, a professor at Peking University’s urban and environmental sciences college, has also been suspended from Weibo, a week after calling – through his personal account – for the All-China Women’s Federation to issue a public apology.

Wu also lambasted the federation, China’s state feminist agency, over its silence and called for its Xuzhou division to be dissolved for its failure to protect the basic rights of local women.

The All-China Women’s Federation issued a brief statement welcoming the Jiangsu government’s investigation, which it hopes will ascertain the facts, bring justice to the victim and provide the conclusive findings the public needs.

According to a Shanghai-based academic who declined to be identified, a number of his colleagues have received instructions to stop discussing or reposting any content relating to the Xuzhou incident.

Petitions signed by graduates from several elite universities, calling for a top-down investigation and a national crackdown on human trafficking, have been censored on Chinese cyberspace.

And earlier this month, two women who tried to visit the woman were detained by Xuzhou police on suspicion of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” – a catch-all charge often used to stifle dissent.


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