Out of Bounds

2022-05-13 23:24ByJiJing
Beijing Review 2022年10期

By Ji Jing

A video of a woman with an iron chain around her neck, confined to a hut in a village in Fengxian County, Xuzhou, Jiangsu Province, has been making the online rounds since late January.

The mentally ill woman was wearing light clothing and eating poor-quality food, and was found to have borne eight children. Many netizens have demanded a thorough investigation of the case.

Responding to widespread public concern, the Communist Party of China (CPC) Jiangsu Provincial Committee and the Jiangsu Provincial Government formed an investigative team on February 17. Their investigation led them to seek out and review over 1,000 documents, and to interview over 4,600 people in Jiangsu, Yunnan and Anhui provinces.

The investigation revealed that the woman in the video was named Xiaohuamei, born in 1977 in Yagu Village, Fugong County in Yunnan. Her identity was confirmed by the Ministry of Public Security (MPS) after comparing her DNA with that of possible relatives, checking the residence records in Yunnan and visiting local neighborhoods.

According to Xiaohuamei’s uncle and aunt and other Yagu villagers familiar with the issue, Xiaohuamei married a man in Baoshan City in Yunnan in 1995, and returned two years later after getting divorced. Around that same time, her speech and behavior started becoming abnormal. In early 1998, she was lured away from her home by a married couple surnamed Shi and Sang, respectively, who promised to help her treat her mental illness. The couple then sold her to a man surnamed Xu in Donghai County in Jiangsu—as his wife.

In December 2000, Shi and Sang were sentenced to five and seven years in prison, respectively, for abduction of women and children. However, Xiaohuamei’s case was not uncovered during the trial.

After living with Xu for three to four months, Xiaohuamei disappeared in May 1998.

While examining how Xiaohuamei ended up in Fengxian, where the viral video was taken, the Jiangsu public security department found that she had initially made her way to Xiayi County where she was discovered by a couple running a restaurant. She stayed at the restaurant for a month until the couple sold her to two construction workers living and working nearby. The two workers then took her to Fengxian and sold her to the father of her current husband—surnamed Dong.

Xiaohuamei was diagnosed with schizophrenia by medical experts in Xuzhou on January 30. Nanjing Brain Hospital’s Forensic Sciences Institute and the Institute of Evidence Law and Forensic Science at the China University of Political Science and Law confirmed the diagnosis on February 19 and 20, respectively. She is currently receiving treatment in Xuzhou for schizophrenia and severe chronic periodontitis.

Through DNA testing, Xiaohuamei and her husband Dong were confirmed to be the biological parents of the eight children. After giving birth to her first child in 1999, she didn’t bear another one until 2011, when she had the second child due to contraceptive failure. Between 2012 and 2020, she had another six kids.

Because of the case, Sang and her husband Shi have been arrested once again on suspicion of human trafficking, and Xu has been detained on suspicion of purchasing Xiaohuamei. Dong was arrested on charges of abuse on February 22.

Seventeen people in the local government and villagers committee have been held accountable for the alleged abuse of the woman. Among them, Lou Hai, Secretary of the CPC Fengxian Committee, has been removed from his post for dereliction of his duty—failing not only to provide assistance to mentally ill people, but also to implement the family planning policy. The public now demands that Zheng Chunwei, head of the county government, resign for similar reasons. China’s family planning policy, introduced in the 1970s, permitted Han couples in urban areas to have only one child and rural couples to have two if the first child was a girl. The policy has been eased in recent years to allow all couples to have three kids.

The case has drawn attention to the protection of women’s rights. The draft amendment to the Law on the Protection of the Rights and Interests of Women, on which public feedback began to be solicited online last December, received over 420,000 suggestions in under a month. This shows the public’s concern for the better safeguarding of all women’s rights.

The law has played an important role in improving the status of women and ensuring their rights and interests since its enactment in 1992. However, it has also been criticized for being too general, without specific stipulations on how to impose punishment on transgressors.

Lu Xiaoquan from Beijing Qianqian Law Firm, explained that in judicial practices, judges seldom apply the law when deciding a case given it’s too vague and not applicable.

Zhao Shukun, a human rights law professor at the Southwest University of Political Science and Law, said while the draft amendment does provide a number of additional protective measures for women, it does not go far enough. For instance, the punishment for transgression remains too light.

Zhao suggests punishments be increased to aid enforcement of and promote adherence to the law.

The Criminal Law stipulates that those who abduct and traffick women and children face at least five years of imprisonment, with penalties rising to 10 years or more, and even the death penalty in especially serious cases. But the maximum prison sentence for those who purchase trafficked women and children is just three years.

To solve the problem, some lawmakers suggest purchasers of women and children be charged with the same crime as traffickers and plan to submit their motion to the annual session of the National People’s Congress which began in Beijing on March 5.

Zhao said legislation alone can’t solve problems such as trafficking of women, sexual harassment and gender discrimination. A compulsory reporting system should be established to urge relevant parties like villagers committees, social assistance agencies and welfare institutions to report cases of crimes against women.

Lu has made similar suggestions, saying marriage registration offices should report to the police if, after reviewing their documents, they suspect the women applying to get married have been trafficked.

The MPS will carry out a special operation to crack down on the trafficking of women between March 1 and December 31 this year, and a teleconference on March 2 discussed plans for its execution.

Special efforts should be made to identify homeless women and children, as well as those who are mentally challenged or have verbal and hearing disabilities of unknown origins, according to a statement issued by the ministry following the teleconference.

Efforts should be made to crack long-pending cases to save abducted women and children and help them return to their families and reintegrate into society.

In recent years, the MPS has worked with relevant departments to crack down on the abduction and trafficking of women and children, and has effectively reduced the occurrence of such crimes. The number of trafficking cases involving women and children was reduced by 88.3 percent from 2013 to 2021. Occurrence of these crimes peaked in the 1980s and 90s, with some longstanding cases still unsolved; some perpetrators who have yet to be brought to justice remain at large. “We still have a long way to go and the public security authorities will play their roles to safeguard the legitimate interests of women and children,” an official with the MPS said during the teleconference. BR