Behind the China Olympics, the saga of a chained woman unfolds | world news
By HUIZHONG WU, Associated Press
TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) — The message, on the Chinese social platform Weibo, resembled many others posted by official media during these Olympics — an ode to freestyle skier Eileen Gu, known to the Chinese as by Gu Ailing. “The biggest gold medal in the heart of Eileen Gu,” he teased.
Below, in the user comments, were the questions. They weren’t on the subject. It was about something else entirely – a chained woman captured in a viral video 500 miles from Beijing on China’s southeast coast.
“Can you pay attention to Feng County? Where is the responsibility of the national media? a user asked. Another said, “Please thoroughly investigate the chained mother in Xuzhou so that every Chinese girl can accept the freedom and power given to her by this great era, just like our Sick.”
Since January 28, the story of the chained woman who appears in the video has continued to expand, escaping numerous censorships, both digital and human. Under heavy coverage of the Olympics – stories about Bing mascot Dwen Dwen’s copyright infringements at Gu’s every move – Chinese commentators have urged domestic media to shine a light on the growing scandal.
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Even when the original accounts that shared the video disappeared and censors on social media platforms deleted posts and hashtags, amateur sleuths kept the story alive online. Offline, former investigative journalists went to report on the scene.
“For this incident to attract so much attention, it’s only because netizens drew attention to it that it didn’t sink,” said Chase Zhao, an English teacher who follows the case up close.
This is one case, a woman in a population of 1.4 billion at a time when the Olympics are commanding some of the national bandwidth. But as it unfolds, it provides insight into what’s going on in China behind the Winter Games – and how people are championing causes even in the heavily censored and politically charged space of social media. Chinese.
A few days before the start of the Lunar New Year holiday on February 1, a video streamed online from a village in Feng County, located in coastal Jiangsu Province. It showed a woman with a chain around her neck.
The channel was not the subject of the video. A blogger had visited the village to show him the example of a member of a poor rural family who would benefit from donations.
In the video, he offers her a jacket asking her if she is cold. His answer is unclear. The weather outside is zero degrees Celsius (32 degrees Fahrenheit), according to the video, and she’s wearing a dirty pink sweatshirt. He puts a child’s jacket on her. It does not address the chain. Another video from the same blogger shows an interview with the woman’s husband, who proudly says he has eight children with his wife.
The implications were troubling. Was the woman a victim of human trafficking? Was she abused? Why couldn’t she move freely? What was his story?
The answers to come didn’t really answer those questions.
— On January 28, the county government propaganda office said the woman was not trafficked and was married. She was chained, he said, due to mental health issues. In another statement shortly after, they said she had been homeless.
— Later, the statement changed. The county government said the woman’s name was “Xiaohuamei”, or Little Plum Blossom, and that she had been brought to Jiangsu for medical treatment from a remote part of Yunnan Province near Myanmar. She was traveling with a woman named Sang from her village who somehow lost her.
— On February 10, the city government released a statement saying it had arrested three people, including Sang, Sang’s husband, and the father of eight children — the first two for human trafficking, the father for illegal detention.
So many differences. But what was the truth? On social networks, people had none. A popular Weibo user, “Jiangning popo”, a Nanjing police officer, told his 5 million followers, “I’m so angry I could explode.”
The changing narratives have spurred people online to action.
Some have created complex charts outlining the differences between each government advisory. And as the conflicting answers multiplied, others took charge.
Two women, known only by their online aliases Quanquan and Wuyi, traveled to Feng County to help Little Plum Blossom. Based on their video and audio messages, they drove around, writing slogans on their car with lipstick to raise awareness of the case while telling people about the issue. At one point, according to a video posted by Quanquan, the police had the slogans removed from their car.
The two never met Plum Blossom and were barred from entering a hospital she was taken to when they attempted to bring her a bouquet of sunflowers. Later, the bouquet they left behind appeared in a short video segment on state broadcaster CCTV.
When the two stopped posting, others online stepped in to ask people to call the police station to find out what happened, fearing arrest.
Zhao, the English teacher, said she tried to call the Feng County Police Station to ask about the two women. A women’s rights activist in Beijing who requested anonymity confirmed on Friday that they had been arrested and released.
Meanwhile, two former investigative reporters, known by their pen names Ma Sa and Tie Mu, traveled to the Yunnan village from which Feng County officials said the woman was coming. According to an article they posted on WeChat, they interviewed locals in the village who confirmed that someone who used to be called Little Plum Blossom lived there and had been married before. They would also have found his sister. But they couldn’t confirm if she was the chained woman.
At this point, many people were involved. A Weibo user used professional editing software to compare faces, capturing 900,000 views. A WeChat user viewed the court records of women in Fengxian County who had been trafficked. Another former reporter published a marriage license, allegedly from Little Plum Blossom, that someone sent her – and raised an age difference.
The inconsistencies highlighted a crucial point: no one had the whole story.
“If you put your hope on other people or other organizations, it’s unreliable,” said Yang Jingyao, a 28-year-old lawyer in Beijing who said he’s been following the case closely. “You must have your own judgment on a matter.”
If the facts were lacking, the emotion was not. And that’s understandable.
“It evokes a broad sense of frustration and anger and a sense of helplessness in people when they see government abuse and neglect,” said Yaqiu Wang, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. She’s been looking at her WeChat feed lately, she says, and “no one is talking about the Olympics, but everyone is talking about this woman.”
Little Plum Blossom was unable to defend itself. In the original video that circulated, his speech is incomprehensible. The only video since then has come from CCTV, the state broadcaster, with his face masked to protect his identity. Like tennis player Peng Shuai, who had accused a senior politician of rape, she was unable to meet others independently.
Official statistics estimate that in 2011, more than 16 million people in China suffered from serious mental illnesses. But psychiatric hospitals have just one bed per 100,000 patients, a rate far lower than in other upper-middle-income countries. And other care options are scarce, said Zhiying Ma, a University of Chicago professor who studies mental health in China.
Little Plum Blossom has been taken to hospital at the moment, according to CCTV. And on Thursday, the Jiangsu provincial government said it planned to send a team to investigate. Many netizens expressed their relief. Others, however, were less impressed: Too little, too late, they said.
Thus, the cycle of history continues – a cycle that mixes facts, rumors, outrage and the good intentions of ordinary Chinese netizens. Eventually, he will produce the results of an official final inquiry, closely watched by a capricious government that shuts down conversations that might make him look bad. The result: an official version of the truth.
And as the Beijing Olympics draw to a close, watched by the world in a way this case is not, provincial investigators begin to dig. As they do so, says Ma, the teacher, the most vital question remains unanswered:
” What is the solution ? What future for this woman?
Follow Taiwan-based AP reporter Huizhong Wu on Twitter at http://twitter.com/huizhong_wu
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