Senior officials in the Chinese city of Xuzhou found themselves in deep trouble after the Lunar New Year holidays, when a series of videos went viral on Chinese social media platforms showing a woman imprisoned by chains in an open air hut in the city’s rural area. Originally posted on social media to promote a man with eight children, these videos later triggered anger across China as more evidence suggests that the chained woman – reportedly the mother of those eight children – is a victim of human trafficking.
Those clips quickly caught the attention of the general public. And to make the issue even worse, the initial responses from the local government in Xuzhou were tone-deaf and later appeared to be self-contradictory. After initially claiming that the chained woman was legally married, authorities in Xuzhou later detained two individuals in an attempt to appease the backlash from the public. But the later responses from local authorities also fail to address critical issues such as the identity of the victim and, more broadly, the long-existing issue of human trafficking in the region.
Those failures led the provincial government to step in and examine the controversies, but only after almost three weeks had passed since the original videos received public attention. The investigation outcomes released by provincial authorities also revealed similar issues. While some local officials were forced out of their positions, the investigations did not address the systemic struggles of human trafficking, nor acknowledged the anger and concerns of Chinese citizens.
It is hard to say whether any damage control measures will turn things around. With heavy censorship on media and internet content, the general public finds it difficult to trust the authorities, especially with their prior records of dishonesty. With each new statement from various levels of government, netizens have expressed skepticism or immediately pointed to holes in the new narrative.
Chinese authorities often justify censorship and oppression of press freedom by listing the government’s achievements in improving the life quality of ordinary residents. However, the Xuzhou human trafficking controversy revealed serious flaws of China’s political system: The lack of accountability from local governments and the lack of credible media reporting all contributed to the public’s anger. Most new information in the case has come from dogged citizen journalists doing their own investigation work. Meanwhile, the public is also outraged over the lack of solutions to combat human trafficking as a systemic issue in China.
The Xuzhou human-trafficking controversy has become the latest wake-up call for many living in China. The issue highlighted the lack of response from government authorities to tackle the crime throughout the years. The United States Department of State 2021 Trafficking in Persons Report listed China as a country that is not making significant efforts to eliminate human trafficking. Human Rights Watch called out China for the government’s complicity in bride-trafficking-related crimes. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has been actively denying those allegations.
Yet by reading through past documents, stories from human trafficking survivors, and the equivocal responses from government officials, people quickly realize that Chinese authorities are not able to deliver feasible solutions to address the controversies in Xuzhou. The reality faced by ordinary citizens in China is rather difficult to accept and directly contradicts China’s efforts to promote itself as one of the safest countries in the world.
Through further research, internet users may find the human trafficking issue to be deeply connected to various government policies. In China, buying trafficked women and children brings fewer penalties than buying illegal plants and animals. China has more than 17 million more men than women, a significant gender imbalance mainly triggered by the country’s prior “one-child policy” and the subsequent rise in sex-selective abortions due to the social conservatives’ preference for raising a boy rather than a girl. Restrictions on citizen mobility through the household registration or hukou system and the lack of policies to promote gender equality also played a role in China’s long-standing human trafficking issues.
Those imbalances and hurdles are expected to get worse, as further research suggests that China’s sex ratio could become approximately 122:100 in the next decade. Discrimination against women in job searches remains a problem, and women continue to be left out of China’s top leadership positions. All these factors also contributed to the hardship for families to raise children. Potential parents fear that they do not have sufficient resources to ensure their children’s future while facing increasing costs of living and a lack of job security in the workplace.
Facing pressures from declining birth rates, residents’ lack of willingness to raise children, and strong public demand to address human trafficking, the Chinese regime is at a critical point to deliver new policies to address the simple concern of protecting the most vulnerable groups of people within its society. Yet facing many unaddressed issues, the government is likely to find it difficult to offer concrete and thorough solutions to a problem that it ignored for decades.