The post, on the Chinese social platform Weibo, resembled many others published by state media during these Olympics – an ode to freestyle skier Eileen Gu, known to Chinese as Gu Ailing.
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.
Even as 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.
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.
Here’s how it went:
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 person from 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 channel. Another video from the same blogger shows an interview with the woman’s husband, who proudly says he has eight children with his wife.
On January 28, the county government’s propaganda office said the woman was not trafficked and was married. 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.
On February 10, the city government released a statement saying it had arrested three people, including the father of the eight children – the first two for human trafficking, the father for illegal detention.
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 she attempted to bring him a bouquet of sunflowers. Later, the same bouquet appeared in a short video segment on public 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. A women’s rights activist in Beijing who declined to be named confirmed she was detained and released on Thursday.
Meanwhile, two former investigative reporters traveled to the Yunnan village that Feng County officials said the woman was from. 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.
At this point, many people were involved. A Weibo user used professional editing software to compare faces. A WeChat user viewed the court records of women in Fengxian County who had been trafficked. Another former reporter posted a marriage license, allegedly from Little Plum Blossom – and raised an age difference.
The inconsistencies highlighted a crucial point: no one had the whole story.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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, says Zhiying Ma, a professor at the University of Chicago who studies mental health in China. , 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