No mom’s land

Trafficking victims spark debate again

Gao Yanmin w

A teacher in the “motherless village” in Hunan

Should a trafficked woman be praised for staying with the “husband” that bought her?

Should people who buy wives and children go unpunished? And should abducted women be criticised for abandoning the children they had as a result of being sold into marriage? These are some of the questions being asked on social media this summer as the government has belatedly been moving to close some of the gaps in its anti-trafficking laws.

The debate began when netizens unearthed an old story about Gao Yanmin, a Hebei women who was abducted from a train station in 1994 and sold to a poor farmer who could not find a wife. She was raped, beaten and tried both to run away and commit suicide several times. Eventually, however, she accepted her fate and went on to become a teacher in the village where her new “family” lived.

The local government later heard of her tale and presented her with a “Touching Hebei” award for her commitment to her community.

Reading this netizens were appalled – why, they asked, an award and not a police investigation into her case. Why not prosecute the family that bought her?

The online community reacted with similar outrage when they read a recent article by Xinhua detailing how one village in Hunan was now “motherless” since all the women had run away. The news agency implied they had abandoned their children because they could no longer put up with the poverty. Then the Global Times pointed out that many of the fleeing women had been sold there when they were young.

In an unusual tiff between two pillars of the state media establishment, the Global Times chided: “A responsible media should call for a crackdown on local traffickers and for the rescuing of abducted women. But this media [Xinhua] changed the subject and wrote a ‘positive’ story about how the local Women’s Federation is trying to find these mothers… and encourage them to come back.”

“It shouldn’t be called the ‘motherless village’ it should be called the ‘trafficking village’,” added one weibo user. “This is how our media and government works: the women who did not manage to escape from kidnapping are praised; those who ran away are labelled irresponsible mothers. No one cares about the abducted women’s feelings,” wrote another.

People trafficking has long been a problem in China. Indeed, the police now have a dedicated anti-trafficking bureau and in recent years it has had some success in breaking up the gangs specialising in human trade. Last year 30,000 trafficked women and 15,000 children were rescued, it said. But that is likely just the tip of the iceberg. One Beijing-based NGO estimates 200,000 children go missing every year (see WiC256 in which the theme is raised in the film Dearest).

The US State Department in its annual TIP report released in July places China on the ‘tier two’ watch list – a list that includes nations “making significant efforts” to combat trafficking but where “the absolute number of victims of severe forms of trafficking is very significant or is significantly increasing”.

“The People’s Republic of China is a source, destination, and transit country for men, women, and children subjected to forced labour and sex trafficking,” it said.

It added that, “The Chinese government’s birth limitation policy and a cultural preference for sons create a skewed sex ratio of 117 boys to 100 girls in China, which may serve to increase the demand for prostitution and for foreign women as brides for Chinese men – both of which may be procured by force or coercion.”

Last December a group of villagers in Hebei hit the headlines when 100 Vietnamese brides disappeared en masse three months after they had arrived. The men had each paid Rmb115,000 ($18,092) for their wives. One woman apparently returned to the village and said she and the other women had been drugged by the matchmaking gang. The others, she said, had been taken to “find new husbands” by the unscrupulous traffickers.

Paradoxically while the Hebei men were outraged that they had been duped there seemed to be little understanding that part of the problem was that they had bought their wives in the first place.

Chinese lawmakers this weekend started trying to address that by changing the law to criminalise the act of buying children. Previously only the traffickers were deemed to have broken the law. Sadly the act of buying an adult has still not been criminalised.

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