Editor’s note: The discovery of a woman — mentally disabled, chained by her neck, and the mother of eight children — in a shed in rural Jiangsu province, in eastern China, has brought renewed attention to the issue of human trafficking in the country. Follow-up reporting uncovered that she had grown up in a village thousands of kilometers away, in southwest China’s Yunnan province, and had likely been abducted. Sixth Tone × has translated the following article, originally published in October 2021, that investigates the trafficking of women based on court documents.
Nine and a half years after being abducted, Long was finally found by her family.
Nearly a decade ago, she was working in a factory in Guangzhou, a manufacturing hub in southern China that attracts many migrant workers. There, she met a man who called himself Li Gang. She said, “When I first met him, he treated me like his sister.” But two months later, he abducted and sold her to a buyer in Sichuan province, in southwestern China, for 16,500 yuan ($2,600). She ran away several times, all without success. By the time her family found her, she was a mother of three.
Long’s is far from an isolated case.
In late 2016, China’s Supreme People’s Court issued a document that clarified how human trafficking cases should be adjudicated, and that would come into effect on Jan. 1, 2017. Using this as a starting point, RUC News Studio searched for cases involving the crime “abduction and trafficking of women” on Jufa Case Platform and China Judgments Online, two incomplete databases of Chinese court verdicts. In total, 616 cases came up, involving 1,252 victims and dated between 2017 and November 2020.
Who were they?
Approximately one out of five abducted women had a disability, most commonly a mental disability. Less able to defend themselves, they are easy targets. In one case, an abductor tricked a woman with a mental disability, surnamed Song, into getting into his car using only an apple. Almost all of the victims with mental disabilities were Chinese.
Foreign women accounted for half of the total number of victims. The main country of origin is Vietnam. Unfamiliar with their surroundings and dealing with a language barrier, it is difficult for them to escape and seek help. One Vietnamese woman described the reason she could not leave as “no money, no language skills, and no way to find her way home.” (Ethnic minority members — as the woman in Jiangsu reportedly is — have often been targeted by human traffickers for similar reasons.)
A small number of traffickers also targeted sex workers, abducting them under the guise of paying for their services. One Vietnamese woman was kidnapped by traffickers who pretended to be clients. The next day, she was taken to a hotel in China, where she was forced into prostitution for three years.
How did they get abducted?
Close to half of the victims were abducted with the lure of a lucrative job or a marriage introduction. “He said he would take me to Zhejiang for a job processing shitake mushrooms that paid 600 yuan a month”; “They said they wanted to hire me for landscaping, where the wage was 30 yuan per person per day”; “They said they would take us somewhere else to work, where the money was good, and we would earn between 500-600 yuan a month.”
The three most common abduction scenarios were roadside encounters, at the victim’s home, and workplaces such as labor markets or factories. A small number of abductors would directly use violence to forcibly take victims away.
The abductions that took place in the home were generally in the name of matchmaking. The trafficker would take the woman away as a “matchmaker,” or bring the man to the woman’s home to talk about the potential match. Common defenses from the suspects include: “I do not plead guilty — I am a matchmaker. If it is guilty to be a matchmaker, then I admit it, but if it is because I trafficked women, then I do not admit it.” “There was no premeditation. It was a marriage introduction; I did not know that it could be considered abduction.”
Almost every victim was restrained, threatened, or verbally abused. Many were beaten and raped. In one case, a victim tried to escape twice. In order to “make her remember,” the buyer first raped her, then tied her hands, took her clothes off, and forced her to go outside into the freezing snow while he made a video. Some were “locked up in the mountains for several years” or “lived in sheep pens,” according to the verdicts. Some were beaten and abused at every turn to the point of broken bones. Unable to leave, some women chose the most desperate way out: in September of 2015, a victim surnamed Ma killed herself in captivity.
The vast majority of abducted women were not acquainted with their traffickers. In cases where victims were trafficked by people they knew, one noteworthy category was women with a mental or physical disability being sold by their families. One mother sold her 17-year-old daughter with a moderate mental disability under the guise of a “marriage agreement.”
The price tag for victims varied greatly. According to the verdict documents, the lowest price was 200 yuan and the highest 256,000 yuan. Appearance, ability to work, fertility, and physical and mental health were all used as valuation indicators. Two hundred and forty-five victims were sold more than once.
Some transactions came with warranties. In the event that the victim ran away, some sellers would give the buyer a refund, or give away or sell another woman at a discount as compensation. For example, there was the following language in their agreements: “Within one year the seller is responsible if divorce occurs, and will compensate 110,000 yuan; if the woman runs away, the seller will compensate 100,000.” Also, “Under no circumstances can the woman leave on her own. If she escapes within a year, the seller is responsible for recovery.”
Often, one family buying a trafficked woman would lead to more families throughout their village making such purchases. Their circumstances would often be similar — they were poor, and claimed to have little awareness of the law. Of the 616 cases, there were 77 instances in which women were sold in bulk to buyers in the same city, township, or village.
Court documents show that a small percentage of abducted women became dependent on their buyers, as they were in a completely strange environment. After living together as a “family” for a long time, they developed emotional ties after having children. Some victims made statements along the lines of “My husband’s family treats me well” and “They have never beaten me.”
In 20 cases, buyers were unaware they were purchasing a trafficked woman, and thought they were paying a traditional bride price, or for a marriage introduction. Usually, these women suffered less. When these buyers discovered the abduction, some chose to call the police or send the women home; others simply returned them to their sellers.
Criminal justice on trafficking
The establishment of human trafficking as a crime in China can be traced to the 1979 Criminal Law. In 1991, a separate crime for trafficking in women and children was created to coexist with the crime of human trafficking, and the maximum penalty was raised to death. To avoid overlap, the crime of human trafficking was abolished in the 1997 overhaul of the Criminal Law.
An amendment to the Criminal Law in 2015 criminalized all forms of purchasing women. In 2016, the Supreme People’s Court document specified that if victims of trafficking have formed a stable marriage and family and wish to remain where they are, they can do so.
Of the 1,092 criminals whose sentences have taken legal effect, a total of 729 were sentenced to more than five years of imprisonment. No death sentences appeared in the 616 verdicts.
While discussion on Chinese social media about trafficking women usually includes calls for stricter sentences, studies have pointed out that imposing the heaviest penalties does not necessarily reduce crime. On the contrary, once the trafficker feels there’s little hope for redemption, it’ll embolden their disregard for the safety of the victims — as they have nothing more to lose.
This article was written by Zhang Rui, Jiang Jingyi, Jiang Naifei, Yang Chuchu, who are students at Renmin University of China. Professor Fang Jie is their advisor.
A version of this article was originally published by RUC News Studio. It has been translated and edited for brevity and clarity, and is reproduced here with permission.
Translator: Matt Turner; data journalists: Luo Yahan and Wang Xinyi; editors: Zhi Yu and Kevin Schoenmakers.
(Header image: Visual elements from Getty Creative/VCG, reedited by Sixth Tone; all infographics redesigned by Luo Yahan and Wang Xinyi/Sixth Tone)