2017-03-29 09:34:25

“I’m begging you to rescue me,” began a recent message received by police in Chongqing, an inland megacity in southwestern China. “I’ve been locked up to take part in fraud.”

When officers traced its source to a 28th-floor apartment in the city’s Shapingba District, they found a woman shackled to a desk, the computer screen flashing with blinking lights accompanied by the merry chimes of social media notifications.

The woman, Ren Xin, explained that her husband, Chen Qiang, had been keeping her chained to the desk since early March, and locking her in the house for nearly six months, the Chongqing Evening News reported Tuesday.

In a photo taken by a journalist accompanying local police, Ren Xin is seen shackled to a desk at the apartment she shares with her abusive husband in Chongqing, March 27, 2017. Chongqing Evening News/VCG

In a photo taken by a journalist accompanying local police, Ren Xin is seen shackled to a desk at the apartment she shares with her abusive husband in Chongqing, March 27, 2017. Chongqing Evening News/VCG

During that time, Chen demanded that Ren communicate with other web users via QQ, WeChat, and other Chinese messaging apps. Her “job” was to win the trust of other netizens in order to extract money from them. In less than half a year, she swindled her ingenuous interlocutors out of more than 600,000 yuan ($87,000).

Chen now faces charges of false imprisonment and extortion, two crimes that each command jail sentences of up to three years in China.

Ren’s ordeal can be traced back to 2008, when at the age of 20 years old she traveled to Shanghai in search of work. She took a job at an internet café, where she met Chen, a man one year her senior. Chen was taken by Ren’s pale, delicate features and soon began courting her in earnest. “At first, he was really nice to me — so nice that it put me off,” she told Chongqing Evening News. But Ren, who went through her parents’ divorce early in life and was brought up largely by her grandfather, was also sensitive to Chen’s affections: “Nobody had been that nice to me since I was very young.”

Though the couple quarreled occasionally and spent time apart, the birth of their daughter in 2011 convinced them to get married. At the time, neither of them had a job, and earning enough money to get by became an urgent problem.

“From then on, [he] made me extort money on the internet,” Ren said. At the end of 2014, the couple moved back to Chongqing. Chen installed a video camera in the house and trained it on the desk in the bedroom. Whenever he went out, he would lock his wife in the house and monitor her movements on his mobile phone. In March of this year, Chen further tightened his control, chaining her to the desk during the day as she lured web users into giving her money.

Every day, Ren’s computer screen would fill with flashing icons, each one leading to a chat window with one of her virtual acquaintances. They were all male, with most hailing from the eastern provinces of Zhejiang and Jiangsu. They would sign in and say hello; they would ask if she wanted to video-chat; they would complement her youth and her beauty. Some asked her to sing for them; others asked her to tell old stories. Eventually, they asked for her bank card number, saying they wanted to send her money. For Ren, that was the most important part, and often the result of several days’ hard work.

Ren said Chen had a violent temper and often hit her. Once, he even cut her with a knife. Yang Yongdong, head of the Shapingba police office, told Chongqing Evening News that Ren endured Chen’s increasingly violent behavior for the good of the family. Yang was glad she finally decided to call for help, fearing she might otherwise have become the victim of “an even larger tragedy.”

On March 1, 2016, China’s first national law on domestic violence went into effect.

In the parking lot beneath the couple’s apartment block sits Chen’s silver BMW 5 Series, a car that in China carries a price tag of around 400,000 yuan. The “D” on its registration plate indicates that it was purchased recently — from money Ren says she made while chained in front of the computer.

Editor: Kevin Schoenmakers.

(Header image: The desk where Ren Xin sat handcuffed in front of a computer for weeks, Chongqing, March 27, 2017. VCG)