In a high-profile case of human trafficking involving a woman discovered chained in a remote village in China last year, a Chinese court has sentenced six individuals to prison.
The case shook the nation to its core and prompted a crackdown on bride trafficking. The woman's spouse was sentenced to nine years in prison for her torture, abuse, and captivity. Five others received sentences ranging between eight and thirteen years. However, in response to the verdict on Friday, many argued that the sentences were insufficient and that reforms were still lacking.
In January 2022, a Chinese vlogger discovered Xiaohuamei residing in a hut with a dirt floor outside her family's home in a village near Xuzhou, Jiangsu province, with an iron chain around her neck. The video made by the vlogger from the county of Fengxian went viral
In it, he expressed concerns about human trafficking and noted that Xiaohuamei, in her forties, had reportedly given birth to eight children and appeared "dazed" and mentally incompetent. The case captivated the Chinese populace, many of whom campaigned relentlessly online for the woman's justice.
The local town authorities initially disregarded suspicions of human trafficking, claiming that the couple had a valid marriage certificate and that their marital problems were unrelated.
Authorities reiterated her spouse Dong Zhimin's defense that he had locked up Xiaohuamei because she suffered from schizophrenia and violent fits. Such statements, however, only fueled public outrage. It intensified online criticism that authorities had ignored the woman's treatment and possibly that of other victims of human trafficking. It prompted a criminal investigation and police commitments to combat the trafficking of women and children.
This week, during the trial, many details of the case were confirmed for the first time. The court determined that in 1998, Xiaohuamei was kidnapped from her native province of Yunnan and sold to a farmer in Donghai province for 5,000 yuan, which was equivalent to £360 or $600 at the time.
A year later, she was sold to additional traffickers, a couple this time, who facilitated her sale to Dong's father. When she first arrived at Dong's residence, Xiaohuamei was able to care for herself and communicate with others, according to the judges. Dong was found guilty of assaulting and torturing his wife. He forced Xiaohuamei to have children, beginning with one in 1999 and continuing with seven more between 2011 and 2020.
Following the birth of her third child, Xiao's schizophrenia worsened. According to the Intermediate People's Court of Xuzhou city in Jiangsu province, Dong became more abusive in response.
In 2017, he moved her from the family residence to the outbuilding, where he kept her chained and bound with cloth ropes. The hut lacked water, electricity, and light, and she was frequently denied food.
The presiding judge, Yao Hui, stated that Dong never took his wife to the doctor when she was ill and repeatedly made her pregnant regardless of her condition.
Last year, activists advocated for legal reform, arguing that such light sentences posed no deterrent to traffickers and purchasers in the bridal market. Others inquired about Xiaohuamei's current health. Local sources reported that she was relocated from her village last year after her case became public and placed in a medical ward, where she remains.