China’s Political Discourse February 2022: The Chained Woman
By China Media Project
In February 2022, the story of a woman kept in chains in the city of Xuzhou came to dominate public opinion. The level of attention paid to the story of “the chained woman” (铁链女) surpassed even that paid to celebrity Chinese American freestyle skier Eileen Gu (谷爱凌), the three-time gold medalist for China who was the subject of widespread praise from many Chinese but also faced uncomfortable questions over her nationality. So many questions swirled around the case of “the chained woman” that official responses offered by government officials at the county, city and provincial levels in Jiangsu province did little to quell speculation and discussion.
Another story of note in February is one that could not be discussed at all on Chinese social media – the fact that Premier Li Keqiang (李克强) seemed to drop other members of the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) in terms of mentions in the official Party-state media. Not only did Li lag far behind Xi Jinping, who has decisively dominated official CCP discourse, but he dropped behind both Ding Xuexiang (丁薛祥) and Yang Jiechi (杨洁篪). Premier Li appeared in just nine articles in the People's Daily in February, marking the first time since coming to office that the premier dropped below Tier 5 on the CMP scale. Li’s level in February was Tier 4.
This is a long report so I have also made it available as a PDF:
Focus Topic 1
The Chained Woman
On January 28, “Brother Yi Xiu in Xuzhou” (徐州一修哥), a user on the Douyin platform, the Chinese version of TikTok, published a short video revealing that a woman was being kept in a village in Jiangsu province with chains secured around her neck. In the video, the woman was shown in a small shed, thinly dressed, with no heating, the meal on the sleeping platform next to her already cold. According to information subsequently released on the case, a “we-media” (自媒体) account had previously come to film a local father, Dong X Min (董某民) – as is fairly common practice for criminal suspects, he was identified with the middle character of his name elided – and his eight children for feature material about living in poverty in China. Apparently, no one on the crew had inquired at the time about the whereabouts of the mother, who was chained a short distance away.
In the video the chained woman claimed that the Dong family were “all rapists,” implying that Dong X Min and his father had both raped her. The “Brother Yi Xiu in Xuzhou” video prompted fierce discussion across social media platforms through the end of the Spring Festival holiday, and even eclipsed much Winter Olympics related coverage. Even into March, as the National People’s Congress approached, discussion was lively. The public was eager to know the identity of the chained woman and whether she had been sold into a marriage in Jiangsu’s Feng County, purchased by Dong’s father. Were both men guilty of rape? Who had actually given birth to the eight children? Was the chained woman actually Dong’s wife, or had another woman also been trafficked to the Dong family? Beyond the settling of these questions, people naturally wanted to know whether those responsible would be held to account.
On five separate occasions the government publicly presented the findings of various official investigations into the case, but the public refused to be let the story go. On January 28 and 30, Feng Country issued releases on its findings into the question of the eight children. Both releases determined that the woman exposed in the online video was called Yang X Xia (杨某侠), who had been issued a marriage license with Dong X Min in August 1998. There was no evidence, the findings said, of the woman having been abducted or trafficked. But Yang X Xia had suffered from mental illness, according to the releases. These findings did nothing to satisfy the questions the public had about the chained woman, and many people were further infuriated by the reporting of a marital relationship between Dong and Yang.
On February 7 and 10, Xuzhou City, the administrative level immediately above Jiangsu’s Feng County, released the results of its investigation into the parentage of the eight children. The investigation again confirmed that the chained woman was Yang X Xia, a woman from Fugong County in Yunnan province, and a village called Yagu. According to these findings, genetic testing results showed that DNA from the children was consistent with parentage from Dong X Min, the father, and Yang X Xia.
In the midst of the Spring Festival and the Beijing Winter Olympics, authorities in China wanted to ensure that the story of a poor and neglected woman did not steal the thunder from the festivities and prompt questions of government negligence. At institutional media, including central Party-state media outlets, there was a notable absence of reporting on the case, and so sourcing was limited to “we-media” accounts. Eventually, Caixin Media did publish a more in-depth report on the story, but this report was still insufficient to answer people’s doubts. Official government releases, meanwhile, failed to provide plausible explanations for the plight of the chained woman, and the gaps between official releases were often long, leaving an information vacuum that in this case was filled by “we-media” posts and internet discussion.
Old in-depth reports and films about the kidnapping and sale of women into marriage were also dragged out, receiving new waves of attention. These included a 2001 story by Southern Weekly called “Abducted for Six Years” (被拐六年), the 2007 film Blind Mountain (盲山) by director Li Yang (李杨), and a Beijing Youth Daily interview with novelist Jia Pingwa (贾平凹) about his 2016 novel Broken Wings (极花), which tells the story of a girl trafficked to a family in a remote mountain village.
Speaking in the interview about the social context of his novel, Jia made the remark that the village depicted in his novel would cease to exist if it did not buy brides for its young men. The comments section of Jia’s personal Weibo account was inundated with curses from internet users who felt his words amounted to acceptance of the practice of selling women into marriage. Online comments by Luo Xiang (罗翔), a well-known professor of criminal law, who said that sentences for trafficking women were not as severe as those for endangering wildlife, resonated with the public.
After the city of Xuzhou released its second official release on the case on February 10, the opinions offered on “we-media” accounts and by various experts on social media became the chief window through which the public came to understand the case of the chained woman. On February 11, the Weibo account “@GuoPengpeng” (@郭蓬蓬), with more than 60,000 followers, explained the process for storage and use of DNA evidence, and called into question the determination of Xuzhou city authorities on the basis of DNA gathered from clothing remnants.
On February 12, an investigative report from two former media professionals made the rounds on social media. The report was written by Ma Sa (马萨) and Tie Muzi (铁木子), both former journalists from the Yunnan Information Times (云南信息报), who had visited Yagu Village (亚谷村) in remote Yunnan province and shown picture of the chained woman to villagers. The villagers, they found, were unfamiliar with the woman shown in the video. Nor could the villagers make out her accent, calling into question the findings of the earlier reports from Xuzhou City. Many Chinese felt certain that Dong X Min, the father, had in fact had two wives, and that both had possibly been kidnapped. And if this was the case, where was the other woman now?
The next day, February 13, another “we-media” report appeared online that told the story behind the investigation by Ma and Tie, talking about how the former reporters had temporarily left their current jobs to return to hard-nosed reporting work. According to the post, Tie Mu was now selling beer in Kunming, while Ma Sa was selling tea in the historic city of Dali northwest of the capital.
Two days later, another former journalist joined the fray. This time it was charity worker and former investigative reporter Deng Fei (邓飞), who posted photographs to his Weibo account that had been provided to him by an anonymous source. One photograph was of the marriage license for Yang X Xia and Dong X Min, dated to August 1998. Deng Fei pointed out that the woman on the marriage license did not look at all like the chained woman.
Under pressure from the continued material and questions circulating on social media, the Jiangsu provincial government announced on February 17 that it was forming an investigation team to conduct a full inquiry into the case it referred to as “the woman in Feng County birthing eight children.” Subsequently, several people revealed online that they had been approached by investigators to learn whether they had been the ones to provide the photographs to Deng Fei, prompting speculation online about whether provincial authorities were investigating the case of the chained woman or cases of complicating evidence released online.
Seven days later, on February 23, the provincial investigation team released a report on its findings. It persisted in the conclusion that the chained woman was the same person as the Yang X Xia appearing on the marriage license:
In response to questions concerning whether or not the woman on the marriage certificate of Dong X Min and Yang X Xia is in fact Yang X Xia, police organs have investigated [the matter] and found that recent images of Yang X Xia were taken from video on the Douyin platform, and after alteration were transmitted on the internet, and were therefore different from [her] real appearance. At the same time, aging has resulted in changes to [Yang’s] skin, the degrading of her hair, changes to her tissue and the loss of teeth. On February 22, the Physical Evidence Examination Center of the Ministry of Public Security studied the photo on the marriage certificate of Dong X Min and Yang X Xia, and the first marriage photo of Dong X Min and Yang X Xia, as well as images of Yang X Xia from recent online videos, the image on Yang X Xia’s personal ID, and . . . . determined that they are the same person.
Given obvious differences between the photo on the Yang X Xia marriage certificate and more recent images of the chained woman, added to the suspicion there had been problems in the sampling of DNA, many Chinese found it difficult to accept the determination that they were the same woman.
Following the release of the provincial findings, internet users turned this section of the Jiangsu provincial government report into an online meme, spoofing the idea of impossible comparisons. Internet users realized that by using comparative techniques similar to those cited by the investigation team, they could equate impossible pairs of images, including those of people and animals, or people and plants. Former US President Donald Trump, for example, could be scientifically compared to a sheaf of corn.
Aside from these questions about the techniques and assumptions applied by government investigators, there were many other points of doubt arising from the Jiangsu report. It said, for example, that officials from the procuratorate in Feng County had reviewed the case and found this to be a serious case of “abuse of a family member.” At this point, however, many people still believed that a likely explanation for Yang X Xia’s plight was that she had been kidnapped and forced to “marry” Dong, and therefore possibly could not be called a “family member.”
Another serious question stemmed from a rumor circulating online that the woman's first child, Dong Xianggang (董香港), his name a reference to the return of Hong Kong to the PRC, had been born in 1997, the year of Hong Kong’s return. How was that possible if, as the marriage license attested, they had not been married until the following year? If the child had been born in 1997, before Dong’s father had arranged for the purchase of the Yang X Min shown on the marriage license, it would not make sense that this was Yang’s son.
The Jiangsu government report purported to settle this confusion by claiming that two different people of the name Dong Xianggang lived in the area. The first, born in 1997 in a neighboring village, and was now a migrant worker living elsewhere in the country. The second, born in 1999, was the son of Yang X Xia. Netizens were understandably perplexed by this explanation. Why, they wondered, would Yang and Dong name their child “Hong Kong” when he was born in 1999, two years after the handover? Wouldn’t it make more sense to name him “Macau,” given that Macau had been returned to China in 1999?
There were also a number of experts online who offered independent analysis attacking the credibility of the provincial government report. For example, addressing concerns that the chained woman has lost her teeth due to periodontitis The report, for example, suggested that the chained woman had likely lost her teeth due to severe gum infection, rejecting the conclusion favored by many Chinese, namely, that her tooth loss resulted from serious physical abuse. A number of professional dentists online pointed out, however, that this the government’s conclusion was logically inconsistent. Certainly, the chained woman, now toothless and clearly abused, might currently be suffering from severe periodontitis, but this did not mean that her previous tooth loss was due to gum disease. There was no way to rule out the possibility that her teeth had been pulled out by the Dong family because she had resisted her rape.
Additionally, psychiatric experts pointed out that those suffering mental disorders generally could reveal their own names. It should be possible, they said, for the chained woman to share her real name with investigators. As the social media account of the CCP's official People's Daily newspaper, "@People's Daily," and other official media shared the report by the provincial government , internet users flooded the comments sections with questions. They suggested that investigators accompany the woman back to Yunnan, where certainly she would be able to identify her relatives – since provincial authorities persisted in the view that she was from the southwestern province. If both sides could meet then the truth would at last be clear.
Despite the continued clamor for answers, the Jiangsu provincial investigation seemed to be the final word on the case of the chained woman. Even by late March, there was no further news on the case, and a human rights lawyer attempting to pursue it further was harried from Xuzhou by local authorities. One user commented on Weibo: “Has the case of the chained woman in Xuzhou been solved? Why hasn’t it been solved? Why is it being covered up? Why?”
The company will do its utmost to recruit [content security] personnel
On the afternoon of February 4, in the midst of the Spring Festival holiday, an employee working in the content security center (内容安全中心) at the Bilibili video platform died of a cerebral hemorrhage at his home in Wuhan. The employee, identified by the alias "Twilight Wooden Heart" (暮色木心), was just 25 years old. In a response to the case, Bilibili said that the nature of the employee’s content security review work required special all-day working hours, and that even during the Spring Festival holiday it was necessary for content security review staff to work consecutive shifts, remaining on duty to get the work done.
“Twilight Wooden Heart,” who had not been granted vacation time for the Spring Festival holiday, was scheduled to work at the office on the day of the incident. “[The] company will do its utmost to expand recruitment of [content security] review staff, raising recruitment this year by 1,000 people,” a statement from Bilibili said. This personnel increase would, according to the statement, "effectively reduce per capita work pressure." But the statement also provided a further glimpse into the intensity of content security review operations at Bilibili and other major internet platforms. According to information disclosed in its Hong Kong application for an initial public offering, Bilibili had 2,413 employees devoted to content security review as of December 31, 2020. Their responsibility is to review uploaded content 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
According to one influencer on the Weibo platform, “Twilight Wooden Heart” had suffered a brain hemorrhage after working a 9PM-9AM shift. Other internet users familiar with Bilibili’s operations said that the company had three shifts for content security review work, and that 12-hour workdays were mandatory, with just one 30-minute break permitted for meals. The shifts were rotated on a monthly basis, they said.
Authorized for publication
On February 3, just ahead of the Beijing Winter Olympics, Chinese media gave widespread coverage to an exclusive interview with Russian President Vladimir Putin by Shen Haixiong (慎海雄), a deputy propaganda minister and president of the China Media Group (CMG), the country’s umbrella state media conglomerate.
The interview, promoted the day before Putin’s arrival in Beijing to attend the Games, was a source of speculation on social media as many users noted that Shen’s questions dealt only with the Winter Olympics, with the extension of the Sino-Russian Treaty of Friendship, and with Putin’s favorite sporting events. How, users wondered, could a major official news organization like the CMG not have focused on relations between Russia and Ukraine even as Russia massed troops, armored vehicles and other equipment on Ukraine’s border?
A second criticism levelled at the Putin interview was that it appeared in text form only, despite the fact that CMG is China’s flagship radio and television broadcaster. Most mysterious for many users was the fact that this interview text was identified as being “authorized for publication” (受权发布). What did this odd phrase actually mean, and what role had Shen Haixiong actually had in the interview?
Most importantly, who had “authorized” the Putin interview for publication? Putin himself, perhaps?
The final revelry
The closing ceremony of the Beijing Winter Olympics was held on February 20, and according to the event’s general director, filmmaker Zhang Yimou (张艺谋), the number of athletes participating in the closing ceremony broke historical records. "Originally, there were about 600 people [participating], and now it's more than 2,000 people,” Zhang was quoted as saying. “Everyone is willing to come to the closing ceremony, willing to participate in this final revelry, which means the athletes are really happy and we have friends all over the world."
An online news story about the closing ceremony of the Beijing Winter Olympics includes in the headline Zhang Yimou’s remarks about “the final revelry.”
As some media reporting on Zhang’s comments placed the phrase “the final revelry” in headlines, this became an online meme, quickly picked up by Chinese-language media overseas, suggesting other possible meanings, including a possible end to the current CCP leadership.
The Hot and the Cold
About the Scale:
According to the discourse scale developed by CMP in 2016, based on a historical analysis of keywords appearing in the China Communist Party’s flagship People’s Daily newspaper, we define a six-tier system of discourse intensity based on the total number of appearances of a given discourse term on a per article basis for the full year in the paper. The scale is as follows:
In 2021, CMP adjusted its classification method for CCP discourse, determining the intensity (热度) of Party terminologies according to the absolute number of articles including those terms in the People's Daily newspaper. Previously, CMP used a proportional method, which looked at the number of articles including a particular catchphrase (提法) as a ratio of total articles in the newspaper over a given period. Our monthly classification standard, based on the six-level scale created in 2016, is as follows:
In February 2022, there was a general drop in frequencies of terms monitored by CMP owing both to the fact that February was a short month and to the printing of fewer pages in the People’s Daily as a result of the Spring Festival holiday. There was a total of 1,799 articles in the newspaper in February, down 303 from January.
These factors resulted in just one term, “COVID-19” (新冠肺炎) making Tier 1 for February, followed by 17 terms in Tier 2. In January, by comparison, there were three terms in Tier 1, and 25 terms in Tier 2.
Terms making Tier 2 in February included “with Comrade Xi Jinping as the core,” a phrase meant to reiterate Xi’s power and position in the Party; and also Xi’s 16-character banner term, which we can refer to by the shorthand “Xi Jinping Thought” (though this has not yet been formalized in the CCP’s discourse). Following these terms closely in Tier 3 was the so-called “442 formula,” comprising three key phrases: the “Four Consciousnesses” (四个意识), the “Four Confidences” (四个自信), and the “Two Upholds” (两个维护). Like the reference to Xi as the “core,” the “442 formula” is intended to signal Xi’s dominance.
The five generally used permutations of Xi Jinping’s banner term in various policy areas, signs to watch as we observe the possible development of “Xi Thought” (习思想) as a phrase in its own right, were all in Tier 4 and below in February. “Xi Jinping Thought on Rule of Law” (习近平法治思想) and “Xi Jinping Thought on Ecological Civilization” (习近平生态文明思想) both made Tier 4, while “Xi Jinping Thought on a Strong Military” (习近平强军思想) was in Tier 5. “Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy” (习近平外交思想) and “Xi Jinping Thought on the Economy” (习近平经济思想) were both at the bottom in Tier 6.
The following table shows the key terms we reviewed for the month of January 2022 and how they rated on our scale:
Monthly Hot Words:
The “Two Establishes”
In our January report, we focused on the “Two Establishes” (两个确立), which has trended strongly since the 6th Plenum of the 19th CCP Central Committee in November last year. The term , which 1) establishes Xi Jinping as the unquestionable “core” leader of the CCP, and 2) establishes Xi Jinping’s ideas as the bedrock of the future under what the CCP has termed the “New Era,” figures strongly in expressions of “position declaration,” or biaotai (表态), by various Party and government officials across the country in support of Xi Jinping’s continued leadership of the CCP. In February, the provinces and municipalities using the “Two Establishes” most fervently were: Tianjin, Shanxi, Tibet, Guangdong and Guangxi.
In January, Tianjin was ranked 22nd among provinces and municipalities in terms of its use of the “Two Establishes,” but for February took the top spot. This was due to the opening of Tianjin’s local people’s congress and political consultative conference, the annual “two meetings” (两会). The “two meetings” period in Tianjin was a prime opportunity for local officials to make speeches in which they signaled their loyalty to the Party’s general secretary.
The provinces and municipalities using the “Two Establishes” least were Hainan, Shandong, Liaoning, Ningxia and Shanghai.
The Centrality Index
Most notable in February was the aforementioned fact that two top-level leaders, Ding Xuexiang (丁薛祥) and Yang Jiechi (杨洁篪), surpassed Premier Li Keqiang (李克强) in terms of frequency of mention in the People’s Daily. This was due largely to Ding and Yang attending the opening and closing ceremonies of the Beijing Winter Olympics alongside Xi Jinping, as well as receiving foreign dignitaries in China. Only nine articles in February mentioned Li Keqiang, marking the first time since the 18th National Congress in 2012 that the premier dropped down to Tier 4 on the CMP scale. At the recent NPC, Li Keqiang formally announced that he would retire as premier next year. Generally, China’s premier and president retire during the same year, but Xi Jinping upset these expectations in 2018 when he pushed for the removal of term limits on the presidency, paving the way for his continued leadership.
As in previous months, Xi Jinping was the only leader in February to make Tier 1, and Tier 2 again remained vacant, a visual indicator of the extreme gap on power and profile between Xi and the rest of the Politburo Standing Committee.
In February 2022, foreign leaders in the People’s Daily were arrayed across Tiers 3-6, with no leaders appearing in the top to levels. Russian President Vladimir Putin was the top-mentioned foreign leader for the month, rising to Level 3 from January’s Level 4 owing to his attendance of the Beijing Winter Olympics and the outbreak of Russia’s war in Ukraine. Revealingly, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy (泽连斯基) was mentioned 0 times in the CCP’s flagship newspaper in February, despite the fact that war was being waged against his country – a clear reflection of differential treatment in Chinese Party-state media.
On February 5, 2022, a total of six articles appeared on the China-Russia relationship in the People’s Daily, sprawled across the first three pages of the paper. But the story with top billing was of the opening ceremony of the Beijing Winter Olympics, with Putin listed first among the foreign leaders attending, followed by King of Cambodia Norodom Sihamoni and Singapore President Halimah Yacob. The joint statement issued by China and Russia on February 4, 2022, occupied most of page two in the February 5 edition of the paper.
US President Joe Biden dropped to Tier 5 from Tier 4 in January. Mentions of Biden in February included reporting of his February 12 phone call with Putin on the Ukraine issue. But much other coverage centered on problems in the United States, including excessive government debt, and inequalities in the US healthcare system. Another piece mentioning Biden on February 18 criticized the president for his executive order allowing frozen assets from Afghanistan’s central bank to be reserved for victims of the 9/11 attacks, calling the decision “an illegal appropriation of Afghan assets.”