On December 30, China's state-owned Xinhua News Agency named the Xuzhou "China's Happiest City" for 2021.
The city in eastern China's Jiangsu province boasted dramatic economic growth and enlightened city planning, according to Jiangsu.net, resulting in the kind of blossoming that gains nationwide notice in China.
But within days, Xuzhou's civic pride morphed into mortification when a blogger found a mother of eight chained by the neck to the wall of a hut and exposed to freezing weather. As the Olympic Games progressed in Beijing, the mother's story went viral, and subsequent missteps by Xuzhou authorities drew local accusations of cover-ups and worldwide outrage.
The mother, Xiao Huamei, appeared in a video on Douyin (Chinese TikTok) shot by a blogger who documents unusual families, in this case, one with eight children, seven of them boys. In the video, behind the alleged father and all the youngsters, Chinese netizens spotted a chained woman.
On January 28, the video went viral. Amid the run-up to Lunar New Year festivities and the Beijing Winter Olympics, shocked netizens demanded answers: Who was this woman? Why was she chained up? How can she have eight kids with her husband given China's reproductive controls?
Between January 28 and February 10, local authorities issued four reports on the situation. The muddled accounts stirred further public outcry, and many netizens expressed their suspicions that kidnapping and domestic abuse were central to the woman's case.
Public pressure brought the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to reckoning for a long-hushed-up web of problems, such as the human trafficking resulting from the imbalanced male to female ratio, the result of a cultural preference for boys in a country that restricted families to one child from 1980 to 2013, when the policy began to loosen.
As of Tuesday, China's social media platform Weibo was censoring the tag "Xiao Huamei," and while discussion was allowed, the subject has been blocked from the hot topic list.
An official in the CCP Xuzhou Propaganda Unit told VOA Mandarin that authorities were investigating the case.
Understanding of laws banning domestic abuse "is relatively weak in rural parts of China, and there's a lack of social governance, resulting in human trafficking," the CCP official, who identified himself only as Mr. Xu, said.
"But we are working on it now. Please give us some space to get a clear picture," he added.
Four conflicting reports
Xuzhou authorities have issued four contradictory reports since the woman was first seen on video.
County-level authorities issued the first two, which emphasized the woman had been diagnosed as mentally ill and dismissed concerns that she was being trafficked.
In the first report, published January 28, the same day the video went viral in China, authorities said the woman, a local resident, was married to a man named Dong Zhimin. The couple had eight children, said the report, which also stressed she had a serious mental illness.
A January 30 report said the woman was a beggar taken in by Dong's father in June 1998. Although the local birth planning unit had performed "birth control measures" after the woman bore her first and second child, "both failed due to her physical condition
On February 7, city-level authorities reversed the second report and gave the woman's name as Xiao Huamei, or "Little Plum Blossom," which in Chinese sounds more like a nickname than a proper name.
This report, the third, said the woman came from a village in southern China's Yunnan province, and in 1996, her mother had asked a woman identified only as Ms. Sang to take her daughter to Jiangsu province for treatment of her mental illness. The daughter disappeared, and Ms. Sang failed to inform Xiao's parents or the local police.
Chinese netizens were not buying what the reports were selling.
"So all the previous investigation reports are lies!" one netizen said.
"How do you explain the chain on her neck?" asked another. "And how did they manage to get married if she's mentally ill?"
"She went missing and no one cared to tell her family? And this is not human trafficking?" yet another netizen opined.
Facing unrelenting public outcry, the Xuzhou authorities on Thursday released the fourth, and latest, report. In it, they state that Xiao Huamei is a victim of human trafficking, and that three people have been arrested in connection with the case, including her husband, Dong, who has been charged with illegal detention. Ms. Sang and her husband have been charged with human trafficking
Many netizens praised the latest report as a step closer to the truth. Others were angry that the authorities acted only after public outcry. Some still have questions.
"We need follow-ups. What's her age? Where's their marriage license?" one netizen asked.
"We need to see proof other than a report. If this is not the final investigation and the results are wrong again, someone needs to be held accountable," another commenter wrote.
Xu, with the CCP Xuzhou Propaganda Unit, told VOA Mandarin on Friday that social services have the mother and her eight children in care.
Xu said that because of limited time and resources, the first two reports didn't provide clear picture of the facts, which led to the conclusion that she wasn't being trafficked.
"But now we are actively pursuing this case. I hope netizens and media can give us some room to conduct the investigation and not pressure us too hard," he said.
Yao Cheng, a former lieutenant colonel of the CCP's Navy Command and a women's right activist, told VOA Mandarin that a third party needs to conduct the investigation to guarantee transparency.
"If the CCP is really confident in itself, it needs to allow other international organizations to conduct the investigation so people will actually believe the result," he told VOA. Yao volunteered for the New York-based Women's Rights in China, a nongovernmental organization, from 2007 to 2016.
Yao also pointed out that China's longtime one-child policy has resulted in an imbalanced male to female ratio, especially in rural areas, where people value sons over daughters.
The "natural sex ratio" at birth is 105 boys for every 100 girls, according to the World Health Organization, because a few extra males are needed to offset their tendency to die at a younger age than females. But in China, the ratio has sometimes exceeded 120 boys for every 100 girls. The result is that in 2020, there were 34.9 million more males than females in China, making it a challenge for men to find a wife, especially in China's rural areas, where gender imbalance is even greater, according to the BBC.
"The gender imbalance has resulted in more human trafficking of women in China's rural areas," Yao said. "Authorities and police usually turn a blind eye to these activities, and some even profit from it."