TAIPEI – Sustained, palpable anger in China over the case of a mother of eight found chained inside a shed has prompted an unusually strong government response to human trafficking at the annual session of China’s rubber-stamp legislature.
The issue even merited a brief mention by China’s premier Li Keqiang in his annual report on government performance delivered Saturday. That marked part of a direct attempt by a government not often given to responding to public pressure to address the widespread outrage.
Local governments have announced crackdowns on the practice of trafficking vulnerable women in the vast country, while the Public Security Ministry is pursuing a nationwide anti-trafficking campaign aimed at solving a backlog of cases, to be carried out by all levels. On Tuesday, China’s top prosecutor, Zhang Jun, announced his department would “strictly enforce” laws against abduction and trafficking.
The woman found on the outskirts of the eastern city of Xuzhou had been trafficked multiple times and had eight children by the man who ultimately purchased her.
State media reported that at least half a dozen proposed legal reforms on the issue were brought by members of the National People's Congress and its consultative body, which are holding their annual sessions this week in Beijing.
A proposal from delegate Jiang Shengnan would raise criminal penalties in trafficking cases so that the buyer would face the same penalties as the seller, according to state newspaper Beijing Youth Daily.
“Appropriately increasing the penalty and increasing the criminal penalty for buying will play a certain deterrent effect,” Jiang was quoted as saying by the paper.
Activists have welcomed the response, though some question whether the focus on heavy criminal penalties is the best approach to take.
“I personally think all of these proposals are positive, and they are meaningful,” said Feng Yuan, co-founder of Beijing Equality, a group that focuses on gender-based violence.
“But I think they are missing some important angles,” Feng said, because the proposals she saw have been too focused on the buyers' criminal penalties.
Under current Chinese criminal law, those who traffic women or children can be sentenced to between five and 10 years in prison, and even a death sentence. Purchasers can be sentenced to no more than three years.
Jiang’s proposal also included the prospect of a follow-up mechanism after victims are rescued from trafficking. Others called on local governments to correctly identify trafficking victims who may have been registered under false names, create a nationwide alert system for kidnapping and trafficking, and increase criminal penalties.
Authorities did not respond to a request to interview NPC delegates, including Jiang. A similar request for members of the advisory body the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference was declined.
NPC delegates do not directly draft legislation, although their proposals are passed on to the appropriate ministries. The body’s Standing Committee, aided by legal experts, actually writes the laws.
The chained woman’s plight ignited a public demand to ensure a crackdown on trafficking. According to Zhang’s 2022 report, the number of people charged annually with trafficking women and children declined from 14,458 in 2000 to just 1,135 people last year. However it’s unclear if the decline in the number charged is due to less trafficking or due to looser enforcement.
A desire to quiet and divert public anger while China was hosting the Winter Olympics last month may have been a factor in the government's response.
“They don’t want this case to suck up all the air,” said Dali Yang, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago. “So there’s clearly an interest in, ideally, resolving it in a way that it would disappear.”
Yang said proposals to address the issue appeared to be politically “within the realm of acceptability.”
Feng, the women's rights activist, urged the government to look at reform beyond criminal penalties. More urgent issues include verifying a victim's identity, helping them live independently after rescue and providing resources for mental health and physical recovery, she said.
Among activists' concerns is whether those rescued will be able to register for public services such as health insurance because they had been given new names and household registrations in the places to which they had been trafficked.
“I hope these points can also attract attention,” Feng said.
China's Cabinet addressed some of those issues in an April 2021 document, including verifying marriage registrations and increasing anti-trafficking education in remote areas. New measures seek to give these initiatives a boost.
Trafficking is fed in part by a large gender imbalance resulting from China's former one-child policy.
“The logic of constructing a family as being the most important thing in a way overrides concern about where someone came from,” said Johanna Ransmeier, a professor at the University of Chicago who studied the history of human trafficking in China.
Ultimately, such underlying attitudes need to change for a solution to be found, Ransmeier said.
“It’s distressing that this remedy is purely about punishment, and not about social change,” she said.