This past week, the story of Xiao Huamei, the woman who gave birth to eight children under suspicious circumstances has unleashed other stories about human trafficking in rural China and the complicity of low-level government officials, who have overlooked obvious violations of Chinese law to facilitate…what? Chinese public opinion has focused on the Xuzhou government’s inept handling of the case, outraged at their indifference to the rights of women and children. Family life, they rightly assume, should be a safe place for all members. I’ve been thinking the question is worthy of a dissertation: Why has it been so important for marginalized rural men to marry that local and regional officials, not to mention family and friends, have ignored the illegality of these households for decades? Xiao Huamei’s videotaped answer is quite clear, “This world doesn’t want us.”
My inner North Americanwants to snark: are these incels with Chinese characteristics? But this is bitter humor, a laugh that obscures as much as it reveals about cultural difference and demographic transition. On the one hand, China’s rural wife-purchasers, like North American incels seem to truly believe that they are owed a woman, albeit to satisfy different desires. And in both China and North America questions of women’s roles continue to be framed in terms of men’s needs. Sigh.
On the other hand, these Chinese and north American forms of male chauvinism and misogyny are cultivated in and deployed to sustain different communities. In rural China, for example, the network of traffickers who have supplied women and the family, friends and officials who have made sure (both actively and through negligence) women don’t escape share beliefs about the filial obligation to continue family lines, which are traced from father to son. In these narratives, women are means to masculine ends–the birth of a son and social coming of age. It is a generalized value judgement, held by many who oppose human trafficking. For example, rural wives who don’t give birth are known as “hens who can’t lay (下不了鸡蛋的).” It is an ugly, dismissive label that emphasizes a woman’s reproductive function without or despite her rights as a human being. In contrast, participants in north American online forums where young men are groomed and radicalized share ideas about how sexual intercourse makes men out of boys. In these narratives, women are means to masculine ends–by ejaculating into a vagina a boy comes of age. It is also a generalized value judgement, held even by those who maintain that consent is fundamental to healthy sexual relations. A north American woman, for example, who doesn’t put out is known as a bitch. And yes, the short linguistic jump from not putting out to being put down hovers at the tips of our collective tongues. Incels, many now suggest, are terrorist threats, even as Chinese intellectuals and urban residents continue to frame the nation’s problems in terms of improving the quality of its rural population.
Stories of how women are wanted (by whom and towards what ends) currently clog Chinese social media. For example, several days ago, the WeChat account 人间The Livings (WeChat ID: thelivings) published an essay, “My Mother, A Vietnamese Bride Purchased for 2,800 Yuan (我妈妈，是2800块买来的越南新娘).” Unlike the story of Xiao Huamei, which has been told through ongoing exegesis of limited official reports and Douyin videos, Zhang Tangyuan’s first-person essay offers details about her mother’s life. She thought she was coming to work, but was instead sold at a farm that has become known as source of “Vietnamese brides (越南新娘),” which is the colloquial name for Vietnamese women who have been trafficked as wives. Like the other Vietnamese women, Zhang’s mother’s papers were taken, she didn’t know the local language, and the boss beat anyone who wanted to leave into submission. Zhang says that her mother was kept imprisoned at the farm for three months, when her father purchased her. She later learned that her father had borrowed the money to purchase her mother, who cultivated and sold peanuts to pay back the family debt.
Her mother didn’t runaway until much later. At first, she didn’t run because the family closely watched her, never leaving her alone. Also, a Vietnamese woman in a neighboring village who tried to escape was beaten and often locked away. The woman managed to escape by using a mosquito net to climb down from her second floor prison, making it to the township bus station. But once there, she couldn’t speak the local language in order to purchase a ticket to Guangxi, where she could make the trip back to Vietnam. Subsequently, she was recognized and forced to return to the home of the family that had purchased her. The second reason Zhang’s mother didn’t run away was because she was quickly impregnated, giving birth to a son. Zhang believes that her mother spoiled her older brother because he may have saved her from a worse fate; had she given birth to a girl, she probably would have been re-sold to another man.
All this happened around 1992-93, at the beginning of Reform and Opening Up. Zhang was born several years later, and her mother continued to care for her, her brother, her father and his family. When Zhang was in middle school, her mother finally managed to go home to Vietnam to visit Zhang’s grandparents. At the time, Zhang worried that her mother wouldn’t return. Family and fellow villagers exacerbated her anxiety through malicious teasing, “Will your mother return?” Adults made these half-jokes knowing that most Vietnamese women who left the village of their own volition chose not to return, intimating it was because these women lacked the moral virtue to stay with their children. (Much as anti-abortion activists in north America hold that terminating a pregnancy reveals a lack of womanly sentiment and moral fortitude.) However, Zhang’s mother did return, confessing to her daughter that she could not leave her children behind. Indeed, as soon as Zhang was a senior in high school, her future secured, her mother left with another man. Afterwards, she remained in touch with her daughter, returning to take care of her father when he was hospitalized.
At the same time that women trafficking stories are going viral, so is the story of Eileen Gu, gold medalist in the women’s free air event at the 2022 winter olympics. She is China’s “snow princess,” representing what is possible for young women when they are self-confident and hard-working. Gu’s father is noticeably absent from the story, leading to speculations about who and where he is, but also framing stories of successful Chinese returns for overseas Chinese and their children. And there’s the rub. Since the late 1970s, millions of Chinese nationals have immigrated abroad, often acquiring citizenship for themselves and children in their new countries of residence. Before 2000, the status of these migrants and their children was unequivocal; they were foreigners. However, over the past two decades, China has increasingly blurred the distinction between Chinese nationals (华人) and overseas Chinese (华侨), even experimenting with the so-called “Ethnic Chinese card (华裔卡).” The goal, as in the case of Eileen Gu was to attract ethnic talent to return to serve China’s interests.
Both Zhang and Gu attribute their success to her mother. Indeed, when juxtaposed with the case of Xiao Huamei, the question of motherhood and its contributions to the nation become even more pronounced. Indeed, many of these stories In late January, a video of Huamei’s husband explaining his love of children as why he and his wife had had 8 children was released, presumably to show support for the government’s recent push to increase the country’s birthrate. However, after that video was released, a Weibo producer visited Xiao Huamei, discovering that she was secured in a small shed by a chain around her neck. His video of her living conditions went viral. Subsequently, the Xuzhou government released its four different accounts of who the woman was, ultimately saying that the husband and two traffickers had been arrested, without addressing questions, such as: Why aren’t local officials being held responsible? Who is taking caring of the children now that their mother is missing and father has been arrested? How will their parentage be explained to them, if at all?
Together, the stories of Xiao Huamei, Zhang Tangyuan’s mother, and Eileen Gu suggest that the Chinese state’s virility may be–like the country’s population–declining. Or at least that’s one way of interpreting this surge of articles which focus on mother-child relationships, rather than on paternalistic families. Indeed, when fathers do appear in these stories it is through their absence or their failings; women raise successful children despite the men in their lives, but for whom and to what ends? The debates around these women, their lives and their choices also point to fall out from China’s demographic transition, recent patterns of migration, and the decision to encourage women to have more children, placing kinship and its numerous forms at the heart of the matter.