Monday, Mar 27, 2017, 8:31 PM CST – China

Society

An Abducted Woman

“Bloody Rouge”

More than 20 years ago, Gao Yanmin was abducted and sold into a rural marriage. Despite attempts to escape, Gao eventually settled in the village and served as its sole female teacher, earning praise from some for ‘repaying evil with good’ even as others slammed the tacit endorsement of human trafficking. NewsChina investigates

Gao Yanmin carries a student back home after school, May 13, 2015 Photo by CFP

Gao Yanmin plays with her students during a break between classes, May 13, 2015 Photo by CFP

The primary school of Xia’an Village where Gao Yanmin works Photo by CFP

In 2013, Gao Yanmin caught national attention when this abductee had worked as a teacher for nearly 20 years in her captor’s village, was named one of China’s top 10 best rural teachers by the State media outlet CCTV and Party paper Guangming Daily. That story was given new life in July 2015 after a blogger re-posted the report and criticized it for condoning human trafficking by ignoring the fact that Gao was sold into the village and had never been able to escape.

The post went viral overnight, with a flood of netizens retweeting it and commenting on the story. A 2009 movie based on Gao’s experiences, The Story of an Abducted Woman, also came under fire. The movie prettified Gao’s kidnapping, portraying it as a rescue, and highlighted Gao’s dedication to her new village. Today, many people, especially feminists, view this interpretation as a “disgrace” to China’s moral values, its laws and the country itself.

“[This propaganda] is like rouge made of blood. Would an abscess turn beautiful by being covered with such rouge?” wrote well-known microblogger Honglingjin on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter. This idea was shared by many media figures, including some working for State publications. Even Chen Shiqu, director of the Anti-abduction Office under China’s Ministry of Public Security, publicly stated that both the traffickers and buyers should be punished and that people should rescue the victims rather than excusing the crime or sympathizing with the criminals.

However, Gao herself was not so enthusiastic about netizens’ sympathy and public attention. She refused most interview requests, claiming that she did not use the Internet much and did not notice what web users were discussing. On July 30, two days after her story began to spread nationwide, Gao authorized her local publicity department to publish a signed letter for her, stating that she prefers a quiet life and hopes nobody would harm her current family. The letter triggered new rounds of discussion – people began to question how this Chinese woman’s tragedy could have been overlooked for two decades. It had been so long that even the victim had resigned herself to this “fate.”

Abduction

Gao’s experience was first exposed in 2006 when she was glorified by the provincial State media of Hebei Province as one of the top 10 newsmakers who “moved people the most.” According to media reports at the time, Gao was abducted in 1994, when she was only 19 years old. Under the pretense of helping her find a new job, two women led her away from a Hebei Province train station where Gao was buying a ticket home. They sold her to three unknown men and one of them allegedly raped her before selling her again.

After several more “transactions,” Gao was finally sold for 2,700 yuan (US$429) to a shepherd living in Hebei’s poor, mountainous Xia’an Village. Despite Gao’s desperate pleas, the shepherd allegedly raped her and then forced her to marry him.

Gao’s husband’s family kept a close eye on her. When she tried to escape, she was soon caught, dragged back and beaten. They ensured her three suicide attempts all failed. The monitoring was not lowered until she gradually surrendered to her new reality and settled into the family. Within a few years, she gave birth to a daughter, and then a son. Because her middle school education made her the most well-educated person in the village, she served as a local teacher.

Yet previous media reports did not analyze the reasons behind her abduction, her trafficking, or her rape; nor did they appeal to the police for help. Instead, they piled praise on how she “put the past aside” and devoted herself to the education of the village’s children.

“Facing children’s eyes that were full of expectation, [Gao] chose to stay in the village that had brought her bitterness and humiliation,” a reporter wrote on a local news website under the Hebei Daily. “Due to her great ability to love, her life shines like a blooming flower.”

Ironically, the local village government did not view the media attention as an honor, instead blaming Gao for blackening the village’s name by exposing its backwardness to the media – some villagers told the media that Gao had intentionally misled the media by showing them the shabbiest places in the village. In 2006, renowned news magazine Nanfeng Window revealed that once Gao’s story was made public, the village government used any means possible to stop media outlets from interviewing Gao, including State broadcaster CCTV. Village leaders forbade her from leaving the area, and even threatened to remove her from the village school staff.

Eventually, Gao fell out of the limelight for years, only returning now, when Chinese netizens, who have become increasingly aware of human rights, suddenly cast concerns over her situation from a completely different angle.

Leave or Stay?

Gao had given up resisting her captors years before her story went public. She was tied to the village by her children and her work as a teacher. Perhaps the only difference to her daily life pre- and post-fame is that her husband no longer dares to beat her.

According to Gao, she first got in touch with her own family as early as 1995. “Accompanied” by her husband, she visited her parents in their poor Henan Province village and found that, since she’d gone missing the year before, her father’s hair had turned white and her mother had sobbed herself sick. Yet when Gao asked if she could stay with them, they refused.

“We hoped that you would consider your husband’s family first. If you chose to stay with us, they would lose both you and the money [they spent buying you],” her mother reportedly said to her. “And, as a formerly married woman, you would be looked down upon by the villagers here and it would be very hard for you to find a good man.”

This was the harsh reality of her situation. Despite the decade and a half of supposed openness that China had experienced by this point, many rural people, especially those in poorly educated and underdeveloped areas, regarded married women as products belonging to their husbands – many villages even deprive married women of their right to be assigned housing and land.

With nowhere else to go, Gao returned to her husband’s village and helped at the local school when the village was too poor to hire teachers. “Although there was no love between my husband and me, my parents-in-law were kind to me and that moved me... Sometimes I felt like I was being cowardly [by staying], but I have a clear conscience,” she told the media in 2006.

Her response seems to defy logic to many modern netizens, with some wondering if Gao is suffering from Stockholm syndrome. Others attributed her surrender to what women are taught according to traditional Chinese customs – traditional Confucianism requires women to be willing to swallow humiliation and sacrifice herself for the good of her family – just as Gao’s parents had told her to do.

Such propaganda still prevails, especially in State media, which has encouraged women to “repay evil with good.” In 2008, State broadcaster CCTV aired the movie A’xia, telling the story of an abducted woman named A’xia, praising her devotion to the village of the man she was sold to. In 2014, CCTV program Waiting for You, in which the host searches for missing people, triggered controversy by persuading an abducted woman who had escaped her captor’s village to return to it because her son still lived there. More recently, the Shanghai Women’s Federation outraged many netizens by encouraging abused women to hug the husbands who had beaten them.

“So, in Chinese society, men are human, children are human, and only women are not?” wrote one commenter on tianya.cn, China’s most popular online bulletin board.

Helpless

Following the publicity surrounding Gao’s story, China’s rampant human trafficking has once again caused great public concerns. Influenced by sexism and cultural preferences, many rural families, especially poorer ones, prefer to have sons. When those sons find it hard to find a woman to marry, they “purchase” a bride from human traffickers. Most of the locals, including many officials, view this practice as more of a “traditional custom” than a crime.

For example, dozens of men in Gao’s husband’s village have “married” abducted women. The impoverished town of Huangjing, Hunan Province, was dubbed “the town without mothers” because many of the wives there were reportedly abducted women and frequently ran away. Statistics from China’s Ministry of Public Security showed that in 2014 alone, Chinese police had rescued over 30,000 abducted women.

Although Chinese laws have imposed harsher punishments on traffickers, consequences for “buyers” are relatively light – a buyer will not be severely punished, according to China’s Criminal Law, unless he or she tortures the victim or obstructs the victim’s rescue.

But these negative reinforcements aren’t working. Numerous media outlets have reported that residents in many villages have joined together to resist police efforts to rescue abducted women, while police regulations did not encourage police to use arms during these conflicts for the sake of “social stability.” Shi Huashan, a policeman whom the media have named an “anti-abduction hero,” once revealed that the best way to rescue an abducted woman is to secretly sneak into her village, and even then rescuers are often attacked by villagers.

Despite previous waves of media coverage, Gao said that she has never seen any government officials or police officers sent to liberate her or the village’s other abducted women. She felt stuck. “I seldom left the village [due to its remoteness],” she told Nanfeng Window in 2006. “I was locked away from the outside world, living like a simpleton.”

Now, as journalists once again flood Gao’s village, few residents express guilt about her experience, but instead scold her for making it harder for village men to attract wives, mirroring the same attitude held when she first became a public figure.

Given that Gao was abducted 21 years ago, the statute of limitations on prosecuting her rapes and kidnapping through normal proceedings has expired. The only way Gao’s traffickers and buyers could possibly be brought to trial is if she is willing to proactively file a lawsuit against them, which must be approved by China’s highest procuratorate.

According to media reports, police have looked into her case since her story swept over the Internet in July. Gao, however, does not seem willing to take action.

“21 years have passed. I chose to let the past go,” she told NewsChina. “Justice might have come, but it is too late… Now the media coverage has reopened my wounds and hurt my children and my family. [If I filed a suit], how could we live amid the villagers’ resentment?”

“We have no right to denounce Gao as a sufferer of Stockholm syndrome,” wrote author Hou Hongbin on ifeng.com. “She had tried her best to resist her fate, running away, attempting suicide, asking her parents for help and even attracting a lot of media attention. However, society, including her parents, her family and [previous] media reports, were rationalizing the crime and the violence, cutting off all of the routes which could have helped her escape her tragedy.”

As of press time, apart from Anti-abduction Office Director Chen Shiqu, no government officials or policymakers have made a public statement about Gao’s story. It seems that there may be many more abducted women in the future who, left abandoned and helpless, may find themselves forced onto Gao Yanmin’s path.

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