The "Chained Woman of Xuzhou" and Yan Geling's "Erasure"
Statement from Lawrence A. Walker, Yan Geling’s husband, about recent controversy over the “chained mother of eight.”
Recently a story broke about a woman in Xuzhou, Jiangsu Province, who was discovered by a v-logger over the Lunar New Year holiday chained by the neck, kept in a doorless hut wearing only a light sweater, possessing only two remaining teeth and eating cold gruel. It was reported she had possibly been trafficked from another province and been forced to give birth to eight children.
After the story broke, her eldest son claimed he would sue the journalist who broke the story for defaming his family. Yan Geling became enraged over this matter and wrote and promulgated an essay about it on February 5, 2022, which was widely distributed on social media and suppressed by Mainland Chinese censors.
Among the people who received the essay was retired professor Zhou Xiaozheng 周孝正. Geling has met and him and has carried on private conversations with him in the company of other Chinese intellectuals on the subject of Chinese society and politics. He requested permission for his daughter recite Geling’s essay on video, which Geling granted. He also requested what Geling thought was a private video conference, which took place on or about February 8. During the eight minutes that she was on the video call with Prof. Zhou, the latter did virtually all of the talking. Toward the end of the conversation, Prof. Zhou, raged that foreign prospective parents adopting Chinese orphans are required to pay unjustifiably high fees, effectively making Chinese orphans a source of revenue. Becoming ever more agitated, he started repeating the phrase “Xi Jinping is a human trafficker.” (习近平就是一个人贩子。) Finally, Geling repeated this phrase back to him, adding a vulgarity similar to “dammit” （他妈的）。She then excused herself, saying she wanted to make dinner me, as I was coming out of quarantine after a bout with COVID-19, and this was to be our first dinner together during the Lunar New Year holiday.
Unbeknownst to Geling, Prof. Zhou had recorded their video call. Subsequently, Prof. Zhou posted it to YouTube as part of a YouTube program he broadcasts, about which Geling knew nothing. The first 8:03 minutes consist of his surreptitiously recorded video call with Geling.
A viewer clipped 22 seconds of the video showing the exchange in which Geling repeats Prof. Zhou’s allegation of Chinese Communist Party Chairman Xi being a human trafficker. This circulated widely over social media:
The short video clip was forwarded many times, and the result was that Geling’s entry on the Baidu Encylopedia (百度百科), the Great Firewall of China’s equivalent to Wikipedia, was removed, and reportedly her name was added to the list of celebrities engaging in misconduct (失德). This has essentially stopped what was left of her publishing and film projects in China and hurt the publishers and film studios she has been working with. Her Internet presence in China continues to be shut down systematically, effectively “erasing” her from Chinese media.
What Prof. Zhou did is not only a breach of trust; it is also illegal. Under the Federal Wiretap Act (18 U.S.C. § 2511), it is illegal to record a conversation without the other party’s knowledge or permission. Prof. Zhou considers his actions to be perfectly justified, however, as he told a journalist at Voice of America.
Geling filed a privacy complaint with YouTube, and they responded that they received it, gave given Prof. Zhou 48 hours to take down the material and, if he doesn’t, they will review the footage and render a decision – but there so many privacy complaints in the pipeline that will take some time.
In any case, the damage has already been done.
It comes as no surprise to Geling that she would someday be banned in China. She is an author who has something to say, and sometimes she feels compelled to speak her mind, through works of literary fiction and occasionally through an essay.
In March 2020, after the outbreak of COVID-19, Geling promulgated an essay online about the official reaction to the disease entitled 瞒瞒瞒 (Hide, Hide, Hide).
It was subsequently translated into English, French, Italian, Bulgarian and Spanish, with her permission, and posted to the Internet.
After the promulgation of this essay, which lamented the tendency in China to forget, cover up man-made disasters and never learn from them, Geling became subject to a “soft ban.” Her main publisher received a phone call from an anonymous official source telling them to de-shelve her books. Another publisher received a similar anonymous phone call noting a publication run of thirty thousand volumes of one of her novels and told the publisher it was allowed to sell that print run but forbade it from printing any more copies.
In May 2021, Geling wrote an essay about a high-school student chosen to go on an exchange program abroad, beating out the child of well-connected officials, who was later found to have allegedly “committed suicide” by jumping off a tall building at his school. His parents’ demands for investigation were hushed by officials of the school and the local government. Here is the essay:
She has written two additional novels during the pandemic. One was printed in a literary journal, but it was refused permission to be published as a book. The other, submitted to a different literary journal that was initially thrilled to have it, was declined for publication after Geling’s recent total ban in China.
During the time of the soft ban, a movie with a $20 million budget based on her work was not allowed to be released because her name is on it. She agreed to have it released without her name, but her name is part of what would sell it, and they have decided to wait, after at first threatening to sue her. She wrote a novel for a production company that asked to buy the film and TV rights for it, and since her “soft ban”, the production company has refused to pay the remaining funds owed to her, even though she has fully complied with the contract. And since her latest complete “erasure”, a company for which she wrote an original script has threatened to sue her for the film’s entire production budget.
In 2013 Geling signed an agreement with film director Zhang Yimou to use the material from her novel The Criminal Lu Yanshi for film. He made a film called Coming Home 归来 based on a portion of the novel. We had not anticipated that he would make two films out of it, but he later took a plot line of this novel, namely a prisoner escaping from prison to see a film in which his daughter appears for one second, and made it the leitmotif of his film One Second.
This film was to be shown in competition at the Berlinale (Berlin Film Festival) in 2019 but was withdrawn two hours before its screening before a media audience for “technical reasons.” Finally, the film finally secured a commercial release in November 2020. The Chinese film bureau ordered certain changes to be made to the film. One of them was an explicit instruction to eliminate Yan Geling’s screen credit. When we wrote letters to film distribution companies in an attempt to have her credit reinstated in the version of the film to be shown abroad, a senior executive at one of the Chinese production companies said this was hampering their efforts to market the film abroad and told Geling that as a result they “will have to file a complaint with the State Film Bureau, to request their help. By so doing, the conflict would be raised to the level of a dispute between an individual and the nation. Wouldn't that be even more detrimental to Ms. Yan Geling?”
I take this as a threat and am reminded of the iconic image of the “tank man” at Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Realistically there is nothing we can do about Geling’s denial of screen credit in China, but other countries have rules and laws about granting screen credit and protecting the moral rights of authors. We are currently pursuing legal action in the United States and Europe hoping to restore her screen credit when the film is shown outside China.
In short, the ban on Geling and her work in China has been in process for a while, but Prof. Zhou delivered the “death blow.” If she was to be totally banned in China, Geling would have preferred to have determined for herself timing and the manner for what is nowadays known as “social death” 社死.
Geling does not deny that she said what she said, or rather that she repeated what Prof. Zhou said. She would not have spoken in that offhand and vulgar manner had she known that Prof. Zhou was secretly recording her and intended to broadcast their video conversation. If she had to be banned, she would have preferred to have it happen on the heels a well-written, pointed essay.
As to the substance of her remark, Geling believes that when those in authority in China become aware such situations of human trafficking such as that of the Xuzhou mother of eight, they have a responsibility to take decisive action. Much of the action taken in this case, and in the cases covered in all three of her suppressed essays, has involved obfuscating the facts while punishing those who attempt to sound the alarm or to remedy the situation. If those in power, once aware of such a situation, do not use their authority to right wrongs, then one cannot help but conclude that they are complicit.
At this writing (February 26, 2022) Geling remains gravely concerned about the fate of the Xuzhou mother of eight.
Yan Geling has read this statement and approved it.