Authorities in the eastern Chinese province of Jiangsu have deployed county-level militia to seal off the home village of a trafficked woman found chained by the neck in an outbuilding and called in dozens of people for questioning over the leakage of documents linked to her story, sources told RFA.
More than 100 people in Jiangsu and Anhui have been called in for questioning by police in connection with the public leaking of information linked to the case of a chained woman in while county-level armed militia forces have been deployed in large numbers to Feng county.
Jiangsu current affairs commentator Jiang Ziyang said the move is part of the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP)'s insistence on "stability maintenance" ahead of the annual parliamentary sessions in Beijing in early March.
"The government probably won't deal with a lot of this now, because they will be sending in the militia in large numbers for the sake of stability maintenance," Jiang said. "The county-level militia will take over from here, so it's effectively a form of military control."
"I don't think the investigation by the provincial level authorities that people were hoping for is going to happen now," he said.
Authorities in have Feng county detained three people including the husband of Yang Qingxia, who is surnamed Dong, amid an official investigation, but online comments increasingly pointed out contradictions in their statements about the woman's identity and raised further questions about the involvement of local officials.
The Jiangsu provincial government announced last week it was taking over the investigation, which has sparked massive public anger and online debate about rampant trafficking in women and girls for forced marriage, particularly in the region around Feng county.
Jiang said government censors are currently making sure that very little information about the Feng county case or about the trafficking of women and girls makes it onto social media.
"It's very difficult to send anything now," Jiang said. "A while back, we were writing so many posts, but now, we can't post anything, which is very scary."
Meanwhile, a social media user nicknamed @I can carry 120 pounds said she was still traumatized after being detained by police in Pei county, which neighbors Feng county, after traveling there to try to help Yang.
"Extreme fear meant that my whole-body defenses were unconsciously switched on ... it was like a sword piercing through me," she wrote after returning home.
She described the experience as prompting "the collapse of my entire world view, of everything I had always trusted, into lies."
Online posts said roads in and out of Feng county are being blocked by police and militia.
Repeated calls to the Feng county police department ended in a busy tone or rang unanswered during office hours on Monday.
An official who answered the phone at the Xuzhou city police department referred RFA to a social media account linked to the Xuzhou police department, where updates would be posted when released.
"I don't know when. Just follow that account, OK?" the official said.
A media worker who declined to be named said all news about the Feng county case is now subject to strict controls by the CCP's propaganda department, with publications ordered to use only centrally approved text, and to regard anything else as "rumor."
Activists all over the country have been receiving calls from censors ordering them to delete posts, photos and video relating to the story, the media worker said.
A Jiangsu resident surnamed Ling said the case is indicative of rampant human rights abuses in China.
"The case of the chained woman is by no means an isolated one," Ling said. "We often hear about human trafficking, missing children and begging on the streets."
"The official announcements ... have been full of holes, and the public have completely lost confidence in the government," he said.
U.S.-based activist Yang Zili said the issues exposed by the Feng county case are systemic.
"The systemic problem in China is not only the lack of democracy and freedom of the press, but also legal issues," he said. "There is such a crime as abduction and trafficking in women, but it's a bit of a cover-up for far more serious offenses that include illegal detention, rape, abuse, assault and humiliation."
"Clearly the local government has been implicated from the very start ... they are a part of this organized crime racket," he said. "Obvious crimes like human trafficking can't exist for long without the protective umbrella of the government."
Former 1989 pro-democracy protest leader Lü Jinghua said the central government may still be divided about how to handle the incident, as it came amid the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.
"I don't think the central government has reached a consensus on the issue ... while the Jiangsu provincial government or the municipal authorities in Xuzhou must be under much more pressure, and is taking a number of actions relating to propaganda, such as talking about thorough investigations," Lü said.
Lü said authorities seem to have turned a blind eye to trafficking, and when they did bother to notice, it was too little, too late.
A bookstore in the eastern Chinese city of Hangzhou draped a chain over a display of feminist books on Monday, in protest at the status of women, after a mentally ill woman was found chained by the neck in an outhouse in Feng county, Jiangsu.
A viral video of a woman identified on her marriage certificate as Yang Qingxia has sparked mass public anger on Chinese social media, prompting a crackdown on well-wishers and rights activists who have spoken out against rampant trafficking of girls and women in rural China, and those who traveled to her village in Feng county in a bid to help her.
The display was titled "Books you should read about Feng county," according to photos posted to social media and confirmed by Reuters, and including "Men Explain Things to Me" by Rebecca Solnit and "Masculine Domination" by Pierre Bourdieu.
However, the display was later removed due to its "controversial" nature, Reuters reported.
Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.