Her long grey hair hanging down her back, Ding Yuxin wept in a Chinese courtroom last December. Following a one-day trial, she was sentenced to 20 years in prison for bribing government officials.
When the verdict was announced, Ding wobbled on her feet and was steadied by security guards. Tears rolled down her face.
With only a primary school education, Ding Yuxin built an empire hinging on lucrative government coal and railway deals. Many were secured by greasing palms, netting Ding more than $325m (£207m: €290m) in contracts.
She’s a particularly flashy example of a new kind of Chinese prisoner: a woman put behind bars for a non-violent crime. It’s an unlikely symbol of how China is changing.
Female prisoners on the rise
Overall, the number of women held in Chinese prisons is soaring, up 46% in the last decade. That is in contrast to a 10% rise in the number of male prisoners, says Dui Hua, a US-based prisoners rights organisation.
Women comprise just 6.3% of China’s prison population. If trends continue, within five years, China will imprison more women than the United States, home to the world’s largest prison population.
China’s prison statistics are slightly misleading: they don’t include the estimated hundreds of thousands of women being held in China; in juvenile detention, mandatory drug rehabilitation and forced education camps.
Even so, why is the number of women increasing so quickly?
“A major reason is that China is undergoing transition. In the past few years, we’ve seen an increase in non-violent crimes involving women such as drug trafficking and telecommunication fraud,” explains Dr Cheng Lei, deputy director of Renmin University’s Centre for Criminal Procedure and Reform.
China’s anti-corruption campaign is having an effect on prison populations too. More women are also being convicted of taking bribes, because the number of women working in the Chinese government has also gone up.
According to Dr Cheng, violent crime is not responsible for the increase in female prisoners.
“In the past, a lot of women in prison were victims of domestic violence and had committed crimes in relation to that,” Dr Cheng says. “But that figure has stabilised.”
Life in prison
Chinese prisons must take the growing number of women prisoners into account.
Prisons in China offer some benefits for prisoners that are unavailable in some Western countries, Dr Cheng says. Prison guards are forbidden from shackling a woman who is giving birth, or keeping a small child behind bars with a mother who is serving a prison sentence.
However, Chinese prisons are also rife with problems.
The number of prisons serving women is quite low. On average, there is just one female prison for every Chinese province.
“It is difficult for family members to visit the prisons, since the family often has to travel a long way to reach the prison,” Dr Cheng explains. “A lot of China’s prisons are newly-built, and most of them are in remote suburban districts.”
Limited contact with family members was a key issue in a prison survey conducted by Professor Cheng in 2013. All prisoners commonly request more family meetings, but this issue is of greater concern for women, who are often the primary carers of their children.
Even when they can visit, glass barriers in prison meeting rooms often prevent parents from holding their children.
Simply put, many women behind bars are also mothers, prison researchers point out. It is this fact the Chinese authorities will need to consider as more women are deemed criminals.