Sun Zhongjie was a new driver employed by a construction company in Shanghai, and October 14th was his second day at work. That night, on a work-related trip, his car was stopped by a man standing in the middle of the street. The stranger, shivering in the cold weather, climbed into Sun’s car uninvited and told Sun that he had something urgent to deal with but couldn’t find a taxi or bus. Sun was sympathetic. Considering that the man’s stated destination wasn’t too far ahead along, he gave him the requested short ride of 1.5 kilometers. The man threw Sun a 10-yuan (=US$1.47) bill, which Sun hadn’t asked for. But instead of getting off, the man grabbed Sun’s car keys and stepped on the brake pedal. Dumbstruck, Sun’s first thought was that he was being robbed.
Only it was not a robbery, but a government scheme, and the hitchhiker was a “hook.” A hook’s task is to entice a non-taxi driver to provide a ride, so that he’ll be able to accuse the driver of operating a “black taxi” without a license. In each successful hook case, the hook gets paid several hundred Yuan, while the driver is fined 10,000 or more, by the local government’s Traffic Management Bureau.
While Sun was struggling with the “hook,” trying to grab back his car keys, the conspiring traffic police arrived. They dragged Sun out of his car and held him in their van for a couple of hours without showing any ID. Sun was released only after being forced to sign three receipts, which he did not even get to read. He learned that he had been accused of “black taxi” operation afterward, from several others who were also being “hooked” and brought to the police van.
Sun was originally charged as guilty of operating a black taxi. However, after the public exerted pressure, the ruling was overturned. Keith B. Richburg writes about the power of online public opinion in China for the Washington Post:
A severed finger sparked an online uproar that went viral. And very quickly, rattled authorities here took note.
The story of Sun Zhongjie, a 19-year-old driver who chopped off his finger to decry police entrapment, shows how the Internet has become an effective tool of public protest in this tightly controlled country.
Almost every form of open dissent is outlawed in China, but mass protests organized online are increasingly putting pressure on police, judges and other officials — and getting results.
[…] In the view of academic experts, lawyers, bloggers and others here, the Internet is introducing a new measure of public accountability and civic action into China’s closed and opaque political system.
“This is the era of disguised accountability,” said Hu Xingdou, a sociology professor at the Beijing Institute of Technology. “That means holding government officials accountable by relying on the Internet rather than on traditional means like elections and the checks by the Congress.”