A Few Moments in the China Rising Story
Translated by Jane Weizhen Pan, Martin Merz, Ling Wang
Mention China and people think of the Great Wall, tofu, kung fu, and of course, Confucius. They might also think of the skyscrapers in Beijing and Shanghai, and the unforgettable 2008 Olympics which heralded China’s rise as a great nation. People started to believe that China had farewelled forever the era of humiliation and tragedy, that China has truly become rich and powerful. And not just in terms of military might—China now has trillions of dollars in foreign exchange reserves and is destined to become the centre of the world.
This, perhaps, is all true, but today I want to tell you some stories from another perspective, stories that are well known in China and that have been widely reported on. These stories do not represent all of China, but they all represent a part of China. But like most hot topics, they were much talked about and caused a great deal of excitement for a while, but in the blink of an eye they were filed away in the recesses of public consciousness and forgotten. The rise of China has also led to a rise in amnesia. Today, as China is rising to new heights I want to retell these stories in the hope that you can learn something about the entirely different kind of life some people in China are living.
1 The petitioner
At 2.40 pm on the 29th of June, 2009, fifty-four-year-old Wu Chandi squeezed on to a number 14 bus in Beijing. She was heading to the Legislative Affairs Office of the State Council to present a petition. In today’s parlance, Wu Chandi is not a citizen, she’s a petitioner. And like most petitioners she had sought help from the government because she did not receive fair treatment from the local courts. And like petitioners who do not get satisfaction from the local government, she too embarked on long pilgrimages to Beijing to lodge a formal complaint with the Petition Office of the State Council.
This is a drama that has been played out countless times in China over the centuries and the script is unchanged even in this the era of China rising. Petitioners naively believe that they will find a place where people will listen to reason if they just try hard enough.
As Wu and her fellow provincials squeezed onto the bus packed with a noisy throng of sweat-soaked passengers she cherished but one humble hope: that she would be treated fairly. But at that moment she had no inkling of where the bus would really take her.
Ten minutes after Wu embarked, Cui Lin, the bus driver, closed the bus doors and telephoned the Beijing Public Security Bureau to report that there were a lot of petitioners on his bus, and requested the police send some officers to deal with them. We do not know why Cui Lin made this call. Perhaps he was on a mission. Or perhaps it was simply because he has a heightened sense of vigilance.
A quarter of an hour later five policemen arrived on the scene. They did not speak to anyone nor did they check anyone’s ID. But they would not let anyone disembark either.
After another half hour a dozen plain-clothed men arrived. Wu assumed they worked for the Changzhou city government, and were tasked with persuading petitioners from Changzhou to return home.
Wu and her associates ignored their counsel. They disembarked the bus, caught the next number 14 bus, delivered their petition and then returned home to wait for a response.
Wu’s hometown of Changzhou is located in Jiangsu province, one of the wealthiest and most developed regions of China. On the journey home, as the train raced past innumerable cities and villages, Wu saw that crops were growing well and that every chimney along the way was belching smoke. As we now know, China’s industry and agriculture grew rapidly in 2009.
On the 7th of July, 2010, some three hundred and seventy two days later, Wu was suddenly surrounded by a group of plainclothes police while she was out strolling with her husband. The policemen took her straight to a police station for questioning.
That was a long day for Wu Chandi. Towards evening the police showed her a document, a notification of administrative detention for nine days. The reason: when Wu took the number 14 bus in Beijing three hundred and seventy two days previously, she had not purchased a ticket, which caused the bus to be delayed for over an hour.
The cost of a number 14 bus ticket is one yuan—about ten pence. There was no CCTV on the bus and there is no way to verify the transaction. Apart from driver Cui Lin’s testimony, there is no evidence to prove that Wu did not buy a one yuan ticket. By the same token, Wu has no way to prove she did buy a ticket. As China rises, this is often how the law works: apart from law enforcement agencies proving that you did something, you also need to prove that did not do something. Otherwise you may be found guilty.
A one yuan discrepancy led to a now fifty-five-year-old Wu Chandi being handcuffed and incarcerated in a detention centre. Apparently the police felt that administrative detention was insufficient punishment for her one yuan offence, because the next day they rescinded the decision and changed it to one year of labour re-education.
Labour re-education doesn’t sound all that bad, but actually it’s the same as going to jail, just without the need for a trial. If the police consider it necessary, they can unilaterally take away a citizen’s freedom. People who have gone through labour re-education are marked for life. In the era of China rising, labour re-education alumni like Wu Chandi number in the hundreds of thousands.
The 365 days of labour re-education were a very long nightmare for Wu Chandi. She lost her freedom and lived in cramped quarters. Every day she had to recite rules and regulations. She was forced to work without any compensation. The work was making diodes. Wu Chandi lost count of how many diodes she made during that long year, but one thing is certain: those diodes are used in electronic gadgets and these gadgets are broadcasting the news of China rising.
A year after completing her labour re-education Wu Chandi is still terrified by her experience. She often has nightmares about her time as an internee. Waking up in fright she wails, “I bought a bus ticket, please don’t send me to labour re-education.”
After being released from labour re-education, Wu Chandi embarked on a another sad journey: she lodged an appeal to a local court challenging the administrative decision to send her to labour re-education and applied for compensation. The judgement was predictable: she lost. Wu then appealed to a higher court, and lost again. The judgement states that the decision to send her to labour re-education was entirely justified and broke no laws, and thus no one need shoulder any legal responsibility.
Wu Chandi is now fifty-seven years old and in poor health. She often feels dejected and hopeless, despairing that she is but a weak woman who is old and infirm, unable to fight any more. She has two plans for the future: she wants to regain her health, and once she has regained her health, she wants to continue petitioning.
At 2.40 pm on the 29th of June, 2009, when Wu Chandi squeezed on to a number 14 bus in Beijing, she had no idea that the bus she was on traverses some of the most impressive sights in the world. The number 14 bus provides a view of the wall of Zhongnanhai—the Chinese Communist Party’s leadership compound—before it passes a corner of Tiananmen Square. You can see many ancient historical monuments as well as modern skyscrapers from the number 14 bus.
And then, of course, there’s the imposing National Theatre. A few hours after her bus passed by there was a grand concert with ticket prices ranging from 180 to 580 yuan (18 to 58 pounds) for a performance that included classics such as “Lay another brick in the mansion of socialism” and “Chairman Mao’s words are forever engraved on my heart”. The performance was attended by numerous VIPs who were welcomed with rousing cheers.
But Wu Chandi knew nothing of this as she sat on the bus trundling inexorably on her troubled journey in the era of China rising. Wu Chandi’s name in Chinese sounds like “made in nowhere”, but now we know she is made in the era of China rising.
2 The suicide bomber
At nine am on the 26th of May, 2011, Qian Mingqi parked a small silver coloured van in front of the Procuratorate Building in the city of Wuzhou, in Jiangxi province. The guard in charge of security told Qian he couldn’t park there, but Qian said he was just eating a bowl of noodles and would soon be on his way. It was a Thursday and the sky was clear. Most of the shops in the area were open and office workers had just started their day’s work.
No one noticed this unremarkable fifty-two year old man at that critical moment, though he had given many hints of what he was about to do.
The van was a Changan brand—Changan means eternal peace—but within half an hour there was an explosion in the van, and in two other vehicles. The owner, Qian Mingqi, died on the spot.
Qian Mingqi was born in Beijing in 1959, the year of the worst famine in Chinese history. It was a year of low birth rates and high infant mortality. From this perspective, Qian had a lucky start in life. Over the course of his fifty-two years, Qian was by no means wealthy, though he certainly wasn’t poor. It would be fair to say, however, that Qian was better off than the majority of people in China. By the year 2000 he owned a five-story house with many rooms and floor space of about 700 square meters. That building was the result of a lifetime of hard work. It took his entire life savings of half a million yuan (about 50,000 pounds) and some loans as well. He expected to be able to live in his home for many years because he made it known that he was building it to withstand earthquakes.
However, two years later the government decided to build an expressway from Beijing to Fuzhou, and according to the plans Qian Mingqi’s house sat in the path of the carriageway. The expressway was designated an important infrastructure project, and in the era of China rising that means nothing can stand in its way. Not even a new house that used up someone’s life savings to build.
The market value of Qian’s home was about two million yuan (over two hundred thousand pounds) but the government valuation worked differently and they only offered two hundred and fifty thousand yuan (about twenty five thousand pounds) in compensation. Qian was unwilling to accept the package. He pleaded. He resisted. He even got into ferocious fights with the demolition crew. But like so many other houses in the era of China rising, no matter how many certificates the owner has applied for and obtained, Qian’s home too could not escape the wrecker’s ball.
In 2005 the Beijing to Fuzhou Expressway opened to traffic. This 2,540 km expressway is one of the best in China. Connecting Beijing with the rich and populous southeastern seaboard, it acts as an important artery for moving materials and equipment. This expressway is vital to China’s economic development.
As the government held a spectacular ceremony to mark the opening of the expressway, Qian Mingqi was on a train heading to Beijing. By that time he had been transformed from a prosperous businessman into a determined petitioner who still embraced hope and had no intention of dying.
Qian Mingqi did not start out as an extremist as he pursued every legal avenue to receive fair compensation. To equip himself in his numerous attempts to follow legal procedures Qian took up studying the law. He tried negotiating with the government—he failed. He applied for an administrative review—he failed again. He took his case to court—yet again he failed. He appealed to a higher court—and that too failed. In 2007 he joined a group of fellow evictees in reporting local officials for embezzling their relocation compensation funds. You can predict the result—it failed.
Over the course of almost ten years Qian Mingqi travelled many times from Jiangxi province to Beijing in the hope of resolving his problem at the highest levels of government. This legal remedy known in China as petitioning resulted, of course, in an unending series of failures for Qian Mingqi.
Nobody remembers what happened to Qian Mingqi on those sojourns in Beijing: perhaps he was forcibly repatriated to Jiangxi; perhaps dejected he returned of his own volition. But we do know that Qian Mingqi and his friends are part of the scenery in the rise of China, and have become the most significant waste products of a rising China.
In 2006 Qian Mingqi began to use the internet to publicise his misfortunes online but there was little response. As microblogging took off Qian Mingqi registered accounts on numerous web portals. On the Tencent portal he pleaded for assistance from fifty people but no one replied. He then implored 200 people on the Sina.com portal to help him, and again no one replied. I was one of the people who did not reply.
After Qian Mingqi died I noticed for the first time that he had written to me requesting that I repost his testimonial but I did nothing. Well I came up many reasons for my inaction but today I wish to confess that I did not respond because I was selfish and indifferent to the plight of others. Qian Mingqi died because of his own peculiar circumstances but he also died because this society is uncaring. And that includes me.
During the Chinese New Year festival in early 2011, Qian Mingqi pasted traditional couplets, written in gold characters on red paper on each side of the door to his house, with a non-traditional theme:
Happy New Year? Nothing happy about it!
My wrongs righted? Not a chance for it!
By this time Qian Mingqi was utterly disheartened and was ready to die. He posted messages online telling people to look out for some “explosive news” coming from Jiangxi province. He said he was preparing to take his enemies to the netherworld with him and frequently declared that he intended to blow up a government building. No one believed him.
Shortly before the explosion Qian Mingqi posted his telephone number online with an offer to donate all his organs, though only to the children of needy families. This wish was not granted because soon after he died in the explosion Qian Mingqi was cremated and his ashes were buried. The telephone number still works and it is answered by one of Qian’s sons. The younger son is unwilling to discuss anything about his father, but his older brother is a little more talkative. He is planning to write a book about petitioners, modeling the main character on his father.
At 9 am on the 26th of May, 2011, Qian Mingqi decided to leave this world. He packed three cheap vehicles with explosives. He had told a friend that he wanted to give the government a present. In point of fact, the government did not receive his present and Qian Mingqi’s death did not awaken the rising China. All it achieved was an increase in policing and security checks, while petitioners still trudge along their arduous path.
Qian Mingqi’s present was actually delivered to some people even less fortunate than himself: two security guards, He Haigen and Xu Yingfu, died together with Qian Mingqi. They once had families and enjoyed normal life. He Haigen’s son was in primary school and Xu Yingfu’s son was a university student. They were both poor, having come from poor families, and, being engaged in low status work had low incomes, less than 1,000 yuan per month. During the era of China rising, no one really pays much attention to whether such people live or die.
3 The mental health patient
At two am on April 19, 2011, Xu Wu managed to bend the iron railings of the gated mental health ward with wooden sticks and bed sheets and sneak out of the the 2nd hospital of the Wuhan Iron and Steel Corporation, in the city of Wuhan. Outside was a yard overgrown with weeds. The guards were deep asleep. Xu Wu gingerly pushed the metal gate ajar and stepped back into the sane world he had been kept away from for a long time.
This is not his first attempt to escape. In March 2007, Xu had snuck out of the heavily guarded hospital once before, after spending eight nights secretly sawing through the iron bars on the window with a saw blade he had fortuitously found.
One month later, he was picked up by the police and put back into the prion-like structure. In the following four years, he was kept in this fortress, forced to swallow inedible food and to regularly take tablets with unknown effects. Sometimes he received electric shock treatments and suffered physical abuse. For a long period, he was held in solitary confinement. For two years, he did not see the sun and hardly ever received visits from his family and friends.
It might surprise you to learn that, according to the official record, Xu Wu was not a criminal. He was a mental health patient.
Xu Wu was born in 1968 to a worker’s family. If our political textbooks are not mistaken, that would make him a member of China’s ruling class. His father had worked at the Wuhan Iron and Steel Corporation for decades. At the age of 21, Xu entered the ranks of the same company after graduating from a technical institute.
According to the official record, Xu was not a good employee. He had taken unauthorised leave and broken workplace regulations. But Xu disagrees. He believes his only problem is that he “takes things too seriously,” which in China can be interpreted as being “too stubborn,” or “too obsessed with his rights.” This is why Xu was kept in the mental health ward for so long. But this is not surprising. In the era of China rising, in a place where people’s rights are commonly neglected, taking rights too seriously can be seen as an illness.
From 2003 to 2006, Xu Wu had over a dozen legal battles with his employer because he believed the company had unfairly cut his wages. Initially, the dealings between him and his employer were cordial. After a court conciliation, the company offered to provide Xu with financial assistance on humanitarian grounds but denied any wrongdoing on its part. Xu refused to accept this conciliation outcome. He said of course money is important for him, but a court decision over right or wrong is even more important. The court decision soon was delivered. Xu lost the case.
Xu Wu was fighting against a business giant. The Wuhan Iron and Steel Corporation is the fourth largest steel manufacturer in the world and ranked 340 among the world’s top 500 enterprises. The company’s headquarters occupy an area of 21 square kilometres. The company employs several hundred thousand people and owns hundreds of billions of yuan in assets as well as countless subsidiaries. The company has its own schools, hospitals and law enforcement agencies.
Members of company’s management team enjoy benefits of government officials, or perhaps they are government officials. Also worth mentioning, is the company has been named one of the nation’s best-managed enterprises. In the era of China rising, a best-managed enterprise like this can bestow fortunes to some people, but such giant corporations can also make some people very unfortunate.
Xu Wu belongs to the unfortunate group. He has to endure the harshest life in contemporary China since he turned down his employer’s offer of “assistance on humanitarian grounds.” He was physically attacked many times and his injuries required hospital treatment. He was humiliated and locked up many times. He tried to resist whenever he was persecuted but every act of defiance only resulted in even more severe persecution. In the end, he had to flee the city of Wuhan.
On December 16, 2006, Xu Wu was arrested at the entrance of the Peking University in Beijing. The official explanation for this event was that Xu had threatened to set off a bomb at Tiananmen Square, and that he had been found in possession of a bomb-making recipe, and an electrician’s cutter and bomb-making ingredients were found in his backpack. But Xu denies it all. He said he went to Beijing simply to seek legal assistance.
On December 31, 2006, the streets of Wuhan were full of festivity. People dressed up to welcome the new year. CCTV, the state television channel, broadcast a new year gala event to celebrate the time of happiness, to praise the wisdom and kindness of the government. On that day, Xu Wu was taken to a concrete fortress and subjected to 1,571 days of mental health treatment. None of his family members was present when he was admitted. Wearing a blue-and-white striped hospital uniform, curled up in a tiny hospital bed, he looked like a forlorn zebra crushed under the weight of a rising nation.
On May 1, 2007, clothed in rags, Xu Wu arrived at Tiananmen Square. This was after he snuck out of the hospital for the first time. A month before arriving at the square, he sought shelter under bridges in Beijing. He lived on money he earned from selling recycled cans and bottles. He begged for help in front of the gate of many government agencies. No one listened to what he had to say.
The 1st of may was another large fesival in China. Tiananmen sqaure was swarmed with tourists from every parts of China. Xu Wu found a relatively open space and lighted a cander under the clear sunny sky. This action seemes to have its tradition as forty seven years before, He Mingyuan, a man suffering from famine and oppression did the same thing and was plunged into prison as a result. Xu Wu’s fate was slightly better than He Mingyuan’s. he was thrown into a prison-like hospital. Xu Wu’s candle is a riddle hard to fathom. When he held the lighted candle high in the Tiananmen squre, he purported to convey the message: at the time Wuhan city, 1200 kilometers awary from Beijing was in pitch-dark night.
From a certain perspective, Xu Wu was lucky. His fellow patients had to pay to receive treatment, but Xu got his treatment for free. Perhaps the hospital authority believed his condition was too severe to have visitors, so no one was allowed to visit him. Again and again, his aged parents went to the concrete fortress attempting to visit their son. Again and again, they were turned away at the gate. From 2007 to 2011, they were turned away 86 times. They appealed to the local court but the court refused to hear their case. They approached medical experts in local hospitals to review Xu Wu’s condition, but the hospitals refused to assist. They lived only a few kilometres away from their son, but the distance for them was as far away as another planet.
At two am on April 19, 2011, Xu Wu snuck out of the hospital. He borrowed 2,000 yuan (about 200 pounds) from a friend and took a train to Guangzhou in southern China. He went to a mental health hospital and requested an assessment. Except “feeling unhappy and having low self-esteem,” the assessment did not reveal any severe mental illness. Xu Wu then sought help from the media. On April 27, after he went on television describing his experience, he was taken away from the compound of the TV station by seven plain-clothed men. One of them said he was surnamed Zhou. Later, his true identity was revealed. He was a member of the law enforcement agency under the Wuhan Iron and Steel Corporation. His surname was not Zhou.
This incident caused a media frenzy. Journalists interviewed Xu’s family and neighbours. Everyone said Xu was mentally sound. Despite Xu’s request to receive an authoritative mental health assessment in another province, the assessment report was issued in his home province. This reports states that Xu suffers from paranoid mental disorders and advised Xu “to be treated as an in-patient.” Xu Wu’s parents ignored the advice and took their son home. After the assessment report was released, the media lost interest in Xu’s case. As you would understand, the media are overwhelmed by the number of stories they have to cover.
Going home for Xu Wu doesn’t mean regaining freedom. According to Xu Wu, problems are still following him. In August 2011, he escaped from his home but was soon picked up by the people who were assigned to watch him and bundled back. In December last year, he made it to Beijing again and stayed for 43 days. Every day he pleaded for help online. Most of the time he talked about his own experience but he also paid attention to others. He received few responses. Obviously, his story is no longer hot. Forty-three days later, he was taken back to Wuhan. These days he is teaching himself law at home.
Xu has two plans for the future. One is “to endure whatever life brings him.” The other relates to the law. Legally, he has been deemed mentally unsound and no court will take up his case. But he still has hopes for the law and wants to “study law and promote the law.” I asked him if he wants to sit the National Judicial Exam. He said no. He told me that he is not confident he could pass the exam and that he just wants to do whatever he can to help others.
At 44, Xu Wu is still single and wants to find love in the near future. He met someone he liked in 2006 but he thought that was far from falling in love. “We just chatted for a few times,” Xu told me. However, he has lost contact with that woman after all the years he spent in the mental health ward. “I’m sure she is already married and has children,” said Xu.
4 The black lung patient
At 8 am on the 29th of December, 2010, Zhong Guangwei was wheeled into the operating theatre of the Nanjing Chest Hospital. Two hours later, 15 bottles containing 8 litres of murky liquid, were lavaged from his left lung. The liquid contained innumerable black granules and cottony substances. But the procedure was not complete because the doctor only lavaged his left lung.
Born in 1973, Zhong Guangwei dropped out of school after five years and worked a hard life digging the barren land, sweating and laboring under the sun just as his grandfather and father before him had. In violation of China’s One Child Policy Zhong had three children. Because of government policy he could only obtain legitimate residence certificates for the extra children by paying fines. This was an unbearable burden for him.
For the past 60 years since the founding of the People’s Republic of China, farmers like Zhong Guangwei have been the most hard-working and the most destitute. They are second class citizens in this country. They barely survive, toiling year after year without regular incomes and pensions. In the era of China rising, the government exempts farmers from land tax and as a result some farmers live slightly better lives. However, for a destitute farmer like Zhong Guangwei, life has not improved.
In November 2006, Zhong Guangwei bade farewell to his wife and children to start a job as a pneumatic drill operator for a coal mine in Datong, Shanxi province. Shanxi is the largest coal-producing province in China. For decades it has been producing tens of billions tons of coal, used in the generation of electricity for the rise of this great nation.
Many people have made huge fortunes from coalmining, which also accounts for the notoriety of Shanxi as the worst polluted province with the highest number of industrial accidents. Many coal-miners work in extremely dangerous and unhealthy conditions underground. Most of them are not covered by labor insurance or protected from industrial hazards. Many die deep down in mine shafts and their deaths are an integral part of the rise of China.
The place where Zhong Guangwei worked was once a Buddhist sanctuary, only four kilometers from the renowned Yungang Grottos. To earn more money, Zhong worked over ten hours a day in noisy and dusty conditions. Four months later, he felt pain in his lungs and began coughing a lot. But he persevered with work, and only asked doctors to administer intravenous drips when the pain was unendurable. The next day he would continue operating the pneumatic drill, allowing coal dust sweep across his face, and settle in his lungs.
In the spring of 2007, Zhong Guangwei’s health was totally destroyed. His weight plunged and the coughing fits became worse. He feared that he had pneumoconiosis and went to the Datong city Health Examination and Testing Center for an checkup. The doctor, however, refused to examine him on the grounds that pneumoconiosis is an occupational disease, and they could only give him a medical examination if they had proof that Zhong Guangwei had an occupation.
This meant that Zhong Guangwei had first to provide a labor contract. But he was only an off-farm worker, a typical designation with Chinese characteristics that reflects his dual identity: farmer and worker. Farmer is an immutable class attribute, while worker is his actual occupation. In the era of China rising, the number of off-farm workers exceeds 120 million. They build roads and mansions, they take on the most onerous and dangerous work, but at the same time they are the most despised people in China, and are routinely treated as criminal suspects. They sweat and labor day after day, seldom aware of their legal rights. Many of them have no concept about protecting themselves by signing a labor contract. When their rights are violated, the only thing they can do is to endure, as they are not able to present labor contracts to the law courts. Surely you must know that China is a country governed by the rule of law.
Zhong Guangwei had to go back to the coal mine where he worked to ask his employer to issue a certificate of proof of employment. But his request was refused. In the eyes of his employers, he had become a nuisance. They felt no obligation to help him.
Zhong Guanwei had no choice but to seek assistance from the government. He applied for an administrative ruling from the South District Labor Bureau of Datong city. This turned out to be an extremely arduous expedition. With forced smiles and humble entreaties, he tottered back and forth on the city’s roads coughing in agony and waiting in vain. Three months later, he finally received the administrative ruling of the Labor Bureau which simply denied that an employment relationship existed between Zhong Guangwei and the coal mine owner. The reason was simple, and typical of the era of China rising—Zhong Guangwei never worked in the coal mine as he was not acquainted with the coal mine owner.
Now he had to file a complaint to the People’s Court. The same expedition was repeated—forced smiles, humble entreaties and tottering steps—over and over during first trial at the Court of First Instance and second trial at the Intermediate Court. At last, Zhong Guangwei won, with a decision adjudicating that there was indeed a de facto employment relationship between him and the coal mine owner. After one year’s painstaking effort, he finally won the right to receive a medical examination.
The medical report stated that he had stage II pneumosilicosis. His lungs were severely damaged. With this medical report, he began to apply to the government for an industrial injury appraisal. This was, again, an arduous expedition. His condition deteriorated and the treatment depleted his meager savings. He could only afford to kill the pain with the cheapest pain killers on the market, taking the pills one by one at first, and then by the handful.
Seven months later, he was appraised with stage III industrial injury, which means a total loss of ability to work. Then he started to claim for industrial injury compensation. He filled in the forms, copied the certificates and collected all the necessary documents. Coughing wretchedly, he again called upon the Labor Bureau of the South District of Datong city. Unlike their usual obfuscation, this time the Labor Bureau’s response was devastatingly concise. They told him that his application could not be accepted because the coal mine he worked for was shut down several months earlier.
Again he filed another complaint, the results of which this time only took several months. The court ruled that he won the case and was entitled to compensation of 490,000 yuan (about fourty-nine thousand pounds). He waited four months but received not a penny. Then he had to apply for enforcement of the court order. In the story of Zhong Guangwei, I have emphatically repeated the phrase “arduous expedition”. But believe me, this time the expedition was more arduous than ever.
In the era of China rising, enforcement of a court decision is a formidable task. Even the most experienced lawyer will feel faint on hearing the word “enforcement”, let alone a lowly, impoverished and dying farmer like Zhong Guangwei. He and his wife stumbled back and forth between their domicile and the court, only falling further and further into desperation. They kneeled on the ground, weeping and begging. As you know, the court is obliged to follow the law, so the judges would raise many reasonable requests of him, such as to bring the coal mine owner to the court and to provide a warehouse to store heavy coal mining equipment. The judges must have believed that meeting their demands would have been a piece of cake for Zhong Guangwei.
At this time, Zhong Guangwei had become penniless and was heavily indebted. He lived in an ocean of coal but he could not afford to burn coal to keep his family warm. In the chilling winter of twenty degree below zero in northern China, his family of five, including a two year old infant, huddled up under a thin blanket doing their best to keep warm. Zhong Guangwei coughed throughout the night, and sometimes even lost consciousness. He and his wife even considered suicide while his twelve-year old daughter was preparing to sell her blood. At his nadir, Zhong Guangwei, a simple and kind farmer, even had thoughts of blowing up this world of suffering.
Things took a favorable turn several months later. Some kind-hearted people extended helping hands and there was wide media coverage of his misfortune. On the 28th of October, 2010, the court summoned Zhong Guangwei and his debtors. Tough negotiation ensued. In the era of China rising, the law has two versions: soft and hard. For Wu Chandi, Qian Mingqi and Xu Wu the law was hard and non-negotiable. For Zhong Guangwei, the law was soft and negotiable. Because the coalmine owner refused to compensate the total sum, the judges mediated between the two parties. Zhong Guangwei had to lower his price over and over, from 490,000 yuan down to 480,000, then to 470,000 yuan, then 350 000, and ultimately down to 270,000 yuan (about twenty-seven thousand pounds) where the deal finally closed. For Zhong Guangwei law is his last resort, but ultimately the law took a forty-five percent discount from him.
At 8 am on the 29th of November, 2010, Zhong Guangwei was wheeled into the operating theatre of the Nanjing Chest Hospital. Fifteen bottles of murky liquid were lavaged from his left lung. Once again Zhong Guangwei was wheeled into the operating theatre of the Nanjing Chest Hospital. Even more murky fluid was lavaged from the right lung, filling some twenty-one bottles. The doctor said that lung lavaging could only mitigate his symptoms and there was no cure for the disease.
In the era of China rising, there are tens of thousands of off-farm workers suffering from pneumosilicosis just like Zhong Guangwei. However, most of them are not as fortunate as him. In the absence of media coverage and attention from society, they can barely protect their own rights. They toil in silence, and in silence they suffer, and die.
Zhong Guangwei is still alive. At a height of 173 cm, he only weighs 52 kilograms. He had his lungs lavaged, paid off his debt and even bought an old house. The money he received in exchange for his lost health, is almost completely gone. Because he is an off-farm worker Zhong Guangwei is ineligible for reimbursement of medical expenses.
To Zhong Guangwei, the “future” is beyond his reach. He cannot make any plans for the future. He just wants to raise some pigs and goats, to feed his family, keep them warm and strive to survive. He has learnt to use the internet. For the past two years, Zhong Guangwei has posted over four thousand messages online. All of his post are about his concern for the disadvantaged. He said to me: I suffered and I know how it feels. There’s not much I can do, but at least I can give people who are suffering a little warmth.
5 The candidate
I also want to tell you the story of Liang Shuxin. Liang is in his 30s and is member of the Communist Party. On September 8, 2011, at the venue to elect the local people’s representatives, Liang crossed out the names of two candidates on the ballot, wrote down his own name and cast his ballot. Despite having the support of many ordinary people, Liang lost his bid to become a candidate, because “some people” had made sure he couldn’t become a candidate. The next election will be in 2016. He said he will definitely participate if the election procedure is fair.
6 The online commentator
I also want to tell you the story of Xiao Han. By May 29, 2012, Xiao Han’s account on the microblog portal Sina Weibo had been shut down 131 times. Xiao Han is 43. He is an academic at the China University of Political Science and Law. Xiao avidly follows current affairs and regularly voices his opinion online.
In November 2009, Xiao Han first registered his user name on Weibo. He posted messages about the law and freedom of speech. His account was quickly shut down. He then registered a new account name, Xiao Han Weibo II. When that account was shut down, he registered another account under a new name, Xiao Han Weibo III. When I left China a few days ago, his latest Weibo user name was Xiao Han Weibo CXXXII—that’s 132 times Xiao Han has had to register to have his voice heard.
In some ways, Xiao has died 131 times. He doesn’t know how many more times he will be allowed to be reborn, but he refuses to give up. “Where there is no freedom, freedom means everything.”
There are thousands of Chinese netizens like Xiao Han. The are called members of the Reincarnated Party. One party member was reincarnated 359 times. This is a battle between a hard wall and soft tissue. Even though losing the battle is inevitable, members of the Reincarnated Party never shy away from throwing themselves against the iron wall.
7 The joker
Fang Hong is 44 year-old civil servant. On April 21, 2011, he posted a joke about Bo Xilai and Wang Lijun, the now disgraced officials of Chongqing. The joke consisted of merely 58 Chinese characters. As a result of posting the joke, Fang Hong became probably one of the most highly paid writers in the world—he was sent to a labor re-education camp for one year—which equates to 6.3 days of his freedom per character. People can now blame Bo Xilai for Fang Hong’s plight. But Bo Xilai is not the fundamental reason Fang Hong got into trouble.
Why is a rising China so scared of a joke? What kind of a system would throw someone into prison for simply telling a joke? Why is it that the rights of a citizen can be deprived so easily but are so hard to restore?
8 The bribe giver
Finally, please allow me to talk about my own China rising moment. When I was thirty years old I applied for my first passport. At the time, I lived in Guangdong province in the south, but had to submit my application in person in Sichuan province in the far west of China where my household registration record was held. The journey to Sichuan only takes two hours by plane, but the application process took two weeks, during which time I had to make countless journeys between various government offices. Every journey was a battle. I felt that obtaining a passport was no longer my legal right as a Chinese citizen, but a gift bestowed by the government for which I must be grateful. As part of the procedure, I was required obtain a certificate from the neighborhood committee, confirming I was not a Falun Gong practitioner and had not participated in the student movement of 1989.
It was a hot summer afternoon. I stood in line for two hours before finally being allowed to speak to the busy neighborhood committee director. The director was probably the lowest ranking official in China’s bureaucratic chain, but he was as cold as most of the government officials above him. “I need proof that you have never practiced Falun Gong and did not participate in the student movement,” he insisted.
“It’s difficult for someone to prove he did not do something. Other people can only testify if one has actually done something,” I said, trying to reason with the man. I told him that it was impossible for me to be part of the student movement in 1989 because I was just a junior high school student at the time. “As for Falun Gong, I have never had anything to do with them.” All I said was true and the man knew it but he still refused to issue the certificate. I didn’t dare to argue with him because that would mean the end of my passport application. Putting my pride aside, I pleaded and begged. He would not budge.
In the end, I gave in. I bribed him with a carton of Chung Hwa—China brand—cigarettes, which cost 400 yuan, about 40 pounds.
I proved my innocence through dishonorable means. The neighborhood committee director gave up his principles for a carton of cigarettes.
I thanked him. “You’re welcome,” he replied. “That’s what I’m supposed to do.” To this day, I don’t know if he meant he was supposed to issue me the certificate, or supposed to take my bribe.
It took him only five minutes to issue the certificate. But obtaining the certificate was only the first step of my long journey towards applying for a passport.
That was in 2003. At the time, people had just started to talk about the rise of China.
If we have time, I will tell you more stories. More stories about those who sweat in fields under the sun, stories about other people who labour in mine pits and stories about other humble, insignificant individuals who are struggling to survive. In recent decades, it is these people who built the freeways and constructed the skyscrapers, it is these people who have been carrying the 8% annual GDP growth every year and created the China miracle, it is these people who bear the brunt of a rising China.
As a Chinese citizen, I of course hope my country will become prosperous. But this prosperity should not just put money into government coffers. It should also bring security, happiness and health to the Chinese people. This prosperity should not be just about money, but also about prosperity in ideas, culture and art. Apart from acquiring material prosperity, I hope my country becomes a greater civilization. Apart from possessing military power, I hope my country embraces compassion for mankind.
When my country rises, I hope my people can speak freely, instead of being suffocated, I hope disadvantaged people can receive help, instead of being pushed into the hell of suffering, I hope hard-working people can be rewarded, instead of being exploited.
I hope the rise of my country benefits the entire population, instead of a handful of families. I hope the rise of my country profits truly hard-working people, instead of lining the pockets of corrupt bureaucrats.
I hope the rise of my country means power can be restrained, justice served and people’s freedom protected, instead of more people being pushed into despair.
I hope the rise of my country is not at the expense of its people’s lives.