An Investigative Reporter's Year-End Review
(Tianya Club) By Fu Jianfeng (傅剑锋). January 16, 2006.
On this same day last year, I did not sit by the quietly flowing Zhujiang to contemplate what happened during the past year. I did not look at the blossoming Chinese redbuds. My distant thoughts were with the fluttering white snowflakes of the northern country.
On the same day last year, shortly after New Year in 2005, I was involved in a terrifying investigation which I nevertheless felt that I must conduct.
This investigation was connected to a criminal group that specialized in cutting people's arms and legs off (they were active in Shenzhen at the time under the name "Arm-chopping Gang). At the time, an arrested member of the "Arm-chopping Gang" -- a feeble-looking 18-year-old suspect confessed to the police that more than 100 young people from his Wenjiang village in Guangxi province were committing these types of robbery in the Pearl River Delta region. At the time, I realized that behind the "cruel," "juvenile" and "rural" aspects of these robber gangs, the issue must be more than just moral degeneration and there had to be deeper sociological reasons.
At this impoverished village, I saw the reality of their existence. Their village was extremely poor. Most villagers do not get to eat meat more than a few times per year. The actual average annual per capita income is less than 400 yuan. Of the several dozen arrested gang members, most of them did not graduate from elementary school due to poverty. Some of them do not even know how to write their own names. The more shocking thing is that almost no one had a criminal record back in their home villages.
So why did they change so rapidly once they reached the cities? Their achieved level of education cannot get them good jobs. They had to do intensive labor for more than 12 hours a day to obtain meager wages, and this will never let them realize their urban dreams. On the contrary, these young criminals all tried to work in the city, but they suffered prejudice and discrimination everywhere. So someone made a bad start by giving up "sweat wages" and making "blood wages" instead, and this became an extremely tempting choice for them. This is a social tragedy that occurred due to the rupture between the eastern cities and the western rural villages in social development, as the human moral system becomes transformed and broken following the disjuncture between urban and rural developments. This transformation severely affected the tranquility of the cities. Another way to look at it is that when a social system becomes more fully connected, the impact of wealth inequality with reach into the rural villages just as it will reach into the cities.
I did not imagine that this judgment would be confirmed again half a year later in an astonishing way. During the investigation of the "Arm-chopping Gang," I made the acquaintance of a worker named Ah Xing from Wenjiang Village. He was a good friend and elementary school classmate of most of the members of the "Arm-chopping Gang." For the past few years, he had been working in the city under great hardship, and he used his feeble moral bottom line to resist the repeated temptations to commit crime. At the end of that interview, he told me if urban life forces him into desperate straits, he may enter the criminal path in the end. Afterwards, I maintained my friendship with him and I hoped that he would not stray. But his prediction was right. In July of 2005, he killed the factory manager after a labor wage dispute. During this escape journey, he asked me to accompany him when he turned himself in to the police.
Ah Xing tried hard to be good, but he fell into criminality as if by destiny. This caused me to contemplate more deeply about their destinies. They are different from their forebears who only wanted to earn money in order to return home to continue their rural lives. They are a new generation of migrant laborers who want to stay in the cities. But the urban-rural chasm creates prejudices and systematic gaps that make their urban dreams seemed quite hopeless. Ah Xing's crime was an extreme manifestation of the group anxiety. It is not an abstract question of justice about how the economic development in China can let the major contributors (namely, the workers and their descendants) enjoy the rewards of reform, but this is a concrete question of social safety.
This problem is obviously showing up in those cities with large numbers of outsiders. In August, Guangzhou began a major crackdown in order to improve the safety situation. Prior to that, the criminals even dared to commit robberies in front of the Guangzhou police station. Afterwards, my investigation revealed that even though the "Speeding Car Gang," the "Arm-Chopping Gang," "Head-banging Gang," "Backpack Gang" were severely set back, it is impossible to reverse the overall situation about crimes being committed by outsiders in the near term. Guangdong has to bear not only the burden of the social transformation and increased regional disparities within the province itself, but also the same things in southwestern China and south-central China as well. Therefore, improving the living environment of outsiders is not just a question for a certain city, but it requires the improvement of social policies all across China as well as the harmonious co-development of all the economic areas. This type of pain is widespread and dangerous. According to the "2005 Blue-Cover Book of Society," Chinese Academy of Social Sciences professor Liu Jianguo warned: "That is not the only problem (meaning the public security problem in Chinese cities). We are worried that the (rural) groups will hate the cities." The so-called "harmonious society" is not just a simple political slogan in this era, because it concerns the national fate and public well-being.
The resources and ability of this group to change their fates are usually lacking. In October, I was in Lanzhou investigating the death of the hair-salon girl Gou Li and that was an example. This impoverished rural female loved her husband above all. But in order to repay a huge debt quickly, she gave up her 300 yuan per month job in a city factory and became a "Miss" at a hair salon. Less than half a month after she became a "Miss," she was detained. In order to procure a quick release, her husband spent more than 10,000 yuan. Instead of reducing their old debt, the new debts piled up. Four months later, she was released from the detention center and she resorted to her old profession again. A few days later, she was strangled to death by a sexually perverted customer in a rental room on September 3. Among her possessions, the police found two diaries written in the detention center, in which every page was about her thoughts for her husband. Along with the diaries was one bag full of more then 1,000 folded paper hearts, with words such as "Kiss you" or "Love you" on every heart.
Sociologist Pan Suiming told me that in his study of sex workers, more than half of the subjects were wives or mothers who were forced into the sex trade due to economic issues.
This type of solemn fact has made more and more people realize that one cannot just simply strike at the people. Rather, there must be more systematic arrangements that are designed to benefit the poor and the government must provide urgently needed public goods to protect the livelihood and education of poor people.
The lack of public goods is not a problem that can be solved in the near term. In certain western areas that lack public financial resources, the conditions are shocking. After finishing the investigation of the Gou Li incident, I found out during an interview with Kansu province Weiyuan county deputy secretary Li Yingxin that 70% of the substitute teachers in this county received between 40 to 80 yuan in wages per month. In this county, 62-year-old substitute teacher Wang Zhengming has sent more 70 students to university, but he has never received more than 40 yuan in wages per month in his whole life. Shaanxi Lantian substitute teacher Li Xiaofeng taught alone for 13 years in a mountain village elementary school. There are 600,000 more such substitute teachers who make the same meager wages in the central and western impoverished villages, and they are the ones who are holding up half the sky for basic education in the poor rural villages. From another perspective, this type of education for the poor that is built and sustained by a civic sense of morality is obviously perilous, and it is also extremely unfair to the poor children.
The fates of these 600,000 substitute teachers were created by the imbalance in the long-term investments in urban and rural free education. The good news is that this problem has received great attention from the local and central governments. There have been much news coming out at the end of last year and the beginning of this year, and it can be seen that the central and local governments have or will be improving the policies in ways that will benefit rural education.
During this investigation, the person who moved me most was not just those substitute teachers who taught in hardship circumstances or those grassroots officials who had the courage to break official rules to plea on behalf of the people -- it was the Weiyuan county deputy secretary Li Yingxin.
When Li Yingxin saw that worrisome situation in education in the west, he wrote a tearful 10,000-word investigative report to the Kansu provincial committee and the national Ministry of Education, and he also called for social concern through the media. This type of action breaks the usual rules of officialdom and caused certain people to be unhappy. But Li Yingxin told me that if this can really get the government senior officials to solve the problem of substitute teachers, he would not mind losing his job. Fortunately, Kansu provincial party secretary Su Rong also issued written orders that the problem of substitute teachers must be solved.
Li Yingxin therefore gained the respect of the masses there. At around New Year, I received a touching piece of news. Several Kansu province Kangu county mountain area substitute teachers walked through snow and ice for several hundred kilometers to Weiyuan County to express their gratitude to Li Yingxin, who was the "spokesperson for substitute teachers" in their hearts.
This type of conscience and moral self-awareness touched me deeply. The first person who told me about the difficulties of the substitute teachers in the west was 70-something-year-old retired Guangzhou teacher Zheng Qianyi. At the time when she told me this situation , she was in tears. In later exchanges, I found that she had spent several tens of thousands of yuan of her own to print classical textbooks for the impoverished village schools in the west. One time, she was giving a lecture in the west and she almost died when her diabetes condition acted up. She still has the west on her mind as she lies on her sick bed today. Among the many donors to education in the west, the most memorable one was the Beijing female Doctor of Philosophy who gave the 400 yuan in publication fees of her doctoral dissertation to the substitute teachers.
This kind of civilian conscience was also fully and exceptionally evident in my observations in Shenzhen.
In September 2005, I interviewed Leng Feng, a solitary anti-fraud fighter against the numerous fraudster companies in Shenzhen. Although he lives in a rental house of fewer than 6 square meters of area in Shenzhen, he was full of responsibility for the public interest and the wisdom of a detective. He has saved fraud victims on numerous occasions, and he has offered numerous tips to help the Shenzhen police solve cases. He has exposed frauds on CCTV investigative news programs. I see in him an exuberant public spirit and the will to live that is growing in civic society.
This precious thing also appeared in the person of another Shenzhen citizen Li Hongguang in a ground-breaking fashion. She spent her own money for newspaper advertisements to ask the representatives at the two congresses to pay attention to a dozen or so public interest issues and investigations, and the Shenzhen government actually paid attention. The ground-breaking characterization also applies directly to the Shenzhen Lawyers Association. During the past two years, they had been trying democratic experiments on their own, and this became a long-term observation subject for me. They directly elected the Association president from among the lawyers. Afterwards, they follow a democratic process to monitor the president, including a recall process. When they found many flaws in the system during the process, they improved the rules of the game in 2005 based upon the "constitutional spirit." Around New Year, a newly directly elected president Li Cun (formerly, the director of a law office) followed the principle against conflict of interest and suspended his lawyer license and practice that could have brought him several million of yuan in income per year in order to become an honest and corruption-free president. They claim that they are exploring a sociological example of "democratic politics."
I have encountered innumerable people like these. Across the land that we live in, there are innumerable people who may be known or work in silence. Just as Mr. Lu Xun said, "From our ancient times, there are people who immerse themselves and work hard, there are people who stake all and work hard, there are people who appeal on behalf of the People, these are people who sacrifice themselves for a cause ..." It is precisely these people who let us feel the warmth of life and history and who let us believe that justice and conscience have not been lost. Just when we despair at the relentless fates of people in this era, we see people's paramount strength and the light and hope that our times shall be improved.