New America Media, Xujun Eberlein, Published: Sept. 1, 2009
Zhang Fangshu holds a knife at the hostage's neck; the hostage is crying while making cellphone calls.
(photo from Nanfang Daily)
On Aug. 27, the criminal trial of two migrant worker brothers in Guangzhou, China, drew unusual media attention. A prosecutor alleged that the two brothers from Chongqing kidnapped a white-collar woman from a busy street on April 21. The Zhang brothers pleaded guilty, but said they only wanted to raise money to save their sick mother and had no intention of hurting the victim. The brothers' filial devotion attracted sympathy from many Chinese, including lawyers. Working pro-bono, three lawyers from Chongqing presented the Zhang brothers' defense.
The brothers are from a remote rural village in Kaixian, Chongqing, some 1,200 miles away from Guangzhou. They lost their father early, left home to work as teenagers, and have now been migrant workers for over a decade. With little skill and only an elementary school education, however, they have not made enough money to live on. They have incurred a debt of 45,000 yuan (about $6,600) over the years.
At home, on the evening of April 20, their 53-year-old mother suddenly collapsed while working in the fields. She was admitted to a local hospital in critical condition and diagnosed with a cerebral hemorrhage, but lacking money she could not receive the life-saving treatment. The village doctor called the patient's two sons in Guangzhou. The next morning, the Zhang brothers went to a busy street and kidnapped a woman at knife point. Meanwhile, they held a hand-written sign that stated they were asking the government for a loan of 18,000 yuan. At first, police tried to convince them to let go of the hostage. When it did not work, the police overwhelmed the Zhang brothers and rescued the hostage unhurt.
In court, the older brother, who had held the knife to the hostage's neck during the short standoff, said the purpose of the kidnapping was not to commit a crime but to get the media's and society's attention. He was careful not to hurt the woman, he said: "I wanted to take the knife away from her neck, but I was also worried that I wouldn't be able to raise money." He cried several times and expressed remorse. According to reports, many in the audience also shed tears. The victim testified that the kidnappers had treated her carefully. A security guard testified that it was when the older brother was wiping tears from his eyes that the police took the opportunity to end the standoff.
The prosecutor told the brothers "your situation deserves sympathy, but the law does not excuse crimes," and suggested a prison term of 5-10 years for the older brother, and under 5 years for the younger brother.
Back at home in April, their mother remained unconscious for days, and three times her medical treatment was nearly stopped because her poor relatives could not collect enough money to pay for it. The situation changed on April 24, when 20,000 yuan raised by sympathetic Guangzhou media workers arrived. She was sent to a better hospital to be treated and eventually gained consciousness. The brothers' criminal action actually achieved their goal.
The day before the trial, when the heartbroken mother, who was slowly recovering at home, learned about the sentences her sons might serve, she asked if it was okay to sentence only one of the two. "If both were in jail, how could the family get by?" she reportedly said. According to reports, she had been the only working force of the family before she fell sick. Beside herself she was supporting her second husband, who is said to be developmentally disabled, and a four-year-old grandson, whose mother had run away.
In court, following the prosecutor's statement, the defense lawyers suggested a delayed incarceration for the younger brother. The sentencing will be decided at a later date.
China's official media website, xinhuanet.com, is running a poll: "Two brothers kidnapped a hostage in order to raise money to treat their mother's illness; how do you view their action?" At the time of this writing, 1,397 readers have voted, with the following results:
"Deserves sympathy; for their mother they don't even fear prison, that is a great filial devotion": 40.52 percent
"It's pitiful and detestable; using this way to raise money is a stupid filial piety": 41.59 percent
"Don't want to make any judgment": 17.9 percent
Filial devotion is considered one of the most important virtues in Chinese society. Throughout history, many emperors have promoted and practiced the tradition of "governing the world by the filial piety."
This case provoked a heated discussion on the Internet as to whether the brothers' filial devotion should reduce their sentence. While there is a consensus that the brothers have committed a crime, some law experts say the punishment should take into consideration their motivation as well as their social and family background, while others consider kidnapping in a public place a very odious crime that deserves heavy punishment. Still others point out that the case reflects serious problems in China's health care system and welfare system.
China's rural health care is far behind that of the cities. Research from 2007 indicates nearly half of the rural population do not have any form of health care coverage, and have to bear any medical costs completely on their own. In recent years, the government has been trying to expand coverage by developing a co-op system, which requires peasants to pay small insurance premiums, while the government provides a larger subsidy. Apparently the Zhang brothers and their mother have not participated in such a co-op.
An official from the Zhang brothers' hometown told the media they would consider including the family for welfare provision, but the decision has to wait till next year because the quota of welfare recipients is adjusted only once a year.