Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Killing Children - An Act of War Against China’s Collective Future

New America Media, news analysis, Xujun Eberlein, Published: May 17, 2010

In Hanzhong, Shannxi, a mother-and-son team rented a rural property to open a private kindergarten for 20 children. One day the son found a snake inside and killed it. This disturbed the property owner, 48-year-old Wu Huanming, who had been suffering from a variety of diseases and had grown increasingly superstitious in recent years. Blaming the snake killing for the ineffectiveness of his medical treatment, Wu went into a frenzy. On the morning of May 12, Wu entered the kindergarten carrying a meat cleaver and hacked to death seven children, along with the mother-and-son proprietors, wounding another 11 children in the process. Wu committed suicide afterward.

Hanzhong police provided these details at a press conference a day after the killing, according to Xi’an Morning Post.  At first glance, it looked like another malignant but isolated crime. In fact, it was only the latest in a series of mass attacks on young children in different provinces of China that occurred between March 23 and May 12. Beijing police said last Wednesday they successfully interdicted seven criminal attempts targeting schools and kindergartens in that city alone.

All over China, people winced. Why are young children being slaughtered? Such massive attacks on children did not happen even in the Cultural Revolution, the most violent period of Communist China. And now China is experiencing unprecedented prosperity.

Despite the apparent similarities in actions and targets, there is no universal explanation of motive. Among the killers besides Wu Huanming were a doctor who could not find a job and, at age 42, had a history of failed relationships, a 40-year-old villager who had suffered mental illness for five years, a 31-year-old school teacher on sick leave for four years; a 46-year-old unemployed man with debts resulting from multi-level marketing, and a 45-year-old villager whose newly-built house faced demolition.

Two of the six suspects were said to have suffered mental illness, prompting concerns about China’s lack of mental health care. But insanity can hardly explain the other four cases.

Most of the suspects lived at the bottom of the society, leading observers to blame their anger and desperation on the wealth gap. The Internet is abuzz with questions about whether China’s economy should be characterized as that of a “rich state, poor people.” But even this does not explain why children were repeatedly targeted.

Chinese cherish children as the promise of their future and their defense against death. Though rare stories exist about “exchanging [dead] children to eat” (“易子而食”),  those were from disastrous periods of war and famine, when desperation was all there was. Has China today entered such a period of extreme disaster?

Harming children on a mass scale did not start this year. As early as 2004, long before the Sanlu milk scandal, there was the “dark-heart milk powder” incident in which counterfeit milk powder caused the deaths of 13 babies and permanent disablement of 171 others. It outraged the entire nation that someone would target babies to make a profit. That incident reflected a moral decay in China, but no one could have foreseen that child-harming would escalate to the raw violence seen this year.

In one of the six recent school attacks, 45-year-old Wang Yonglai was an even-tempered Shandong villager and a long-time party member. On the morning of April 30, Wang carried a hammer to the village’s elementary school, and pounded five preschool children on their heads. Wang then poured gasoline on himself, grabbed two children into his arms, and lit himself on fire. While Wang burned to death, the two children were pulled to safety by teachers.

This tragedy happened on the day Wang’s new house was to be demolished. According to an investigative report in the independent Caijing magazine, Wang’s greatest wish in life was to build a new house for his son, now 20 years old, so that he would be able to get a wife. Last year, after Wang spent his lifetime savings plus 60,000 yuan of debt, the new house was finally built. Wang had gone through all of the proper procedures. In June 2009, the local government issued Wang’s house the “rights certificate.” On the day of April 23, 2010, however, Wang received notice from a government department that his house was an illegal building and must be demolished in two days. Wang and his daughter called and went to many places trying to save the house -- the mayor’s hotline, the “law hotline,” the TV station -- to no effect.

“Wang Yonglai’s new house still stands right now,” the Caijing report says, “while the demolition day became the day of his death. Using his death, five little children’s blood, and the serial effect of other school attacks, he temporarily preserved the painstaking effort of his life.”

One office of the government approved Wang’s house’s legal status, but another government office judged it an illegal building. Wang was given only a few days notice before the demolition. The government was too powerful, and the ordinary villager powerless. Finally, “the weak take revenge on the weaker,” concludes a Chinese blogger. Robbed of his future by a state impervious to his plight, he took revenge by destroying others’ futures -- their children.

Wang’s plight is reminiscent of that of a Sichuan woman, Tang Fuzhen, who burned herself to death last November in a failed attempt to stop the local government from demolishing her house. After her death, the government judged Tang and her relatives to be criminals who “used violence to fight the law.” The government also tried to block media reports on the case. Tang’s death, and similar self-immolations in other Chinese cities, did not stop forceful house demolitions by the government and developers, nor did the tragedy rouse any remorse. Only about a month ago, a government official involved in demolishing Tang’s house was still saying the cause of the tragedy was that Tang “did not have knowledge of law.”

When suicide alone is no longer effective, the most horrific crime – mass killing of children -- becomes the most effective option to some of those desperate enough to end their own lives. More than a manifestation of individual problems or even of social injustice, it is an act of war against China’s collective future. It is a sign that now is a time of extreme desperation, for all China’s great strides toward prosperity.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

After Four Decades, Apologies Are Coming Forth

In December 2007, I wrote a news commentary for NAM titled “On Mao’s 114th Birthday, Past Catches up to Former Red Guard Leader,” a story about Song Binbin. (If you are not familiar with the name “Song Binbin,” there is a short introduction in that piece.)

At the time, it was a mystery to me what Song’s role was in the beating death of her school’s vice principal Bian Zhongyun on the afternoon of August 5, 1966. Despite numerous Chinese people proclaiming Song’s guilt (and an American lawyer even advocating bringing her to trial today), in my research I never found evidence showing that Song directly participated in the beating.

On the other hand, witness citations pointed to the fact that Song was on campus at the time, and might even have been in the crowd watching.  For example, a schoolmate of hers named Tao Luosong said in a 2007 statement that while principal Bian and other teachers were beaten on a stage, “Song Binbin happened to stand behind me. I heard her say, ‘That might be a way to cut back their arrogance.’” (“煞煞他们的威风也好.” I should say that the expression “也好” is somewhat difficult to translate; it has a tone of “not the best option, but…”)

I wondered why, when Song gave a veiled interview in the documentary Morning Sun denying any involvement in violence, she did not provide particulars of her whereabouts on that tragic afternoon of her youth. If she wanted to clear up her name, aren’t particularities much more effective than an abstract claim?

Now, two and a half years after I wrote that piece, the picture is getting clearer. In the most recent issue (the 47th) of a Chinese e-journal titled "记忆" (Remembrance) is a rather detailed dialogue between five women, one of them Song Binbin. The other participants include Song’s high school friend Liu Jin, and three  lower-grade schoolmates of theirs, who did not know Song personally at the time of the violence. In recent years, all of them are actively involved in investigations aimed at recovering facts around the “August 5 Incident.”

In her introduction, Feng Jinglan, who conducted the discussion, says they have visited 110 teachers and schoolmates in their investigations. The article is rather long, divided into six sections:

1.      - The first “big-character poster” (大字)
2.      - The work-team (工作) period
3.      - The post-work-team period
4.      - The August 5 incident
5.      -  Red Guards and August 18
6.      - About Song Binbin

On “the August 5 incident,” in a nutshell, the conclusion is that Liu Jin and Song Binbin (both student leaders whose influence was waning in the post-work-team period), as well as some others were meeting in an office when, unknown to them, the violence started in the central campus playground.  After they heard about it, Liu, Song and company went to the site to try to stop the beating, then left when they thought their persuasion had worked. A while later, they heard the teachers were again beaten in the rear playground. For the second time the student leaders went to the site.  Again they left when they saw the beating had apparently stopped. At dusk, they were shocked to hear principal Bian was dying in the rear school yard. They rushed Bian to a hospital, had arguments with a doctor who was reluctant to help a “black gang,” and finally got emergency treatment for Bian, but it was too late.

This largely clears up Song Binbin’s role in the incident. I am pretty much convinced that she neither organized nor participated in the beating, and later that day she actively sought medical treatment for Bian.  In my mind some questions remain, but I’ll address those in another post.

In the section about the “August 5 incident,” Feng Jinglan asks questions, and Liu Jin gives most of the answers based on what she remembers as well as her latest investigations which fill the gaps in her faded memory. Ye Weili adds her part of witness memory and observations. Oddly though, Song Binbin, the center of focus, is quiet. None of Feng’s questions here is directly addressed to her. The only time Song speaks in this section is about a recent visit to an old teacher:
[in translation]
          Song Binbin: That day [we] went to see Teacher Mei, as soon as [I] entered the door and saw his all white-haired look, remorse filled my heart, so I said sorry to the teacher. The words came from [my] heart, what I had always wanted to say.  Although on the day of August 5 when the incident happened, we tried too to persuade them to stop [the violence], we did not anticipate the situation’s extreme consequence. Thinking of Principal Bian’s death under the students’ violent beating, and other teachers and administrators suffering severe physical and mental harm, for over 40 years I’ve always felt heartache, remorse, and regret. I’d like to take this opportunity to express my apology and regret to them again.
This is new and significant. Though I wish Song had laid out specifics in her own words about her activities on the day of August 5, 1966, not just let others speak on her behalf, I applaud for her sincere apology nearly 44 years later.  As I wrote two and a half years ago, “So far, few former Red Guards have come out and talked about their actions. Most are in their 60s now, remaining behind a wall of silence. I can understand their excuse that the violence they were involved in was circumstantial, non-personal, and, at the time, even politically correct.  Still, I can't help but wonder: Had Song Binbin acknowledged her part in, clarified her position on, and properly expressed her sorrow for that tragic day of 1966, would people's reaction today have been more restrained? Would she have been forgiven by those who crouched in terror that day, as well as by those who had terrorized and now try to forget their shame?”

I recall years earlier, after seeing the documentary Morning Sun, a friend, who felt Song was too caught up in clearing of her own name, commented, “Why didn’t she express any sorrow about Bian Zhongyun’s death at all?”  Yes, it would have been better for both Song and the film audience if she had spoken those sincere words then, but it’s still not too late now.

Many CR participants who weren’t physically involved in violence might feel their apologies are not called for. ("They haven't stepped out, why should I?")  Other more enlightened minds feel differently. A few weeks ago I went to Harvard University to attend a conference titled “Red Legacy in China.” One of the speakers, Carma Hinton, director of Morning Sun, told a story of her high school reunion in Beijing last year: the entire class gave a collective apology to their old teachers. The teachers, now aged, were very touched. So was I. My understanding is that none of those in the reunion had committed violence, yet they were not exceptions to denouncing teachers, as it was the norm of the time.

After all, few of the CR generation were completely innocent. The Cultural Revolution was an all-people movement. It was a time that few escaped the mob mentality. Even today it gives me cold sweats with the thought that, if I were old enough then, I could have done terrible things that I would regret for a lifetime.

As a writer, I’ve always been more interested in understanding the mob mentality than pointing fingers. To understand we have to keep digging through the past. I don’t think we have dug deep enough, have understand enough. I heard that, early this year, when Zhang Yimou made a New Year movie that many deemed too stupid, the famous director claimed that Chinese people had enough heavy topics like the CR, what they needed now were light-hearted, relaxing movies. It surprises me that Zhang’s sight is this narrow, from only the viewpoint of his generation. Has he noticed that today’s young people are very ignorant of the recent past such as the CR and 1989? Without learning the lessons from their parents, new signs of mob mentality have already began to show on the internet.

A reader once asked me what I think the present effects are in China of people not being able to openly discuss what happened during the CR. I told her the real danger is not from the government restriction on the topic but from a voluntary silence of the people who participated, because what was glorious then, is shameful now. And there are a lot of them, the entire generation that grew up with Mao’s New China, the older sisters and brothers or my generation, the parents of the post-70s and even 80s.

I’m a pessimist when it comes to human nature and I’d thought the apology would forever be in the forthcoming (but never arriving), thus my book title. Song Binbin’s apology and that from Carma Hinton’s class seem to be rays of new hope. I can see how the courage to apologize has taken more than 4 decades to pluck up; it is courageous nonetheless. Perhaps the wall of silence is starting to crack?

Of course, for those who committed violence, the obstacle in delivering the apology is a lot bigger.  I remain pessimistic on this.