An Airport Bomber in China Becomes an Unlikely Recipient of Online Sympathy

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Chinese security personnel investigate the scene where a man in a wheelchair ignited a homemade explosive device at Beijing's international airport terminal on July 20, 2013

A crazed man detonates an explosive at a busy international airport. We think we know the story line: a suicide bomber surely, a twisted faith perhaps, scattered limbs of innocent passersby adding to a global death count. But the narrative shifts — and the bomber is suddenly cast in the role of victim by the online Chinese public, with some even calling the ruling Communist Party to account. “In order to prevent such extreme behavior, China needs to accelerate political reform,” Zhao Xiao, a professor at the Beijing Institute of Technology, told TIME after his online defense of the bomber was reposted 50,000 times.

Early in the evening of July 20, in the international-arrivals hall of Beijing Capital International Airport, Ji Zhongxing sat in his wheelchair, holding a white package and a stack of leaflets. The documents referred to the beating he said he received in the southern Chinese city of Dongguan at the hands of the chengguan, a shadowy urban-management force that operates with startling impunity across the nation. But Ji was mostly ignored by the suitcase-rolling crowds, the jet-setting elite who help power the world’s second largest economy. After a while, the former motorcycle-taxi driver, who was paralyzed by the beating and spent eight years petitioning the government for justice, held up the mysterious parcel. He shouted for everyone to stay clear. Then, in the only way he must have believed he could draw attention to his plight, Ji triggered his homemade bomb — a radical act by a man whose life had narrowed to a single, hopeless pursuit. “If this happened in any other airport in any other country, he would be recognized as a terrorist,” Li Chengpeng, one of China’s most daring bloggers, tells TIME. “But because it happened in China, where people have nowhere to redress injustice, he has gained more sympathy than blame.”

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China’s airport bomber is only the latest desperate individual to provoke online compassion in a nation where the judicial system is calibrated both to allow for extralegal oppression and to prevent the remedying of citizens’ grievances. Three days before the airport explosion, a watermelon seller in central China died on the street after being attacked by chengguan. The next day, in the country’s northeast, another vendor was beaten by a clutch of urban-management thugs. Meanwhile, thousands of petitioners, each armed with a tale of official malfeasance, continue to flock to Beijing, hoping that an ancient system of bringing their woes to the Emperor — or, at least, to the State Bureau for Letters and Visits — will result in wrongs righted. Their wishes are misplaced — until the Communist Party makes protecting individual rights more of a priority. “In China, we have courts and lawyers, but we have no rule of law,” says blogger Li, whose Sina Weibo social-media account was shuttered by censors after he posted on the watermelon vendor’s death. “Almost every week, two or three similar incidents happen. It’s dizzying.”

It’s also numbing. Every few days, I receive a text message from petitioners who in a sentence or two try to plead their case for publication in TIME. “Please help me things,” said one message in broken English I received earlier this month from a farmer I’ve known for years. Apple grower Yu Baozhong has sustained multiple beatings and jailings after having dared to challenge the local chieftains by winning a village election. When he calls, which is often, and I struggle to decipher his thick provincial dialect, I have no idea how to respond anymore.

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What I think but do not say is that in more than a decade of interviewing petitioners, I have never met a single person who has succeeded in receiving suitable compensation or justice. With the rise of Chinese microblogging, or Weibo, some of the most egregious instances of abuse of power can get a public airing. This is a huge change from a few years before. A day after Ji tried to blow himself up — doctors were forced to amputate his hand but there were no other significant injuries at the airport — China’s state broadcaster announced that Dongguan authorities were reopening his case. But should it take a homemade bomb at one of the world’s largest airports to trigger such action? And other cases, like the 120 Tibetans who have immolated themselves in recent years to protest government repression, remain strictly censored.

China’s economy is flagging. Instances of social unrest — and social injustice — will likely proliferate. Despite an anticorruption drive initiated by President Xi Jinping, who is less than a year into his decadelong posting, there is little indication yet of political or social reform. One of China’s bravest activists, Xu Zhiyong, was locked up on July 16. Then his lawyer was briefly detained. In early June, Du Bin, a crusading Chinese photographer whose pictures have appeared in TIME, was detained and accused of spreading rumors, disturbing social order and printing illegal publications. The police kept asking him “why a person like me, who comes from a good family background, would become someone who exposes the Communist Party’s scars.”

Du is now out on bail; his freedom is tenuous. But he considers himself lucky compared with the petitioners whom he has chronicled for a decade. Some have committed suicide, while others have allowed their despair to metastasize into violence against society. “It’s so sad that ordinary people have to resort to such extreme methods to attract the government’s attention,” Du says. Airport bomber Ji now holds his nation’s interest. But he remains paralyzed. His violent outburst claimed his hand. The police say he is under criminal detention. No one, not even his family, knows exactly where. Ji Zhongxing is still lost.

With reporting by Chengcheng Jiang and Gu Yongqiang / Beijing

LIST: When China’s Netizens Attack: 10 Famous ‘Human Flesh’ Hunts

16 comments
sridhar.sid
sridhar.sid

This may be an act of a lone 'unbalanced' individual but the support he has received should send shivers in Beijing. Progress and growth at any cost, has infact cost a lot to the average citizen in China. The basis for sensational development by China and its position as the secong largest economy in the world, was based on absolute State controls on resources, land and labour. Millions of acres of land were seized from poor peasants, millions were forced to produce  'stuffed dolls' for Walmart under terrible conditions and wealth was concentrated in the hands of the chosen few who belonged to the Communist party. This dream machine had to slow down and then stop. This is happening in many parts of China. The pressure cooker has run out of the ability to release pressure and these acts are becoming more common and taking different forms. The Chinese Government has very smart people and the new leaders elected last year have already started focusing on what ails China. All this is better than the disaster that the world witnessed in the former Soviet Union!

ChasL
ChasL

Ms. Beech is known for writing anti-Chinese propaganda. Check her articles on China Digital Times, a US government mouth piece funded via Congressionally mandated NED grants.

Unbelievable, the few exteremely annecdotal, cherry picked microblogs comments somehow represent Chinese netter's sentiment as a whole? Please, for every one of these, there are 10 alternative views, and half a billion Chinese netters who don't care.

It's like saying Tim McVeigh or the Tsarnaev Brothers are receiving sympathy for setting off bombs. Criminal, anti-social behavior like this is not acceptable. Not in US, not in China, not withstanding propaganda like this.

Rye-catcher.
Rye-catcher.

It's a complicated situation.Please learn more about the accident.

lovesky09
lovesky09

Every coin has two sides. China may has some problems present,but every country has her problems.The small part of chengguan's behavior doesn't mean all chengguan are thugs.I think we should look on things dialectically. 

21stcentury
21stcentury

It's a sad story of a nation reaping what it sows. Mafia thugs (common enough elsewhere - in the US in the last century) ride around on their scooters and cycles terrorizing market stall owners (small business folks) with violent acts and "protection fees." Local law enforcement out sources the ruffians and puts them on the street as enforcers. Of course, those bidding for the outsourcing work are all private companies driven by profits.

This case may begin a dialog or foment a response among the Chinese people regarding law enforcement and civil liberty.


MarcHandler1
MarcHandler1

What a frustrating article. Ms. Beech tells us about "the chengguan, a shadowy urban-management force that operates with startling impunity across the nation" --- she tells us about their many abuses -- but gives us no idea  who they are or why they do this.  So the article is a kind of melodrama: evil chengguan vs hapless victims. Ms. Beech, I invite you to come on the comment board here and kindly explain what in the world an "urban management force" is ... and what they gain by these abuses. Why do they attack watermelon sellers? Why would a flagging economy cause them to attack more watermelon sellers? I'm not challenging your opinion and I don't doubt that your heart is in the right place, but you're just not providing enough information for readers to understand the story.



ysprefer
ysprefer

Ji Zhongxing is Ji Zhongxing, do not link him with Tibetans, Chinese people may sympathize Ji Zhongxing for his sorrow, but for those Tibetans who have immolated themselves, No one will sympathize those who do not cherish his own life. Even the Christian Society do not encourage suicide, "those who take his own life, shall go to the hell".

HollyKick
HollyKick

wow ... hope chinese govt stops attacking india and focus on helping its people ...

mittens
mittens

Extreme violent acts like this are heard frequently nowadays in China, and most of the people live in the society know exactly why. Without dramatic political reform, things will become worse and worse. But it seems like that reform is the last thing CPC want to do. Stable is all they care about.

Meow_Ming
Meow_Ming

@ChasL 

ChasL is a member of "50-cent party" to smear Time Magazine's news contributors......ChasL, had I been a member of you "50 cent party", I would have promoted you to "55 cent party" because you are so prolific commie propagandist.  You are everywhere...from Time to Global Times........from NY Times to Xinhua.......do me a favor, will 'ya........GET LOST.

ChasL
ChasL

@MarcHandler1 This is a propagand hit piece, check out her other articles on China Digital Times (CDT is funded by US government via NED grants.)

dogsmycopilot
dogsmycopilot

@ysprefer I do. I sympathize with them. I am not no one. I am a human being who can imagine the frustration and suffering of another sentient being. What's your excuse? 

cjh2nd
cjh2nd

@ysprefer 

it didn't link him to the tibetans in any way other than to say that they too feel the government is repressive

ChasL
ChasL

@Meow_Ming I'd like to see you back up your McCarthyist accusation.

JoanneD
JoanneD

@dogsmycopilot @ysprefer  

Good!! I'm sure you must also feel for these frustrated and suffered suicide terrorists who created 9-11.