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.”
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.
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