A Portrait of a “Subverter”

First published by Human Rights in China in New York as a part of its press release, which also includes a translation of Chen Pingfu’s Indictment.

On Tuesday, September 4, a 55-year-old man was on trial for “inciting subversion of state power” in Lanzhou, the capital city of northwestern province of Gansu, China, and the evidence cited in the indictment (see below for translation) consists of a long list of blog posts and nothing else. So it is a case of the crime of self-expression. The sentence hasn’t been announced, and at the end of the trial, the court announced that he would continue to be “residing under surveillance” (监视居住) until the sentence comes.

His name is Chen Pingfu (陈平福). He was 20 years old when China, under Deng Xiaoping’s leadership, reinstituted national college examination. He excelled in the exams, and entered Northwest Normal University in Lanzhou majoring in mathematics. Upon graduating he was assigned a teaching job at the vocational school of Victory Machinery Factory of Capital Steel (首钢胜利机械厂) in Gaolan (皋兰) on outskirts of Lanzhou. There he taught math for more than two decades.

In May 2005, he suffered a heart attack and was sent to a hospital. His employer, a Mao-era state-owned enterprise on the brink of bankruptcy, was unable to help him with funds needed for surgery, nor could he afford it himself. He had to leave the hospital. His father gathered his younger siblings, pleading help from them for their older brother. They pulled together more than 50,000 yuan [about $6,000 at the time] and Chen Pingfu underwent a successful heart bypass surgery.

He was anxious to pay the debt, losing sleep sometimes, not because his siblings were pressuring him, but because none of them were well-off. One of his younger sisters, a cleaning woman in a small town making 150 a month yuan [about $20], gave him what was likely her life’s savings: 10,000 yuan [about $1,212].

With few means to make money, Chen Pingfu decided to play violin on the street. On Saturdays and Sundays he traveled 30 miles from Gaolan to downtown Lanzhou to do that. It wasn’t easy for an educated Chinese man with a keen sense of “face.” On his first trip, he chose a site but paced for an hour before taking out his violin and spreading a sheet on the floor that read: “Employee of Victory Machinery Factory, deeply in debt due to heart surgery, have to perform on street for alms.”

He played the famous Butterfly Lovers’ Violin Concerto (the musical retelling of the Chinese classical tale of Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai, the so-called Chinese Romeo and Juliet) and Robert Shumann’s “Träumerei,” among other pieces. To those who thought he was a fraud, he gave his employer’s phone number for verification. But mostly he met with compassion, encouragement, and generosity. Once, a five-year-old girl pulled her mother to a stop, listened, and handed him a 1 yuan [about $0.15] bill with both hands. Another time, a man stopped and listened, then disappeared into a hotel but sent a porter with 50 yuan [about $6]. Other musicians gave him tips on how to play better. Along the way, he improved his playing.

It went well, so well that Sohu.com, a major Internet service provider in China, interviewed him about his “success” and the positive social aspects of his story. It is from this interview, now available on Youtube, and the articles listed in his indictment that I learned his story.

In 2009, as his factory prepared for bankruptcy and he had no job to go to, he played violin on street in the afternoons. For one reason or the other, he didn’t talk about the dark side of his street experience in the interview. On the street he was scolded and threatened by liuguan (流管, migrant population administration) and jiuzhu zhan (救助站, relief station) workers who came not to lend him a hand but to get rid of him. They told him, “The government forbids performing on street for money!” They pressed him onto the ground to subdue him. An officer from the relief station shouted at him, “I’ll send you to your death if you dare be a nuisance! Who do you think you are? Making you die is nothing for us! Go with us if you dare, and see how we will tidy you up!” (Quoted from his blog post “Fight against Brutality and Pursue Civilization.”)

One time, a group of men from the Relief Station seized him and threw him into a truck with metal bars. In the heat of the summer, after struggling with the thugs, his heart beat faster and his chest tightened. He begged his captors to let him out, but they laughed at him, and one of them told him he was out of his mind.

On the street, he also witnessed other cruelties. A woman’s basket of peaches was snatched away from her by a chengguan (城管, urban management) officer; a middle-aged shoeshine man was chased away.

As he played violin on street, he also set up several blogs, pouring out his anger, his frustration, and his thoughts on the ills in Chinese society. Not surprisingly, he was summoned and warned by the authorities.

As 2011 began, Chen Pingfu found a teaching job in the southwestern province of Yunnan. Still in Chinese New Year holiday season, he took a flight, for the first time in his life, to Yunnan, some 1,500 miles away. He had had enough trouble playing violin on the street and writing blogs. His plan was to give up both and to teach children math and science and music. After all, he said, he needed to live first. Three days after he arrived in Yunnan, his former employer called, asking where he was. Soon after, the school’s principal, an old friend of his, received a call from police department in Gansu Province. The local police summoned the principal and interrogated him about Chen’s activities and their relationship. The principal pressed Chen about what he had done, and he didn’t want to be ruined for “hiding away a criminal.” Chen said again and again that he was not a criminal. The Yunnan police asked the principal to fire Chen and send him away within 24 hours.

He was back in Gansu Province in less than a week at his new job. This, despite repeated promises he had made to “relevant organ” that he would not write any more blog posts once he started working. Back in Lanzhou, he called the “relevant organ” to protest, and the person on the other end of the line burst out laughing.

In his blog posts, he told his stories, the humiliation and brutalities he had been subjected to. He reflected on the fundamental ills of the system, the lack of rule of law, and the abuses of power around him. He cheered the democratic revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia. He expressed deep gratitude toward the ordinary Chinese who had helped him in one way or the other. He voiced his intense disgust for an education centered on tooling children according to the Party’s design. He hoped China would transition peacefully into a democratic country where traditional Chinese culture can be restored and a constitutional political system established, and where he can make a living and play violin freely without being persecuted by the authorities. Chen was determined to continue to speak out. He said in one of his blog posts: “As long as they don’t have an explanation or justification for me, I will continue to tell my story, expose the inhuman crimes perpetrated by the so-called people’s servants, and condemn this lying system.” (Quote from “I May Be Beaten to Death by Thugs, but I Will Not Be Cowed to Death.”)

On June 27, 2012, he was charged with “inciting subversion of state power” for his blog posts and subjected to residential surveillance. He would have been jailed if not for his coronary heart disease.

“At the hardest time of my life when I had to give up treatment and go home to wait for my death…when I needed relief the most, there was no government to be seen. But when I was deeply in debt, and jobless, and had no choice but to play violin on the street to help myself, the Relief Station of Lanzhou’s municipal government came with a barred jail truck,” Chen Pingfu wrote in one post. (Quoted from “Weasels Serve Chickens.”)

In another, he wrote, “Looking back at my life thus far, I found that I had lived meaninglessly for all these years without doing one worthwhile and meaningful thing. I cannot swallow the humiliation in silence; I have kept thinking and reading to break the cultural dictatorship so that my mind can go to a farther and wider world.” (Quoted from “I Cannot Bear the Humiliation in Silence.”)

But instead of a farther and wider world, he has found himself in jail—in China.

6 responses to “A Portrait of a “Subverter””

  1. What a good story about a great man. I believe his feeling about how the Chinese government treats it people is shared by many others, but they dare not say anything unless they end up like Chen Pingfu is. May he prevail against such harsh treatment that he is surrounded by daily.

  2. […] Seeing Red in China Your guide to modern China Skip to content HomeAbout…About TomAbout Yaxue CaoAbout CaseyComplete ArchiveSuggested SitesChina Books to ReadThe Best China Movies中文 ← A Portrait of a “Subverter” […]

  3. daveholzheim says:

    Interesting and moving story – but a weird narrative about healthcare in China. This article in Foreign Affairs ( a mainstream liberal journal if ever there was one) argues that health care in China was much better during the Mao period and it is the move towards marketization that has created the health crisis in China
    See Huang, Yanzhong. Foreign Affairs90. 6 (Nov/Dec 2011): 119-136.

  4. […] Chen Pingfu. “With few means to make money, Chen Pingfu decided to play violin on the street. On Saturdays and Sundays he traveled 30 miles from Gaolan to downtown Lanzhou to do that. It wasn’t easy for an educated Chinese man with a keen sense of ‘face.’ On his first trip, he chose a site but paced for an hour before taking out his violin and spreading a sheet on the floor that read: ‘Employee of Victory Machinery Factory, deeply in debt due to heart surgery, have to perform on street for alms.’” [Seeing Red in China] […]

  5. […] – not out there in the seven seas where the barbarian man-eaters are ambuscading you – basically anyone has the “right” to break a “smaller” compatriot’s nec…. (Of course, the perpetrator needs to be Chinese to exercise that right which has been Chinese […]

  6. […] for trying to meet the mother of a Tian’anmen square protester, and the inhumane treatment of Chen Pingfu, before lowering my head and saying, “No, they […]

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