One month after the street vendor was executed.
By Ji Ye, published: October 24, 2013
On September 25, 2013, Xia Junfeng was executed. I was saddened and felt low for days.
I have been paying attention to this name for more than two years, but what I care about is not the legal aspect of it. To us onlookers, we have no access to the core evidence, the so-called “evidence” we have heard is fragmented, unverifiable, and even contradictory, and we are mostly laymen of the law. Therefore it is absurd for a bunch of half illiterates of law to be heatedly discussing Xia’s guilt or innocence, whether or not his crime warrants the death penalty, to the point of quarrelling and cursing each other. My sadness is not from my remorse for the death of an innocent, not even for, as some people describe it, the death of an “anti-tyranny hero.” My sorrow is all about watching someone I can identify with being hurt and punished.
Xia Jufeng was born in 1976, four years younger than me, and we are contemporaries. He was born in the old industrial district in Shenyang while I was born in a large-scale mining city in Heilongjiang. In the 1990s, a well-known reform [the massive layoff and closedown of the Mao era’s SOEs] led to millions of workers being laid off. If “the sacrifice of some people is the necessary price for historical progress,” then those unfortunate people happened to be that “price.”
These SOE workers, who had been used to the planned economy, at first felt at a loss to be in that situation. I still remember over the entire mid and late 90s, I kept hearing news from my hometown: this mining family committed suicide together by drinking poison, the old miners of that mine committed group suicide by throwing themselves under a passing train…. I still remember how news like this sent shudders down my spine: If I weren’t so lucky to have made it to college, I would have been just in time to become one of those wandering “unemployed young people” in that desolate old industrial city.
But Xia Junfeng wasn’t as lucky as I was. He scored several points lower than I did and ended up in a vocational school. After graduation, he became a factory worker, and the factory was closed down, unsurprisingly. In 1999, while studying at a beauty school, he met Zhang Jing (张晶) who was one year older. People who have met Zhang Jing all know that she is a girl endowed with both high IQ and high EQ. Obviously, this young couple never gave up on self-reliance, but in a rough environment, they eventually ended up doing what they would have looked down on becoming – street vendors.
During an interview of Zhang Jing in 2011, one scene she described left me with a deep impression, and I quote:
“The winter in Shenyang was very cold. The temperature was below -20ºC (-4 ºF). My husband and I, our hands, feet, and our ears and lips got frost bite. I wear size 38 shoes (US size 8), but my toes were so swollen that I had to wear size 41 (US size 10). Also I had to wear cotton socks, one layer after another. At the coldest, the two of us jumped rope and played shuttlecock. We jumped up and down the stairs outside an internet café, trying to stay as long as we could. We didn’t feel it was particularly hard. All we were thinking was that, with each night passing we would be closer to the spring, to the summer, we would make a few dozen more yuan. With that money, we would be able to pay for my son’s Saturday drawing lessons.”
This scene was so vivid and real. I remembered one winter in Harbin, it was completely dark around five or six o’clock one afternoon, right when night vendors were setting up. Stuck in traffic, I looked outside the window, saw a middle-aged woman, and I could tell from her weary, weathered face that she was a laid-off worker. She was bundled up like a bear, thumping her feet to stay warm. That was the coldest time of the winter with temperatures below -30ºC (-22ºF), the steam out of your mouth turned to frost instantly, and after five minutes outside, you would turn stiff, yet that woman would be standing there until perhaps midnight. Spreading in front of her on the ground were just socks, shoe insoles, gloves and things with profit margins that were only a few cents. If she was lucky, she could make a dozen or so yuan. Our eyes, mine and hers, met for only a few seconds, but that gaze of hers had seared me forever.
As I slowly learned how to empathize with others, I began to forsake conceit and pride. Yes, I live somewhat a better life, but is it because I am smarter and more capable? That’s bullshit. It is only because I have had better luck. In fact, in many ways, I am not as good as they are. If trapped in a unfortunate lot, I would certainly not be as strong and as positive as they were.
But how vulnerable was the little happiness and the family dream, built on perseverance and optimism. On May 16, 2009, the tragedy struck. Three families were shattered into pieces because of a conflict between a vendor and the urban enforcers known as Chengguans.
Some would ask: The conflicts between vendors and Chengguans have been long-standing, other vendors didn’t kill, why? Even if your gas cylinder is taken away and you are beaten up, is it necessary to pull out a knife? Such questions remind me of another event: On February 16, 2012, I saw this piece of news online. I quote the original text and picture:
On the morning of the 14th in Dongguan [Guangdong], Mr. Wu, a 21-year-old man from Hunan, stabbed Mr. Shu of the same age to death. It is reported that while Mr. Wu was looking for a job in the labor service market, Mr. Shu, an employee of the labor service company, swindled Mr. Wu out of all he had with him, some three hundred yuan. Having asked for the money back to no avail, Mr. Wu cut Mr. Shu’s throat with a knife. The police apprehended the assailant at the scene and the case is under further investigation.
This picture also shook me to the core. The young man just stood there numbly without running away. He was obviously astounded by his own despair.
Yes, despair – this is the keyword in many violent crimes. I remember when I expressed sympathy toward this young man, many netizens retorted: How can you equate a person’s life with 300 yuan?
Of course, I wouldn’t deny that this young man had commited a crime, but I can understand his anger and despair at that moment, and I think those netizens who responded to me lacked this understanding. When you have a house, a car, a stable job, and hundreds of thousands of yuan of savings, you certainly wouldn’t kill for 300 yuan. I bet this young man would not have killed when he first arrived in Dongguan, carrying, say, 2,000 yuan with him along with a dream of finding a job. In that city, he must have been snubbed many times and duped repeatedly. He must have felt helpless. But he still didn’t give up on earning his own living. He wanted to use the only 300 yuan left to find a job through the agent. At a moment like that, the 300 yuan must have been all he had, financially and metaphysically. However the world pushed him over the brink of desperation. I think if I were that young man, I might have killed too. So I have no right to judge him from the moral high ground.
Back to the Xia Junfeng case. Setting aside the particulars, I want to ask: Xia was not mentally ill, and if the Chengguans were doing their job normally, why would this man, who had a wife and a child, kill?
Those individual cases of violence seem accidental and isolated, but they are like the separate fruits on a big tree of inevitability. This big tree of inevitability is our growing despair toward an irreversible destiny.
Some also ask: Since the two killed Chengguans were also your contemporaries and also from the bottom of the society, why aren’t you empathizing with them? I have also been thinking: Why in some cases, it is the killer who inspires sympathy, not the victim? Again, take the aforementioned case: That young man lying dead in a puddle of blood in Dongguan, why did he have to make a living by cheating others? Okay, if one is forced to do evil out of the necessity of making a living, then you will have to remember one thing: retribution never fails. When you are retaliated against and killed, you should accept that you have lost in the gamble, because before being killed, you have been murdering the fairness and good values of the society, and killing the trust and hope our heart cherished.
Similarly, those who think they can abuse their power to humiliate, beat others, or destroy their livelihood because they have power, they should also accept that a loss is given in a gambling game and that retribution will always find you.
On the morning of September 25, 2013, I woke up from my warm bed with a chill running through my heart and my bones. Another person, at this moment, was bidding goodbye to his family before walking to his death. The thought made me uneasy and ashamed of my own comfort. This is an era in which anxiety grows wider and deeper among more and more people. Anyone, no matter how much they have, could lose it all at anytime. No matter what kind of temperament or personality you have, there is no guarantee that you won’t become desperate at a certain moment. We all sprout and blossom on the same tree of desperation. Those blood-colored fruits around us are not deformed, incomprehensible ones. They and we are growing on the same roots.
Having paid quiet but close attention to a stranger over two years, I feel I have known him well and we are friends. So I will bid farewell to him as a friend. I say it in my heart: Godspeed, Xia Junfeng.
Ji Ye (季业) is the director of Phoenix TV’s Warm Life and Cold Life show (冷暖人生). Visit his Weibo here.
(Translated by Yaqiu Wang)