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By Fang Zheng, published: June 6, 2014
In Zhanjiang, I boarded a train to Wuchang, Hubei (湖北武昌) where I would transfer to the No. 88 train to Beijing. On the ferry, I met a middle-aged business woman, whose destination was Anyang, Henan, on the same route as me. She offered to keep me company and help me when I needed it. It was an arduous journey, and around noon we arrived in Wuchang. We bought tickets for the train to Beijing and then we went to have lunch outside the station. After lunch, I went to a public phone and I wanted to call a college classmate of mine to see if he could bring me a few clothes. Coming out of semi-tropical Hainan, I was wearing too little for March in interior China. I was shivering in the cold and Beijing was going to be much colder.
Before I reached the phone, a van pulled up next to me, and four or five men jumped out of it.
“Are you Fang Zheng?”
“I am. What’s the matter?”
“Come with us!”
With that they grabbed and lifted me into the van. The dajie (big sister), who was also taken, was scared and confused. I told her not to worry, and these men were after me. The van drove for a long while to a small villa-like building in a suburban, hilly area. My sense was that it was a station of the security police, because people in and out of there looked like well-trained people and there was a tall antenna on the rooftop.
“We are ordered by our superiors to hold you here temporarily,” they replied to my question of why I had been brought there.
They interrogated the dajie, my travel companion, asked about her relationship with me, and searched her luggage. In the end they let her go and took her back to the train station.
I was held there for about a week under 24-hour watch, day and night, four people a shift. I asked if I could be allowed to go to Hefei to my parents, they said “No, you are going back to Hainan.”
Finally three officers from Haikou Public Security Bureau’s political security office came, including director Li (李科长) and officer Ma (马警官), with whom I had had many encounters. They complained that I left without giving them a heads up. When I asked why I couldn’t go to Beijing to visit my sister who had gotten married and settled there, or to Hefei to be with my parents, they said we couldn’t tell you why. “How did you know I was in Wuchang?” “We can’t tell you this either,” said they.
Back in Haikou, I got sick, succumbing to prolonged bronchitis because I had no money to get medical care. When I said to officer Ma, who was also a college student in 1989 at People’s Public Security University of China (中国人民公安大学) in Beijing, that the public security should give me medical treatment, he said, “Let me give you two hundred yuan from my own pocket.”
Friends from Beijing sent me money, so did my parents, to help me get by.
Falling in Love
When I had left Haikou, I didn’t plan to come back. Now that I was forced back, I had no place to live. A painter friend of mine helped me to move into an abandoned “villa” he rented at the time. There were a lot of abandoned houses like that after the real estate bust, and some had been turned into hen houses or pig sties or small factories.
I rented a room upstairs, and downstairs lived a group of girls who came from the interior to look for jobs. When I visited my painter friend shortly before I left, I met them in the house, so when I showed up again and moved into the same house, one of the girls asked me, “Didn’t you just leave?” So I told her what happened.
Then I told her more – about June fourth 1989. Her name was Zhu Jin (朱进), and she was twenty-three, ten years younger than me. “Didn’t you kill a lot of PLA soldiers in Beijing?” She asked me. She was 13 years old at the time living in Xuzhou, Jiangsu province (江苏徐州). She had never heard of tanks running over people and machine gun fire on crowds. In the house, I spent most of the day on the first floor helping with various household chores, and I got to my room on the second floor either carried by my painter friend or crawling up myself. Zhu Jin would say, “Let me carry you.” Tall and strong, also an athlete, she would carry me upstairs. She did not worry about who I was. We fell in love.
Unbeknownst to us, in Xuzhou, public security officers found Zhu Jin’s mother. Not once, not twice, but repeatedly. “Do you know what your daughter is doing in Hainan? Get her back. She shouldn’t get involved with politically-tainted people!” Zhu Jin’s mother wrote letters to her asking what was going on. Zhu Jin wrote back, “Ask them to come to Hainan to talk to me. I am a grownup and I make decisions for myself.” So her mother told the police, “Stop visiting me. I do not interfere with my daughter’s life.”
Speaking of harassing relatives and friends, the public security over the years had talked to my direct family, my older sister, my younger sister, even my brothers-in-law, and anyone who had business or other associations with me. In a way, they spread a net over my head and everyone related to me. Out of fear or inconvenience, some had distanced themselves from me.
Zhu Jin and I planned to get married. The first obstacle was that I didn’t have an ID. My ID had been confiscated during a police raid and it had expired anyway. I didn’t have a Hainan household registration, so the public security wouldn’t issue me a new ID. When I left Beijing in 1992, I took my Beijing registration with me, but in Haikou, the police said I didn’t meet the requirements for a household registration. I tried my hometown Hefei, and the public security said they couldn’t give me a registration because I didn’t live here and I didn’t work here. I tried to bring it back to Beijing, but Beijing said, no, you had already left Beijing with it. So for eight years in Hainan, I didn’t have a household registration, and after 1995, I didn’t have a valid ID card. If a census was conducted during that time, I was not counted. Without a household registration and ID, I couldn’t get married to Zhu Jin.
In early 2000, I wrote to the Ministry of Public Security. I said I am not writing to talk about anything political; I am writing to talk about my household registration which I have to have just to live. In May my parents received notice that I could settle my registration in Hefei. In August of the same year, Zhu Jin and I moved back to Hefei and moved in with my parents. We got married on September 8, 2000. I had not seen my parents for eight years.
We received many blessings. In New York, Mr. Cary Hung (洪哲胜), a Taiwanese democracy pioneer, raised about 30,000 yuan for me to start a new life with Zhu Jin and our daughter who was born in May, 2001. Zhu Jin opened a cosmetics shop but just as it was doing better, the SARS epidemic shut down the city for several months and also shut down our shop. I sought employment assistance from the Disabled Persons’ Federation in Hefei, but nothing came out of it.
Unexpected Role in the 2008 Paralympics Preparations
In 2005, a high school classmate working at the provincial DPF asked me if I would be willing to assist the province’s newly-formed athlete team of the disabled preparing for the 2008 Paralympic Games. Of course I would.
So I became a helper for the team of the disabled. I lived with the 30 or so athletes, returning home only occasionally. It was not real employment, but I was very content to be doing what I liked and knew the best, and I was happy to help each one of them succeed.
On the team, there was a 19-year-old young man named Zong Kai (纵凯) with a high hip amputation. He was a beggar crawling on the street, supporting himself with both arms, when he was spotted and picked up by the coaches looking for potential candidates for the provincial team. He came from the poorest countryside in northern Anhui. When the coaches discussed what events he should be trained to do, I opposed placing Zong Kai on the swimming team. I analyzed his condition, his muscle-type, using knowledge I learned in college, and I told the team and Zong Kai himself that the event he could quickly learn and excel in would be wheelchair racing.
But wheelchair racing was an expensive sport, the racing chair had to be custom-made overseas and was very costly, and only four cities and provinces – Beijing, Shanghai, Hubei and Liaoning – had this option. Through my connections, I introduced Zong Kai to Shanghai to try out, and he was quickly accepted and moved to Shanghai to train. In the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing, he won one gold metal and one bronze. He is now a confident and successful athlete and married too. We had kept contact for a long time, and I was sure he would be attending the 2012 Paralympics in London.
My temporary employment ended in 2007 when the national qualification games for disabled athletes was over. Those who were chosen became members of the national team, and those who didn’t make it went back to their life before.
Ironically, from March 2008 when the Olympic torch relay began, all the way to September, I was pretty much under house arrest in Hefei. There were media that wanted me to visit Beijing, and they even booked a hotel room for me. But the police, CDPF local chapter and neighborhood committee worked together to monitor me. They took turns to visit me to warn me or threaten me against traveling to Beijing, because they too knew that I was a living example of China’s disregard for the Olympic spirit and its human rights condition. They were worried my appearance would ruin their grand show. Indeed, if you asked me then, I did not believe China should be hosting the Olympics.
So I had these mixed feelings about the 2008 Olympics. As someone who studied sports, as a sports fan, I was excited about it and I also knew that many of my college friends were working hard to contribute to its success. And I was also deeply gratified to have helped disabled people like Zong Kai to be part of it. But on the other hand, I was a victim of perverse persecution that ended my career as an athlete. During the Olympics, I watched the games intently at home, but all the while I was reminded that I was imprisoned.
At the time China promised the world that it would allow foreign journalists to report freely in China. Between March and September, 2008, there had been foreign journalists who came to Hefei to interview me. But this was how “free reporting” worked: I remember when a British journalist came to interview me, he was accompanied by a Chinese “observer.” Every time when I talked about my circumstances, this “observer” would interrupt, “Enough, enough, no more talking.”
In another case, in September, a German journalist with Süddeutsche Zeitungwanted to write about the conditions of China’s disabled people. He had interviewed various people already, including me, and he asked me to introduce some interviewees. We decided to visit a young marathon runner I helped train who had lost his arms to electric shock and didn’t make the national team. But before my appointment with the journalist, I was taken to the police station and warned not to go. In the end, we didn’t go because I didn’t think the young man would be free to talk to us, or we might be intercepted halfway.
But for nearly ten years from 1989 to 2008, I had continuously talked about the June 4th massacre to overseas media without fear, I had told the truth I experienced, and I regarded it as my responsibility to speak out.
Around 1994 and 1995, I toyed with the idea of leaving China, but even my girlfriend couldn’t get a passport, what were the chances they would give me one? I was also approached by someone offering to smuggle me out of China. I
declined, given my handicap. In 2007 and 2008, I had communications withZhou Fengsuo and Zhang Qianjin, using public phones to avoid surveillance. They and other overseas friends wanted to help me leave China before the 20th anniversary of Tiananmen movement. My passport application was eventually approved after much delay partly in exchange for my “cooperation” with them during the Olympics.
Before I left Hefei in February, 2009, government officials talked to me many times to prevent me from leaving. Their tactics ranged from persuasion, to threat, to enticement. “Your family are still in China. We can let you leave China, we can also refuse to let you come back if you don’t behave appropriately overseas.” “If you stay in China, we will give you a job.” When nothing worked, they tried to talk me into leaving China a few months later, say in July.
I said to them, “Now I have a passport, visa, and tickets. Unless you use force to intercept me, I’m going.”
My wife and I arrived in San Francisco on February 26, 2009. Our daughter joined us a month later. In the United States, with the help of Mr. Michael Horowitz and many generous friends, I was fitted with prostheses and walked on my own for the first time in twenty years. I learned how to drive, and my family eventually settled in the Bay Area. Our second daughter was born in 2012. Here in the US, my heart is free, so is my movement.
As I translated Fang Zheng’s story the past week or so, his third daughter was born on May 30. – Yaxue
(Based on Yaxue Cao’s interview with Fang Zheng in the summer of 2012. Translated by Y.C.)
This is a question I have been struggling with these past few months. I don’t mean to say that China’s economy is headed for a bust (although many are afraid it is), but will the rest of the world ever like China as much as it did during the Beijing Olympics?
It was a moment when China’s human rights issues seemed to be improving, Wikipedia had been unblocked, journalists were given greater freedoms than before, and China had spared no effort in responding to the Sichuan Earthquake. Heck, Beijing even had blue skies for several days in a row! The stadiums and infrastructure had all been built in record time, and the opening ceremony was awe-inspiring. It seemed there was nothing that China couldn’t do.
The 2008 Olympics was China’s grand arrival on the world stage after recovering from a century of civil war, world war, and disastrous policies put in place by the Party. It was a big moment, and all of China’s 1.3 billion people knew it.
It seems that since then China has been chasing that initial high of global respect. They’ve staged the Shanghai expo at an incredible expense, but it went largely unnoticed abroad, as will this years Universiade, and 2014’s Youth Olympic Games (Nanjing is hosting, and they started advertising it last year).
After the 2008 Olympics, China has been as resistant to Climate Change initiatives as the US, increased internet censorship, arrested dozens of dissidents, allowed N. Korea to attack S. Korea twice, raised tensions in the South China sea and Beijing’s air reached “Crazy Bad”.
I think this is a question quite worthy of further discussion, so, in your opinion, Has china peaked?
please leave your lengthy comments below
It seems that despite my thorough explanation of why China is not a rich country, even though it has the second highest GDP in the world, major governments have started to cut aid to China.
The UK’s department for distributing foreign aid actually had it’s budget grow by 1/3 this year, so it’s not just budgetary reasons for cutting their aid to China. The argument is simple, a country growing 10% a year is not in need of foreign aid.Japan has been a major mover of money in China’s direction, since 1979 they have given over $40 billion to China. They made an argument similar to the UK’s this morning, why should they be giving aid to a country that has a larger GDP than their own? Part of this also stems from China’s worsening relations with Japan; another is the fact that China itself is now a large distributor of aid (including North Korea who isn’t exactly “friendly” towards Japan).
The problem here is that China has made these arguments entirely too easy for foreign countries to make.
In 2008 China was in Olympic overdrive. CCTV 5 (the sports channel) even became CCTV Olympics, and rebroadcasted hundreds of hours of old Olympics, which strangely only showed Chinese athletes winning gold medals. The students on campus were required to make mock Olympic torches and make weekly runs through town to build Olympic spirit. The way everyone was acting it seemed as if we were mere feet from the Birds Nest itself (a place several students dreamed of making a pilgrimage to).
The fact was that Longzhou couldn’t have been much further from Beijing; we weren’t even close to a freeway. So you can imagine my surprise when the school received surveys from the government for me to fill out 6 months before the opening ceremony. Questions like “How has the Beijing Olympics changed your daily life?” and “How have the Beijing Olympics improved your city?” I was new to China then, but I still had a feeling that they were more interested in hearing the “right” answers than the truth.
I had shared those feelings though with my students. I warned them that volunteers like me would start to leave China after the Olympics, because China was starting to seem like a rich country to Westerners. The students didn’t understand the connection between hosting the Olympics, and a drop in foreign aid.
VSO, the UK’s version of the Peace Corps, pulled out of general education in late 2008, leaving only a few select volunteers behind to try to create a teacher training program. My own organization, that boasted more than 60 volunteers 10 years ago, has shrunk to 20, with half of those set to complete their terms at the end of this next school year. The drop in numbers in my organization is due largely to a lack of funding in general, as well as a shifting of funds to “more” needy countries.
The situation in China’s countryside is still a desperate one, in spite of the glitz of Shanghai and the skyscrapers of Beijing. Don’t buy into these easy arguments that China doesn’t need our help, because those in the countryside truly do.
Click here for more posts about life in Rural China