19 June 2012

Three Blind Mice 三隻盲鼠

    Three blind mice, three blind mice
          See how they run, see how they run
     They all ran after the farmer's wife
          Who cut off their tails with a carving knife
     Did you ever see such a sight in your life
          As three blind mice

       - English nursery rhyme

The blind mice unite

*                         *                         *

Chen Guangcheng (陳光誠) is a blind man. He is also a self-taught lawyer.

Chen comes from a small village in southern Shandong (山東). He made a name for himself as a “barefoot lawyer” helping peasants and the disabled take on tax authorities and big businesses. Although he deals with a broad range of social issues, Chen focuses on women subject to forced abortions and sterilizations. China’s four-decade-old one child policy has been a financial bonanza for local governments across the country. Women pregnant with a second child must pay a fine, which is bureaucratic speak for hush money. Those who can’t afford the bribe will “consent” to an unwanted medical procedure, just like 29-year-old Feng Jianmei (馮建梅) who made international headlines last week for being coerced to abort a seven-month pregnancy.

Chen’s advocacy work made him unpopular in both the public and private sectors. In a place like his hometown, unpopularity can have dire consequences. In 2006, he was arrested for “organizing a crowd to disrupt traffic” and served four years and three months in prison. After his release, he and his wife continued to be harassed, beaten and placed under house arrest. Two months ago, the blind lawyer made an improbable escape by climbing over a stonewall in his backyard. With the help of an underground network of activists, Chen traveled 300 miles to the capital city before he scampered into the U.S. embassy in the dead of night. Negotiations between Beijing and Washington over his fate threw both sides into a diplomatic quagmire. Chen left China three weeks later and is now a “special student” at New York University Law School.

Chen under house arrest

*                         *                         *

Li Wangyang (李旺陽) was a blind man. He was also a longtime political dissident.

A Hunan (湖南) native, Li was arrested days after the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre for counter-revolutionary crimes and served 21 years in prison. Throughout his jail term, he called for the vindication of the massacre and went on numerous hunger strikes. His recalcitrance made him a frequent subject of torture and solitary confinement. By the time he was released in May last year, he had lost his front teeth, his eyesight, hearing and mobility. Ever defiant, Li continued to speak up against China's one-party rule up until his death.

Two weeks ago, Li was found dead by his hospital bed. According to local authorities, the severely disabled 61-year-old hanged himself by making a noose out of bed sheets. But few believe that a tough nut who survived two decades of hell fire in prison, who carried the nickname “iron-man activist,” would take his own life or do so without leaving a suicide note, not to mention a photograph circulating on the Internet showing his feet touching the ground when he died. It would appear that Li had joined a long line of dissidents who were “suicided” (被自殺), a new term coined in blogosphere to describe state-sponsored murders clumsily staged as a suicide. To cover their tracks, Hunan authorities had Li’s body cremated promptly after conducting a dubious autopsy.

Li hanging at the hospital window,
cause of death: "suicided"

*                         *                         *

Zhou Yunpeng (周雲蓬) is a blind man. He is also a poet and songwriter.

After finishing university in Liaoning (遼寧), Zhou began traveling across China, performing on the street and at bars and coffee shops. With a distinct folk slant, his baritone beats out gut-wrenching ballads of heartbreaks. He sings not of unrequited love and failed romance, but of government corruption and social injustice. Although many of his politically sensitive works have been banned, Zhou continues to be a prolific writer. In the past two decades, he managed to record four albums and launch two magazines, as he drifts between the underworld and the tightly controlled upper world.

Zhou is best known for writing Chinese Children (《中國孩子》), a song about the misfortune of children born into the murky world of modern China. The twin evils of income inequality and corruption bear down on the young like a freight train: those who contracted the HIV virus from tainted blood transfusions and those who fell sick after feeding on melamine-laced baby formula. The most haunting lyrics in the song, however, recall the infamous 1994 Karamy Fire (克拉瑪依大火) in Xinjiang (新疆) that killed almost 300 school children. The fire broke out during a theater performance attended by students, teachers and visiting members of the Communist Party. Survivors blamed the high death toll on a local official’s order for the students to remain seated to “let our leaders exit first.”

Zhou travels across the country with nothing 
but a guitar and a conscience

*                         *                         *

Although the three men cannot see, their stories open our eyes to the bleak reality of grassroots activism in China. In a country that tolerates no dissent, civil rights activists are household pests to be eradicated in whatever way necessary. Chen, Li and Zhou are the three blind mice that crawl the thin line between advocacy and subversion, all the while dodging the farmer’s knife that threatens to cut off much more than their tails. Their struggles and the causes they fight for lay bare the unaccountability of local authorities, as well as the inability of the central government to intervene. That all three men happen to be blind not only captures our attention, but also underscores the indiscriminate effect of these systemic failures.

Since Deng Xiaoping’s market-oriented reforms in the 1970s, the Communist regime has done wonders for the nation. Hundreds of millions of Chinese have been lifted out of poverty, old cities transformed into modern metropolises. With the country's G2 status, high speed trains, an Olympic Games in Beijing and a World Expo in Shanghai, and even men and women in space, national pride is at an all-time high. To the vast majority, the benefits of economic transformation far outweigh the costs. But don’t tell that to the mothers who lost their children on Tiananmen Square 23 years ago or to the wives of the dissidents tortured and killed since then. Forgive them if their calculus of costs and benefits are a little different from ours.

The story of the three blind men compel us to examine the wisdom of economic development at any social cost. They make us question whether prosperity and dissent have to be mutually exclusive, and whether moral bankruptcy is a prerequisite for affluence. And if murders and massacres can be justified by the collective good, what does that say about us as a people? Modern China is a society of grim irony: it is where the blind see more clearly than the sighted, and where the disabled are trampled by the enabled. Forgive me if I didn’t jump for joy when Chinese spacecraft Shenzhou 9 (神舟九號) blasted into orbit this week. 

This essay is dedicated to the late Li Wangyang who struggled and died for the betterment of the country he loved.

An ambitious space program, but at what cost?


  1. Your essay is so well written that it touches me deeply. That picture of Li Wangyang "hanging" facing the grilled window is so disturbing, I condole with his wife and family. How true that despite the affluence that China has attained, if there is no true social justice and equality for all, China will never grow and mature like other countries such as US, Japan or Germany.

  2. 李旺陽真是一個鐵漢,23年被折磨得盲了、聾了o最後連殘命都被幹掉,哀哉「大國」、哀哉蟻民、哀哉專政獨裁!

    Lee Po

  3. 所有神七神八神九=用刀义食人物


  4. Self censorship is the worst kind of censorship because XXXX !

    Thx for your coverage so that international society can see China through Hong Kong , and through your words.


  5. Jason,

    您估真係 only those blind can see more clearly than the sighted. Not really, just only the sighted pretend not to be known (只是他們假裝不知道 - three monkeys at all !). I am just thinking 真不知要來多少個「李旺陽之死」,才能喚起中國人心中的良知?抑或已經麻木不仁???


    Anyhow , Jason, your article was very well said ! Thanks very much for the sharing ! Look forward to your next one then !


  6. Your article nearly drew tears torrenting down my cheeks again as i read it, and recalled all the recent media 'coverage' of the stories... As i wrote on your wall long ago, the present times is probably the epoch when China is most proud of herself since maybe the Qing Dynasty or before, but it is also the most mortifying epoch....

    Comments to cascade down soon, once i can gather myself and my wits to pen it properly


  7. Jason,

    This is another tear-torrenting down piece…. The irony of it, that a traditional nursery rhyme has materialized in modern times, and all the more mortifying that it has materialized on our home soil…

    Your recounting of the coerced abortion is unspeakably appalling…. Abortion itself is bad enough (unless with sufficient medical reason) but one subject to forced consent. What difference is there between this and the Japanese ripping cutting the skin off pregnant Chinese woman to take the babies inside them during the Nanjing Massacre? Tell me the different… You are right, Chen’s escape from his own home is more risky and fearful than a rat under the glare of the cat. Obviously to save face on both the PRC and US side, they needed to resolve that so that the greatest “glory” be given to these countries as to what concessions and amnesty they have given. But do they realize they are using a human life as the dice for their “diplomatic relations”? I laugh as I pen that word, it is diplomacy for the big guys, not for us the mice – we can never tell whether we will be the next rodent to scamper anywhere, right ?

    The “suicide” Li – well, why should we be surprised that a government who opened fire at the students at the June fourth Massacre would be hesitant to take another scapegoat? We should just be surprised that the whole incident wasn’t put up better. Had this been a drama show everyone would have demanded the money back. And I bet you read in the news that the so-called noose made out of bed sheets were made by one with years of mountaineering experience, right? It was no ordinary knot that any normal homo sapien can do, especially one so disabled as Li. I just can’t imagine that these tragedies are occurring so close to home (and I bet it will be even closer now that the new Chief Executive has sworn in). The picture of Li hanging by the window alone from your piece is enough to well up my eyes.

    Bet you’ve heard that joke about how much more about Chemistry we have learnt from the PRC, right ? Certainly more than I have ever learnt from my High School. As for the 1994 Karamy Fire, what happened to our national cry “为人民服务”spirit? Or is it the other way round? Any normal sane people would have let the children leave first, whether they are the president, the parents or just ordinary people. What credibility is there in such a government?

    [To be cont'd]


  8. I totally agree with you that the three blind men see with their heart and soul, not with their eyes. As the strip I saw the other day reads, “Real Eyes Realise Real Lies”. They see much, much better than any of us, all of us put together I would say. As for your comment that their struggles and the causes they fight for lay bare the unaccountability of the local authorities, I would have thought the local authorities would not have dared to do something like that without Central support. Maybe I was too naïve, but a scholar schooled in Chinese literature and history told me that the reprimand from the Central government down to the local bureaucracy would filter down layer by layer down to the bottom, i.e. to the improper performance of Li’s suicide, and with the other cases as well.

    Cost – benefit analysis, well, as long as the one ripping off the benefits and shouldering the costs is not the same person, this makes no sense. Though I am not the starving one in PRC, the ever-widening gap between the glutinous and the poor is abhorrent, and surely the ones with the boulders on their shoulders have got a better gauge of what it is really costing the country????? I love the term you coin, “moral bankruptcy”, it is more than that. I wrote on your wall earlier that this might have been the proudest era of China since the late Qing dynasty, and the strongest globally, but at what price? And does the price we are paying and we are to pay justify this glamour on the surface? The corrupt core hasn’t changed a bit. As for the Shenzhou 9 blasting into space, in a way I as touched, not because it was PRC’s achievement but I would have been touched had it been the rocket of any country (eco-destruction to come on another comment). But I wouldn’t be surprised if the astronauts die in space due to some technical malfunction of the rocket and they still cover it up / disguise it as some sort of unnamable success that they have ventured further into space for other experiments and is taking longer to return to the earth, and in time, NEVER TO RETURN after the people’s memory has been washed away.