The suicidal and voiceless

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The past few days I browsed the Internet trying to find someone who could speak from the standpoint of Yang Gailan, the 28-year-old farmer and mother of four, who committed suicide after slaughtering all her four kids by axing and force-feeding them pesticide. Her husband killed himself a few days after losing his entire family in a single day. The tragedy stunned, confused and angered a lot of people, who only slowly came to the gruesomeness of the case following the revelation of disturbing details of the struggling family living in the remote mountains of Gansu province, located in the arid far west of China, one of the poorest corners of the country.

The closest I could get is a blogpost by Luo Yufeng, a popular online figure who came from an abject background and made her name by intentionally posing herself as a buffoon that attracted wide disdain and ridicule. Lately, she emigrated to the United States and reinvented her public image as a hard-working self-made woman who successfully transformed her existence, materialistically and intellectually. In the blogpost she said she could relate to Yang’s situation, not just to her material poverty, but also to the “despair” that haunted people like her. She recalled her own experience as a countryside teacher, where her teenage female students dropped out of school to get married and raise kids. “They told me that going to college merely postponed the same misery of trying to locate a low-paying job and barely got by. At the age of 15, the girls already saw no hope in changing their circumstances. Sadly, many of them were actually right in their assessment.”

This is one of the rarer pieces in the aftermath of the tragedy that tries to make sense of it from a poor person’s point of view. As in most events that capture phenomenal online attention, the space is dominated by educated, urban (and largely male) voices. In a way, they help amplify the story to enable a wider discussion. But the limitations of a middle-class world view also risk trapping the debates in pathetic premises resembling the gated neighborhoods of Chinese cities.

The article that almost single-handedly turns the poor family’s death into a national subject of debate is called “The ants in a prosperous time“. In a broad stroke manner, the author attributes the tragedy to extreme poverty and the society’s diminishing opportunity for upward mobility. “They are the downtrodden ants in a time of prosperity, unimportant, uncared for, neglected.” It calls on the society to better treat its disadvantaged, marginal members and advocates for significantly increasing welfare for such social groups.

The sentiment is familiar, which probably explains why it went viral on people’s WeChat walls almost two weeks after the incident actually happened on Aug 26. Prior to that, media reports about the killing, particularly the one by The Paper, were restraint in its attribution of specific causes. Information was simply too scarce to reach any conclusion about why Yang Gailan wielded the ax at her own children. Her grandmother was the last person to talk to the dying woman. By that time all four children were unconscious. The last words from Yang, if her grandmother’s recollection was correct, were bitter and enigmatic. She muttered about being “hard pressed” and insisted of taking her kids “with her”. The last minutes of her life did not give her the luxury of elaborating further.

But this does not stop commentators from imposing their own mental frames onto the case. The “ant” piece is an example of a class-anxious social group looking through a pre-defined lens at tragedy whose meaning is far from clear. By framing the case as a failure of a social structure to provide upward mobility, the piece caters to people who are constantly fretting about maintaining and raising their social status. They share a disdain of elites that keep a tight grip on precious resources and sympathize with the society’s most disadvantageous members. But it is hard to tell if a woman in remote Gansu mountains, for whom poverty has been inherited and internalized as a mode of life for generations of her family, would be primarily driven by a sense of social justice.

Another typical urban response to the case is even more reductionist. People fixate on the details revealed by media of the material possessions of Yang’s family: three oxen, three goats, twelve chickens, plus the tiny stream of income from Yang’s husband, a laborer at a pig farm in a nearby town. To the online spectators who busy themselves with calculation, these seem to be far from the kind of extreme deprivation that would account for the desperate act of homicide and suicide.

By negating the “poverty” narrative, critics try to override an overall sympathetic reaction to the tragedy with a stricter moral judgment. “She is first and foremost a murderer,” as one influential online figure would emphasize. Others call her a pervert and a psychopath. The response is not new. As this blog has explored before, online commentary about violence committed by marginal communities is becoming increasingly unforgiving and harsh. The view insists that no personal misfortune, social ailment or political suppression could be used to justify aggression against others. While an indiscriminate denouncement of violence seems morally infallible, in the public sphere the uncompromising stance also tends to shut out serious discussions about root causes, which are often blamed for “rationalizing” violence.

Female suicide rate in the Chinese countryside is historically high, with rates hitting alarming levels in the 1990s, at points 26% higher than men in the countryside. Those rates have since then plummeted (as much as 90% by some studies) thanks to massive migration into the cities which results in relatively freer, more upbeat lives for women. However, for those who remain in the countryside, the day-to-day stress of life, not only poverty but also a host of pressures in relation to supporting the household which disproportionally fall on the shoulders of women, still can be unbearably heavy. As a traditional saying goes, there are only three solutions to women’s problems: “one – to cry; two – to scream; and three – to hang herself”.

When experienced observers look closer at the details dug out by in-depth reporting, what they discover is exactly the kind of suffocating household stress that has cornered Yang Gailan to a brink. In a penetrating analysis of the micro-politics of Yang’s misery, the author sifts through publicly available information and singles out Yang’s grandmother as a more plausible cause of Yang’s fatal decision on Aug 26.

As the de-facto matriarch of the Yang family, the old lady divorced two husbands in the earlier years of her life for their incompetence. After her daughter, Gailan’s aunt, later killed herself by ingesting pesticide, the tough woman was left with her slow-minded, quiet son, and his two daughters. Gailan’s elder sister was married early to outside the village. And the burden of serving her grandmother and her father fell squarely on her tender shoulder. Villagers recollected Gailan often being scolded by her grandma, who leaved the impression of being demanding and inconsiderate. In order to keep her in the family, the grandmother “adopted” a husband for her, instead of marrying her out. From that moment on, the 20-year-old’s fate as a servant to the family has been locked in, attending to two elders and raising four kids, all on her own, until on that day, she collapsed

These are mere deductions and interpretations, to be clear. The difference is only that some are slightly more restraint and cautious than others when it comes to offering a conclusive, meaningful reading of a case at once appalling and heartbreaking. In this regard, rural China lacks its own interpreter. As one pessimistic observer puts it, in a public sphere dominated by an urban discourse, “the countryside cannot articulate itself.” No farmer’s representatives, no peasant intellectuals, no rural women’s advocates emerge to help make sense of Yang’s destruction of her entire family. The countryside remains silent while urban spectators heatedly debate morality and social welfare.

But does the countryside automatically understands itself? Asks one voice. It claims that certain extreme behaviors simply evade comprehension, no matter where it happens. What the society can do, rather than prematurely declaring that it “gets” these incidents, is to bide its time and make note of all the observable facts until it can fully grasp what has been going on. The unstoppable impulse of the Chinese Internet to (over) interpret any occurrence of significance is “hindering us from reaching a genuine understanding of our world.”

Poor Man’s Violence

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From Jia Zhangke’s film “A Touch of Sin”

“I’m trying to create a panorama view of our society. Lately, the occurrence of acts of violence continues to increase. In those acts we see their social background and roots that require us to confront. The lingering air of tension and grumpiness spreads over us like a pall.” The renowned Chinese director Jia Zhangke explained why he made his celebrated 2013 film “A Touch of Sin”.

The film recreates four true stories in recent Chinese memory: a hotel housekeeper who stabbed two bureaucrats to death when the latter tried to sexually assault her; a gunman who openly killed and robbed a dozen of people in downtown areas of major Chinese cities; a villager who slaughtered fourteen village elites with a shotgun; and a Foxconn worker who committed suicide by jumping off the dormitory building.

The director presents the cases as allegories of the China we live in: poverty, social injustice and the deprivation of dignity turn ordinary Chinese into anti-heroes of our time. In a beautifully written article by Jia himself, he referred to the ancient story of the “Mid-night flee of Lin Chong” (an episode in the classic novel “The Water Margin”), where Lin, a well-to-do military officer, was set up by his enemy, got his family ruined, forced to escape into the mountains, and returned as a rebellion leader. Jia considers it “the story of all of us.” He built it into the film, in a scene before the bloodbath in the poor village.

The well-off town of Wenzhou in late August knew no anti-heroes or rebellion leaders. The “Mr. Hot Pot” restaurant was buzzing with customers enjoying their lunch when a young waiter poured a basin of boiling water on the head of a female customer. The woman, a mother of a 7-month-old, was severely burned. Surveillance video showed the waiter struggled to hit the woman again even while he was being clasped by his colleagues and the relatives of the victim. He was only 17 years old.

Later, local media found out that the cause of the young man’s irrepressible wrath was the customer’s “disrespectful reference to his mom”, which was basically a standard curse in the Chinese language (“tamade”) when someone felt irritated. His irresponsiveness to the customer’s repeated requests annoyed her, who sent out an open complaint on Weibo and then scolded him with strong language. “I grew up in a single-parent family and haven’t seen my mom for years. She could have cursed me. But I couldn’t stand she cursing my mom.” He told the journalist.

Like many visually stunning acts of violence that are captured by modern audio-visual devices, the video immediately became a hot topic on the Chinese internet. Reactions to the event bespeak two diverging worlds: a world that tries to relate to the wounds of the abject perpetrator of violence and the other that rejects any “rationalization” of violence whatsoever. The former constitutes the emotional foundation on which Jia Zhangke builds his artistic realm of violent anti-heroes, while the second, fed up with the daily display of brutality, demands unwavering law and order. That divergence would probably define how the country makes sense of similar incidents in the years to come.

Voices sympathetic to the 17 year-old waiter were clearly audible in the immediate aftermath of the incident. Many such voices hover around the theme of rich vs. poor, the privileged vs. the disadvantaged. In those interpretations, it was the arrogance of the customer that “provoked” the act of vengeance. One commentator, who clearly self-identified with the privileged, even cautioned that people should “never have any disputes with those at the bottom of our society. They have nothing to lose and will chop you up if you threaten their dignity.”

Such reactions sickened a few observers who branded what they saw as the blame-the-victim mindset. Their views represent a major push-back against a sentiment that in the past has dominated the society’s reaction to violence wielded by marginalized groups as a weapon. (An iconic case is the 2008 Yang Jia case where Yang raided a police station and killed 6 policemen.) “Don’t lead the discussion to class hostility anymore!” A famous CCTV news anchor was visibly annoyed by the above narrative. Some commentators completely rejected the idea that the young man was the “disadvantaged” in the encounter with the victim.

In some way, the push-back stands for a progress in the evolution of online discussions about the everyday violence around us. To be clear, much of it was originally induced by a notable tendency in previous cases where a victim’s own moral failings were used to rationalize the atrocity, a recent example being the applause to the brutal beating of a pregnant woman who had a record of repeated burglary. A widely read post on Zhihu.com summarizes such a pattern as “trying to find sin in a victim, while trying to find virtue in a criminal,” and sees an analogy in the accusation of sexual assault victims for “dressing seductively”. So in a sense, the insistence on the isolation of an act of violence from the victim’s own moral conditions represents a progress towards more rationality in the ethical codes of this country, and could serve as the public opinion basis for more progressive legal protections for victims of violence.

But the no-rationalization sentiment can also transform into a general “hardening of hearts” that completely refuses to acknowledge the plight of the aggressor, particularly those coming from lower social classes, in the belief that any such acknowledgement would constitute a justification of the act itself. It was already notable in the aftermath of the horrific bus arson case in Xiamen two years ago, an act that killed 47 people including the arsonist himself. When details of the arsonist’s miseries prior to the suicidal attack (unemployed, mistreated by bureaucrats, years of ignored petitions) touched off a wave of public compassion, official media declared such sentiments as an indulgence of violence and an insult on the dignity of law. The stance met with resistance from commentators who saw the pursuit of “root causes”, which were often tied to the abuse of power and social injustice, as a legitimate cause and not equivalent to defending the cruel act itself. In return, they criticized their harsh critics for being eager to divert attention from the injustice behind the case. “We are all on the same bus. If one man feels despair, all of us are unsafe,” said one well-circulated post that resonated strongly on Weibo at that time.

In the everyday violence that fills our smartphone screens, the sensitive artist sees ancient tales of rebellion; the analytical intellectual sees problematic patterns of thinking, while the curious observer of contemporary China sees a moral compass under the influence of shifting magnetic fields. With this compass, the nation will have to navigate its own sea of misery and find a way out of it.

P.S.  Just while I was writing this blog, a man stabbed and injured four judges inside a Hubei province courtroom, for what he considered unjust ruling. The man was having a labor dispute with a company and was suing the latter for reimbursement of his work. The incident touched off widespread panic and anger among fellow judges all across the country. And that sentiment also spread to other professional circles such as doctors and nurses, who are also often subject to such violence. In an article by previous Caijing journalist and now criminal defense lawyer Xu Qianchuan, he expressed frustration over what he sees as “uncivilized” reactions to the incident:”In a civilized society, good social and cultural systems will rein in the beast of violence. Whenever it pokes its head out of the cage, the whole society condemns and scares it back. But in an uncivilized society, violence is accepted or even encouraged… Aggressors become heroes and even spokespersons of certain values. This is a horrible kind of society that we should try our best to avoid.”