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China: Yihuang Self-Immolation Incident and the Power of Microblogging

Chinese online public opinion has once again changed the course of an event, this time regarding a forced demolition and consequent self-immolation protest in Yihuang county, Jiangxi.

On September 10, the Zhong family were confronted by 40 local police officers and urban administrators seeking to carry out the forced demolition of their home to make room for new construction. To protest against the demolition, three family members set themselves aflame and jumped off the roof of their house. They were sent to a hospital in Nanchang city all in critical condition and one of them pronounced dead on September 18.

Southern Metropolis Daily was the first mainstream newspaper to report the incident on September 12. EastSouthWestNorth website has translated the full report. The incident was quickly “harmonized” (suppressed) in mainstream media and major web portals by the propaganda department and web-censors.

However, a critical turn happened on September 16 when two female members of the Zhong family, Zhong Rucui and Zhong Rujiu, decided to travel to Beijing for a petition visit (a process whereby citizens can have their grievances heard by government). On their way to Nanchang airport, they were chased by police and government officials. In the end, the two girls reportedly locked themselves in the airport lavatory and sent out mobile text messages to local reporters seeking help.

A number of blogging journalists started to live cast the event on Sina and Tencent micro-blogs. Among some of those reporting were Deng Fei and Miss Cha. Although most of the original text messages on the micro-blogs have been deleted, a number of messages and photos have managed to spread throughout the internet.

For example, the photo below showing the helpless expression of two sisters has been reposted on Sina's microblog 2479 times and has so far received 842 comments in one single thread:

Below are some of the comments:

张进步被抢注 中国老百姓都长着一张被人欺负惯了的脸。应该是这个意思吧。
刘长: 读懂她们的表情,读懂中国
石扉客:一袭白衣裹凄惨苦情;青春躯体后血腥残红。

张进步被抢注 : All Chinese people have a bullied face. This shows what that means.
刘长: Once you understand their facial expression, you will understand China.
石扉客: Misery wrapped in white clothes; bloody red in youthful bodies.

Many netizens were asking what could be done to help the two girls. Deng Fei disclosed the county secretary's phone number in his microblog:

【我只发一个道歉声明:书记的电话发错了】钟家家属来电说,宜黄县邱建国书记的电话应是13907048988,不是之前传来的13907048989。在此,谨向尾数8989的抚州市民致歉!实在是对不起您了,我听说有无数电话打给您,您今天受苦了~~

[This is an apology statement: I got the wrong number of the party secretary] Relatives of Zhong's family called in and said Chiu JianGuo secretary's phone number should be 13907048988, not 13907048989. I want to apologize to the Fuzhou citizen who has the 8989 number. I really feel sorry. I have heard that you had received endless calls today. Sorry for your trouble.

After the two sisters were forced to leave the airport, they checked in to a small hostel in Nanchang. Deng Fei interviewed them and posted an update on their situation on September 17:

【宜黄要谈“政策问题”,钟家关心自由问题】钟家姐妹现困守在南昌一处旅社的房间里,上午8点多,副县长刘文波给钟家姐妹电话,绝口不提昨日的媒体在场、 公平协商的承诺,只宣布可以和钟家姐妹在医院附近见一面,谈一下“政策问题”,钟家姐妹表示,现在首先要谈的是人身自由问题。

[Yihuang wants to talk about "policy", Zhong's family concern is with freedom] The two Zhong family sisters are now locked in a hostel room at Nanchang. At 8am, the deputy magistrate Liu Wenbo called them up. He mentioned nothing about the fair negotiation deal that they promised in front of the media yesterday, and only promised to meet them face to face near the hospital to discuss “policy issues”. The two sisters said they were more concerned with their personal freedom.

He also taught the two sisters how to update their status via mobile phone:

【钟家女儿不再磕头,转开微博自救,支持】中国维权史上的新一页,生于1988年的钟如九,得知了昨日上午微博直播的事情,见证了中国互联网守望相助的巨大力量,这个22岁的女孩决定不再像父辈一样以头抢地、磕头哭告、拦轿喊冤找青天,而选择了微博维权。请看新浪微博 @钟如九和腾讯微博 @钟小九 。

[Zhong's daughters don't need to kneel and bow again, they will save themselves by micro-blogging] This will be a new page in the Chinese citizen rights history. Zhong Rujiu, born in 1988, upon learning yesterday morning the power of micro-blogging and livecasting, the 22 year-old girl will no longer kneel down and bow her head like her father's generation, she will use micro-blogging to defend her rights. Please visit her sina mircoblog @钟如九 and tencent microblog @钟小九.

Soon after, Zhong Rujiu also opened a micro-blog and started updating her status. At 1am on September 18, her uncle was pronounced dead in the hospital from the self-immolation protest, and government officials proceeded to immediately rob the corpse. Zhong RuJu wrote:

现在政府来了七八十个人把我们包围起来,抢走了我们的尸体
政府的人把我大伯的遗体抢走后,我们试图在车头拦住带队抢我们遗体的苏建国县长的车子。但苏建国在车里一直无动于衷。随后有四十几名宜黄县的领导干部,强行把我们拉开。最后苏建国坐车离开。
我两个姐姐先去了医院,我随后去的。刚一岀门就有四五个宜黄县人想抓住我,我拼命往前跑他们一直在后面追。最后我跳上一辆岀租车拼命挣脱才逃岀来的。

Around 7-80 people from the government are surrounding us now. And they have robbed the corpse from us.
After the government took away my uncle's body, we tried to stop the car of the county magistrate, Su Jinguo. But Su just sat inside the car without saying anything. Then around 40 government officials dragged us away. Su's car left.
My two sisters left for the hospital first, I followed after. Soon after, I stepped out of my room, and 4-5 Yihuang officials tried to grab me. I ran away and jumped into a cab to escape.

Following the above message at 9:07am on September 18, Zhong RuJiu went to the hospital in Nanchang to see her mother and sister. Soon after she arrived, she was forced into a bus that took the Zhong family (five people in total) back to Yihuang. The photo below shows Zhong RuJiu crying helplessly on the bus:

The photo has been reposted by tens of thousands people online, but was deleted as soon as the web-censors discovered it on September 18. As Xu DaNei from FT Chinese pointed out, netizens were even more outraged by this incident than the recently revived Diaoyu Islands conflict between China and Japan.

Despite pressures of censorship, Deng Fei continued to follow the story:

【请不要删除我这条微博】我既不转发叶忠诚老人遗体被宜黄县长苏建国带队抢走,也不像 @张洪峰 直播钟家悲惨现状;不展现宜黄书记县长两个建国在英雄城南昌的不堪行径,更不批评北京和江西视而不见,却删贴撤稿。我被告知:再整宜黄事,可能有麻烦。但我还是要向这个饱经中国苦痛的老人鞠躬,一路好走

[Please don't delete this one] I am not reposting the message about the corpse robbing of Ye Zhongcheng's body by Yihuang magistrate Su Jianguo and I am not livecasting the miserable condition of Zhong's family like @张洪峰; I am not displaying the Yihuang party secretary and magistrate, the two Jinguo's heroic act of entering the Nanchang city and not criticizing Beijing and Jiangxi for ignoring the incident and withholding news reports. I was told that if I carried on following up on the Yihuang incident, I may get trouble. But I need to bow to this poor old man (Ye Zhongcheng), and offer my condolences.

【这个派出所长出身的县委书记令中国蒙羞】宜黄县委书记邱建国曾是一派出所所长。指示抢拆钟家房子,令钟家三口自焚,在机场围堵钟家两女,禁止她们来北 京,指令县长抢夺钟家大伯遗体,指令干部们抓捕带回钟家5人——强悍强硬为所欲为,践踏法律,视胡温领导人亲民爱民如无物,令官民对立令国家蒙羞。

[Shame on the county party secretary who was formerly a police officer] Yihuang Party Secretary Qiu Jianguo was once the head of the police station. He gave the instruction to demolish the Zhong house by force and this led to the self-immolation of three family members. He also gave the order to catch the two sisters at the airport, block them from going to Beijing, rob the uncle's corpse, and arrest five other family members. He thought he could do whatever he wanted and neglected the central leadership's care for ordinary people. He created opposition between the government and the people and shamed the country.

On the afternoon of September 18 around 3pm, the Jiangxi official media outlet reported that the Fuzhou City had decided to investigate the Yihuang county party secretary Chiu JianGuo and county magistrate Zu JianGuo. The city also fired the deputy magistrate Li Mingjun. In the late evening, China Central Television (CCTV) also stepped in to broadcast the debate and channel the public opinion. Zhong RuJu continues to update her family status via microblog with tens of thousands fans.

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