This article by Jiabao Du originally appeared on Tea Leaf Nation on July 22, 2013 and is republished as part of a content sharing agreement [Format adapted to facilitate translation].
At 5:11 a.m. on July 17, a 56-year-old farmer named Deng Zhengjia and his wife Huang Xixi departed for Linwu County to sell homegrown watermelons in the town. After four of their melons were confiscated by the chengguan, or urban management officers, they moved to another area were they where permitted to sell the fruit from a stall. At 10:35 a.m., the chengguan returned, and conflict erupted. Deng Zhengjia collapsed and died, while his wife was sent to the hospital with a head injury.
Chengguan are a unique Chinese institution: something less than a police officer, but more powerful than an average person. These urban management officers are hired by municipal governments to carry out undesirable tasks – like evicting residents unwilling to leave buildings scheduled for demolition – yet they do not technically represent the government. Due to the nature of their work, and the poor oversight of their actions, they have become more and more unpopular among Chinese in recent years.
While the authorities claim that Deng Zhengjia “suddenly collapsed and died,” Deng Zhengjia’s daughter initially claimed on Sina Weibo, one of China’s largest social networking sites, that he was beaten to death by the chengguan. Her posts of these accusations went viral, but were then deleted and later replaced with claims that her family was satisfied with what the government had done to make amends.
Which version of these events is the truth? Deng’s relatives along with the witnesses who were present on the scene have different stories.
Two versions of the story
On the afternoon of July 17, one Sina Weibo user (@hejx) [zh] tweeted: “On a street in Linwu County, Chenzhou City, Hunan Province, the chengguan have beaten a farmer selling watermelons to death.” He attached several gruesome photos from the scene. The tweet went viral and became headline news [zh].
At 9:37 a.m. on July 18, the Linwu City Government Emergency Management Deparment announced from their official Weibo account [zh] that Deng Zhengjia “suddenly collapsed and died” during his dispute with the urban management officials. The tweet was shared more than 20,000 times, and mockery of the phrase “suddenly collapsed and died” suffused the post’s over 34,000 comments.
That afternoon, the top government official of Wulin County, He Zunqing, declared at a news conference that there was no evidence demonstrating that Deng was beaten to death. However, the relatives of Deng Zhengjia and many witnesses insisted that Deng was beaten to death by the chengguan.
According to a journalist with China Central Television, Cao Xiaobo, Huang Xixi claimed [zh] that Deng, who was healthy, could not possibly have “suddenly collapsed and died.” “The government is avoiding responsibility,” Huang said.
Huang also claimed that the dispute erupted when she told the chengguan, “You are bandits,” after being denied an invoice for her payment of a RMB 100 (US$16.29) fine. She was knocked down by two chengguan and fell unconscious. When she woke up, her husband was dead.
In an interview with The Beijing Times [zh], a relative named Huang Sujun who witnessed the whole incident said: “After the dispute, five or six chengguan assaulted my uncle. In addition to hitting and kicking him, one guy even hit him with a steel pipe. When my uncle fell, he did not immediately die. We asked the chengguan to call for an ambulance. They brushed us off and left. The ambulance came an hour later, and by that time my uncle had died.”
The story did not end there. Two dramatic incidents occurred after Deng’s death, the first happening at 4:00 a.m. on July 18.
According to The Beijing News [zh], over 20 of Deng’s relatives and neighbors gathered spontaneously around Deng’s body after his death. Deng Zhangjia’s older daughter, Deng Shudan, also travelled home from Guangzhou after hearing of her father’s death.
At about 4:00 a.m., the street lamps went out suddenly. “A large group of police who kept maintaining order waved their clubs and drew us away,” Deng Shudan said, “They hit my boyfriend and me on our heads and shoulders.”
Many people were attacked including some passers-by. A reporter with The Beijing News [zh] met five of the wounded in a hospital.
After dispersing the crowd, the police dragged Deng’s body away and left it on the road leading to Liantang Village, his hometown. The body was not put in a coffin until 3:00 p.m, July 19, and was not buried until 5:00 p.m.
He Zunqing, the county’s top official, claimed that the police were helping Deng’s family to move the body back to the village and had obtained their consent to do so. In his version of events, after failing to instill order in the crowd, the police had to disperse the villagers by force.
One of those injured by the police, who wished to remain anonymous, questioned this version of events [zh]: “Why did so many people get injured if [the police] were just helping the family? Obviously, they were lying. What they wanted to do was to cremate the body and destroy the evidence.”
The incident became even more complicated when another questionable turn of events took place the evening of July 19.
On the morning of July 19, Deng Zhangjia’s younger daughter, Deng Yanling, tweeted from her verified Sina Weibo account [zh]:
All the people in Linwu County who have been active in raising awareness of my father’s case on Weibo and online forums have been asked to stop sharing and commenting. The autopsy results indicate that my father suffered a hemorrhage in his brain. The government is trying to cover up the truth. My father has been said to have had ‘a heart disease or other sudden disease.’ What the government is doing is totally unacceptable!
The tweet was forwarded more than 100,000 times.
However, an unexpected twist happened later that afternoon. The “V” on her Weibo profile page indicating that her identity was verified disappeared, and was later reinstated. At 6:32pm, after Deng’s funeral, Deng Yanling deleted the previous tweet and tweeted:
The government has comforted my family in a proper way. We are content with what they have done.
She thanked the government and all people concerned with her family and made a request for privacy. The amounts of retweets and comments exceed 100,000 and 140,000 respectively, as netizens questioned whether the words were written by Deng Yanling or someone else. Deng Yanling admitted to The Beijing Times that she sent that tweet.
Shortly after Deng Yanling expressing gratitude to the authorities, Deng Qingqiang, Deng Zhengjia’s son, told reporters that their family would be compensated about RMB 897,000 (US$146,121). The authorities confirmed this [zh] on July 20. While the public speculated the authorities were bribing Deng’s family with taxpayers’ money, on July 21, some villagers told reporters that Deng’s family had been warned [zh] by the authorities that the compensation would be reduced by RMB 100,000 (US $16,300) per day if they did not bury Deng Zhengjia on July 19.
One prominent microblogger, Zuoyeben (@作业本), tweeted his best guess at what was going on behind the scenes:
First, the authorities promise a great sum of money as compensation. Then, they make a down payment. The family consents to bury the body and signs an agreement promising not to try to defend their rights on the Internet. Then they turn over the passwords to their microblog accounts. After the case has been wrapped up, the authorities pay them the rest of the money.
Anger and backlash
The case of Deng Zhengjai has not blown over quickly, but has led to public denunciation of the brutal and ruthless chengguan. Such denunciation has even escalated to expressions of disappointment with rhetoric about the Chinese Dream, a concept promoted by Xi Jinping.
At 9:47 p.m. on July 18, Li Chengpeng, one of China’s most famous bloggers, wrote [zh]:
Deng Zhengjia’s Chinese Dream was to grow sweeter melons, grow more melons, sell them earlier and get home in time to have dinner. How could you [authorities] keep talking about Chinese Dream when you even cannot protect a farmer’s dream? Be kinder to your citizens and take good care of your melons. You reap what you sow…Governing a nation is like planting watermelons.
In his lengthy essay, Li slammed the chengguan for their brutality. His essay was retweeted over 197,000 times. According to Yu Jianrong, a respected professor of social science, Li Chengpeng has been asked to keep silent for a month on Sina Weibo due to this essay.
Another popular tweet did not condemn the chengguan of Linwu County directly. “Pretending to Be in New York” (@假裝在紐約）, another popular Weibo celebrity, posted a series of photos of other cases of chengguan beating vendors. In one photo, a boy whose father’s stall was burned stared at the chengguan with intense hatred. The Weibo celebrity said that this particular image left the deepest impression on him:
If a government lets its children have such expression in eyes, even it has made remarkable economic achievements, I will never like it.
Even the official Weibo account of the People’s Daily, the mouth piece of Communist Party, posted:
Behind the collapse of the public image of the chengguan is mass indignation over out-of-line infringements on the rights of citizens.
It urged the government of Linwu County to launch an investigation and reveal the truth quickly.
Though the concrete reason behind the death of Deng Zhengjia has not yet been ascertained, many people are convinced that the chengguan are murderers, and continue to mock phrases like “suddenly collapsed and died” with acrimonious criticism. For example, Weibo user Fan Zhongxin (@范忠信) invited the leaders of Linwu County to “Show us how to collapse suddenly and die.” “If you fail to die after three times,” he wrote, “you’ve shamed yourself too much to continue living.”
Another Weibo user, Zhang Yaochen (@張尭臣), tweeted:
With Chinese hooligans killing people, confiscating the property and even robbing corpses, how do we still have the nerve to call Japan a rogue state?
While some netizens have expressed irritation at a perceived betrayal by Deng’s family, Zuoyeben [zh] concluded that it may, in fact, be for the best.
We cannot imagine how hard it is for a family in a rural area to stand up against their local government – it would be a life worse than death.