On July 20th, a wheelchair-bound man named Ji Zhongxing sat at Beijing’s Capital International Airport preparing for an act which has been interpreted by some as terrorism and by others as heroism. After spending several minutes warning bystanders to keep their distance, Ji detonated an improvised bomb made of gunpowder harvested from firecrackers. Ji was the only casualty of the bomb, his mangled left hand amputated by surgeons, but other, secondary casualties of the bombing may also emerge.
There was originally little to distinguish Ji from the masses of men and women who migrate from China’s rural regions with limited legal documentation to the manufacturing cities which form the hub of China’s economic development. Originally from Shandong, Ji moved in 2005 to Dongguan, a boomtown in the Pearl River Delta. There, he ran an unlicensed pedicab service until being caught late one night by police. These policemen, for reasons that are not entirely clear, beat Ji severely that night, causing him to suffer paralysis. In 2006, Ji Zhongxing hired two lawyers to launch a lawsuit on his behalf. The court took two years to return a verdict, an indictment itself of the situation facing civilian plaintiffs in China. But for Ji and for many others like him, tardiness from the courts is par for the course. In 2008, after this lawsuit was rejected, he turned to his next option: petitioning.
A further two years later, Ji Zhongxing’s efforts in petitioning bore fruit: having travelled to Beijing in the hope that the Central Politics and Law Commission would review his case, the local police station, home to the officers who had assaulted Ji, offered him 100,000 yuan (roughly three times the average annual salary in China) on the condition that he stopped petitioning. If Ji accepted, he would be able to sustain himself only for a few years even if he practised careful frugality. Beyond financial calculations, if Ji had accepted the offer, the extant precedent that local state institutions can buy off disgruntled citizens would be strengthened. Ji’s insistent pursuit of legal recourse over financial approbation laid the groundwork for the reaction to the airport bombing online and in the media.
Usually, plus or minus their own delusions of grandeur, people who set off bombs do not win the hearts and minds of the local population. Men from Timothy McVeigh to Osama Bin Laden are counted as evil. But, the reaction to Ji Zhongxing from both the mainstream media and new media has not fallen too many feet short of one befitting a martyr. Luo Jieqi, a journalist at prominent progressive magazine Caixin made it clear that she felt sympathy for Ji. Se explains her feelings as follows: “Siding with a man who commits a terrifying act is normal when you hear so many stories of people so wronged they lack the will to live.” A Weibo blogger using the handle Feng Qingyang wrote on his microblog, “I don’t agree with the way Mr. Ji handled his misfortune. However, if we don’t want to see another Mr. Ji in this country, we have to pay attention to the root of matter.” But not all social media users conformed to this pattern of response. Yin Zhe complained on his microblog that the press had distorted events: “The media paid no attention because they were gathering all sorts of evidence to turn the thug into a victim.” Yin is fighting against a current of sympathy though. Earlier examples of a compassionate public response to destructive, criminal acts include those receiveds by the 2011 Fuzhou bomber Qian Mingqqi and Shanghai cop killer Yang Jia. These cases were thorny for the government to deal with, but the Ji Zhongxing reaction is particularly troubling for the Chinese authorities, given that it also involved a bomb exploding at Beijing’s airport, the first sight that many foreigners arriving in China cast their eyes upon.
The bombing is also problematic for the government because it indicats a decline in the efficacy and popualrity of the petitioning system for settling grievances from those who have not been swept along in the tide of prosperity first initiated by Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms in the 1980s. Having lost faith in petitioning as a method of recourse, more and more people are turning to mass protest. Sun Liping of Tsinghua University estimates the number at 80,000 per year, huge even in a country as big as China. In Beijing, tightly controlled and host to a stringent security apparatus, one is usually unaware of the discontent bubbling just below the surface. “Out of sight, out of mind” goes the old saying. The danger for the government is that Ji’s bravery will inspire others, whose faith in the petitioning system is already wilting, to turn to similar violent demonstrations. It is extremely unlikely that Ji’s actions will inspire collective violent action, but his success in detonating an explosive device at Beijing airport along with the generally supportive media reaction might make this new style of dramatic petitioning more popular.
A comparison worth making is that between Ji Zhongxing and the Tsarnaev brothers, who bombed the Boston marathon earlier this year. The brothers killed two and injured dozens with a motive that is still subject to press speculation months later. Ji Zhongxing killed nobody, injuring only himself. He had a clear motive and only resorted to violence a full eight years after he was first beaten by the security guards in Dongguan. Had he neglected to implore bystanders to keep their distance, and had anyone else even been injured, it is highly unlikely that the Public Security Bureau would have directed journalists to Jishuitan hospital, and more unlikely still that he would have attracted sympathy on mainstream and social media. Perhaps a lexicon that includes words such as “terrorist” and “martyr” are ill-suited to this story. Judging from Ji’s actions at the airport, it seems more plausible that this was intended as a very public suicide, in line with the disgruntled Tibetan Buddhists who attempt to self-immolate with varying degrees of success.
When a bomb explodes anywhere, but especially at an emblem of China’s modernity such as the Beijing airport, the government cannot simply sweep the story under the rug. This bombing is many things: it indicates most obviously that security at the airport could use beefing up. It shows that money does not satiate the wronged. It demonstrates the lengths to which these people will go to make their voice heard. Most worryingly for the government in Beijing, it shows that even when petitioners resort to bombings, they are the recipients of enduring public support and sympathy. Hu Jintao spoke of a “Harmonious Society.” Xi Jinping now expounds the “China Dream.” The case of Ji Zhongxing and the airport bombing shows that people in China don’t need any false rhetoric. The battle against a deficient legal system has inspired some degree of social harmony, to which the government can lay no claim and no control.