Ou Leili: China’s Wheelchair Bomber Shines Light on Injustice, Disability Rights
Ou Leili is a contributor at Ministry of Tofu. You can learn more about her on our About page.
“I am festering away, paralyzed and over 100,000 yuan (US $16,303.60) in debt. Our family has suffered an unimaginable fate.”
This declaration was translated from the now-deleted blog of Ji Zhongxing. Ji, a 34-year-old man from a farming family in Shandong Province, set off a bomb at Beijing Capital International Airport last week from his wheelchair. His bold act of protest worsened his situation: his hand was amputated after the incident, he now faces criminal charges, and he is being kept in an unknown location. No one else sustained injuries.
Ji Zhongxing held high a home-made bomb at Beijing Capital International Airport shortly before he detonated it. Witnesses later said Ji spent several minutes yelling at people around him to evacuate the crowds, an act that netizens believe separates him from a typical terrorist.
The outpouring of support for Ji flooded Chinese microblogging site Sina Weibo when people learned both that Ji had allegedly warned people to stand back from the bomb and when they learned from Ji’s blog that he claimed to have been brutally assaulted by Dongguan police for operating an unregistered motorbike to transport passengers in 2005.
Ji Zhongxing was permanently paralyzed by violence used by Dongguan police against him in 2005. Years of petitioning to seek damages or redress grievances went unanswered.
“I believe his behavior does not constitute a crime or endanger public safety or count as an act of terrorism. He did not hurt others or cause damage to property,” one Weibo user wrote, echoing popular opinion. He added that Ji should be punished by China’s less harsh Public Security Administration Punishment law. This law, according to the US Congress’ Commission on China, “includes traffic offenses, public disturbances, prostitution, drug use, and other ‘minor crimes’ that the Chinese government punishes with administrative penalties, including fines and administrative detention, rather than criminal sentences.”
Some others feared that Ji’s actions would inspire copycats, however. “This isn’t a kind thing to say but the media’s reporting of Ji Zhongxing as a tragic hero will inspire copycat incidents. Such poetic and tragically written reports,” one user added sarcastically.
Indeed, several similar incidents have occurred in China since Ji detonated the bomb at the airport. According to the China Digital Times (via South China Morning Post) there have already been two similar incidents involving bombs at a video arcade and at a bank in Shenzhen after the airport incident.
As Ji remains detained by Chinese police in an unknown location, examining the quality of wheelchair accessibility in China’s cities provides some context for the life he may have been living in the past eight years. How has life changed for a man who now at 34, uses a wheelchair, in a city more than three hundred miles from Beijing that generates a substantial subset of its GDP from the cultivation of peony flowers?
According to the popular blog Seeing Red In China, China “wasn’t built for wheelchairs, but that is starting to change.” A post from 2011 by anonymous author “T” reads, “I lived in China for almost three years before I saw someone in public in a wheelchair, and I have yet to see anyone using one under their own power. I think this is largely because China wasn’t built for wheelchairs. Even in the big cities, it’s hard to find a sidewalk that would be suitable for rolling, and almost every building has a half dozen steps to the front door. I imagine it would be difficult for most of China’s physically disabled people to even leave their homes, since buildings with less than eight floors typically do not have elevators. This includes schools and practically every government building. Not only are there few programs for physical rehabilitation, but they literally can’t even access the public education they are entitled to.”
A common scene in China
“T” adds that while many of the new subway stations in Beijing now have elevators, “the only physically disabled people that most Chinese people are familiar with are the beggars who wait next to the bus stops and subway stations.” He also adds that he hopes that the government begins to prioritize handicapped accessible walkways, “because at the moment children with physical handicaps are still seen as such a burden on the family that some would rather have them aborted.”
In The Washington Post in 2008, journalist Maureen Fan explained that improvements made for people with disabilities have surfaced mainly in Beijing, especially after the Olympics. Now, it is possible to visit the Great Wall of China in a wheelchair and to take some buses and trains. But as soon as you hit South Beijing, she notes that “a former coal miner needs a nurse to help push him up a too-steep ramp leading to his apartment building. He has trouble boarding taxis and buses and finding restaurants without steps. He can’t use a public toilet.” She adds that, “Wheelchair ramps are not built long and low according to standards but short and steep, in order to save money” and also that many people with disabilities are afraid of going out because people may mock them. A blog on touring the world in a wheelchair claims that wheelchair-friendly adjustments made in preparation for the ’08 Olympics have since been removed.
If Ji’s punishment is softer than expected, this case may speak to the power of citizen journalism in China and to the increasing support of individuals with disabilities. Still others fear that more and more people will resort to this “new kind of terrorism” out of desperation.