Beijing Capital Interational Airport terminal three, without a trace of the bomb set off by Ji Zhongxing. Photo via Flickr user thewamphyri.
The day before Ji Zhongxing detonated a homemade explosive in terminal three of Beijing Capital International Airport, I left on a trip to Hong Kong. That morning, the gleaming airport thrummed with efficiency, and it was difficult to imagine that the country which had built this – at the time the largest terminal in the world – had also neglected thousands of its own citizens.
Ji Zhongxing was one of those neglected.
A Shandong native, Ji was operating a motorcycle taxi in the factory city of Dongguan, Guangdong Province when he was beaten by local police and left paralysed from the waist down. This was 2005.
In 2007, Ji sued the Dongguan government for 338,267 yuan ($55,168) in compensation for medical expenses and unemployment, but lost due to lack of evidence. Dongguan's public security bureau claimed that Ji collided with a policeman and paralysed himself while falling, which, you know, happens. Ji appealed the next year to no avail.
In 2009, Ji went to Beijing to petition the central government, a common process known as shangfang. There, the Commission of Politics and Law of the CPC Central Committee overturned the previous verdicts and required Dongguan's local police to pay Ji 100,000 yuan ($16, 309), provided he stopped petitioning.
The fact that Ji received money at all makes him luckier than many. Local governments, for fear of being punished, have been known to intercept, detain or harass people from their districts who try to petition the central government.
Cut to July 20, 2013.
Witnesses outside the international arrivals area of terminal three spot a man in a wheelchair handing out leaflets regarding his grievances. Airport security officers approach and ask him to stop. The man, now shouting, holds up a bag of powder and cautions people to move away before detonating it in his hand.
Sadly, Ji is not alone, neither in his experiences nor his decision to make a public spectacle. Desperate men who turn to violence after failing to find redress are a growing phenomenon.
Last month, a disgruntled street vendor in Xiamen set a bus on fire and killed 47 people, including himself. On his blog he wrote that he had been bullied by chengguan, China's reviled urban management officers.
(Chengguan have been in the news recently for beating a watermelon vendor to death in Hunan.)
Last year in Fuzhou, Jiangxi Province, another disgruntled local who claimed his house had been forcibly demolished and spent a decade seeking compensation set off three car bombs outside three government buildings, killing himself and two others.
But what's surprising about Ji's case is not that it ended in extremism, but that the public's response has been largely sympathetic. Short of being appalled or terrified, many see Ji as the victim of a corrupt and unjust society.
On Weibo, users focused on the fact that Ji had only hurt himself and had warned others before detonating the bomb. A professor at the University of Science and Technology in Beijing went so far as to call Ji a "righteous" and "kindhearted man" on his account.
A reporter at Caixin Magazine covering the story confessed her sympathy for Ji and others whom society had left behind. "How strange, after an explosion, to feel sympathy for the bomber," she wrote. "I think what he did was terrifying. My first reaction was that he did not mean to hurt anyone; he meant to take revenge."
But beneath people's sympathy for Ji is something more cynical – the belief that in this society a man can look eight years for justice and not find it; that his despair can push him to commit an act of violence; and that it is understandable, if not acceptable, for him to do so. Deep down, those sympathetic toward Ji have a profound lack of faith in the system to dispense justice.
Perhaps sensing this cynicism, the state media has been quick to remind the public that Ji is a criminal, not a martyr.
"It's important to remember that Ji should be condemned and dealt with by law," said an editorial in Global Times. "His grievances can't provide moral support for his extreme actions, nor can they shield him from legal punishment."
Which begs the question, where is the law to condemn those that commit brutality? And where is the legal punishment for those that oversee a system which marginalises those who have had everything taken from them?
Ji was taken to a hospital where he had his left hand amputated. That evening, Beijing police received two bomb threats, one threatening to blow up an airport out of anger over a land dispute and the other to bomb a video game arcade because the man had been spending too much money there. Both were swiftly detained.
For their part, Guangdong officials have promised to look into Ji's case. And to think, all it took was him blowing himself up.
When I came back from Hong Kong a few days later, I went to the international arrivals section of terminal three. There was no trace of the bombing – no dust, no cracked glass or marks on the ground. Tourists from around the world and people returning from vacations filled the arrival hall. They met those waiting for them and pushed their luggage outside, into a country that had no time to slow down or look back.
If you hadn't read the news, you'd have no idea that something had happened, or that anything was wrong.
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