At 11:02am on July 7, a public bus in Anshun city, Guizhou province left its terminal as scheduled.
At 11:39am, its 52-year-old driver sent voice messages to his girlfriend expressing feelings of disgust with the world.
At 12:12pm, as horrifying video footage showed, the bus slowed to a stop on the highway before abruptly accelerating across opposite lanes, ramming through a guard rail, and plunging headfirst into a reservoir.
The driver, identified by his family name Zhang, was among the 21 people killed in the apparent murder-suicide, which prompted netizens to swarm the microblogging site Weibo for updates on the rescue efforts throughout the day.
But as details of the case emerged, all indications pointed to the seeming act of desperation as stemming from the driver’s anger at China’s controversial land policies and the human cost of its much-vaunted urban redevelopment schemes.
According to the South China Morning Post, reports suggested that Zhang, who had been drinking at the time, had intentionally crashed the bus due to his grievances against authorities who had reportedly demolished his former residence earlier that morning to make way for a new development. The initial report was later taken down, but not before racking up a significant number of views and triggering a frank public discourse on China’s strictly censored internet.
A police statement released by the Anshun City police on Sunday revealed that a local property redevelopment project had indeed played a part in the tragedy.
“Due to unsatisfactory life circumstances and dissatisfaction with the demolition of his rented public apartment, in an attempt to make an impact, Zhang carried out an extreme individual crime against nonspecific individuals which endangered public safety,” the statement said.
According to police, Zhang had been staying at a relative’s place since his divorce in 2016, but held the lease to a 40-square-metre apartment. Prior to the demolition of the apartment, he had signed a relocation agreement for compensation of RMB72,542.94 ($10,370), but never collected the money.
His applications for other public housing rentals had also been unsuccessful.
On the morning of the crash, Zhang reportedly arrived at his former apartment and witnessed the demolition of the building, then called a government hotline to express his dissatisfaction at the demolition, as well as at not being able to secure new public housing.
Though chinese state media summed up Zhang’s actions as an attempt to “exact revenge on society,” that characterization did not sit well with netizens sympathetic to his predicament—if not his actions—prompting rare, open criticism of the government online.
“Every person’s grievance and perversion is connected to us. The government’s job is to find them and help them… instead of using the patronizing reason of ‘exacting revenge on society’ to conceal everything,” said one Weibo user.
“There’s too much social pressure, the cost of living is high and wages are low! Corruption is still present, civil servants are self-serving! These are not reasons to take revenge on society, but there are all kinds of people. There’s a cause for everything!” commented another.
Among the 37 people pulled from the reservoir, 20 were pronounced dead on the spot, while one succumbed to injuries during resuscitation efforts. Fifteen others were injured.
At least five of the deceased were students on their way to take a major national examination to determine their college placement.
The Anshun City government said that they would be investigating the procedures involved in the demolition of Zhang’s apartment, which, if found to be illegal, would be dealt with accordingly.
But forced evictions and unfair land deals have long been part and parcel of China’s rapid urbanization policies, enabled by the fact that there is no private land ownership in China.
In one case, in the wake of a deadly residential fire in 2017, Beijing authorities embarked on a large-scale campaign to drive migrant workers out of their homes by cutting off electricity and water during the freezing winter, citing safety concerns. Entire villages were demolished within a week, leaving droves of migrant workers suddenly homeless.
The phenomenon is also typified by China’s so-called “nail houses,” occupied buildings whose owners have stubbornly refused to budge in the face of development projects, leaving their often humble homes awkwardly protruding from the middle of highways and condo developments.
Still, some on Chinese social media were quick to chastise those who laid blame for Zhang’s actions at the feet of the Chinese Communist Party.
“People like him deserve no sympathy even if he dies a thousand times. Don’t implicate society and other people with your negativity,” said one netizen.