Why a Reporter Feels Sympathy for an Airport Bomber

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

These past few years as a reporter, I have met some people with nothing left to live for and now another person can be added to the list. Ji Zhongxing, the disabled man who set off a bomb in a Beijing airport on July 20, is that person.

Ji and I are the same age. We were both born in 1979. Last night, when I read his story, I was grabbed by a strange feeling.

In 2005, we were both 26 years old. He was in Dongguan, Guangdong Province, on his motorcycle in the middle of the night illegally looking for passengers. He was working hard to earn a living, hoping one day to marry and have children. I was also in Guangdong, but I had already found a relationship. I fought with my parents about it and was too stubborn to give in, so I eloped to Beijing to be with my boyfriend.

In 2005, Ji’s life was destroyed. He was disabled, he says, when security guards in Dongguan beat him savagely. He could no longer marry or have children. For him, tragedy was a way of life; for me, tragedy was what I wrote about for work.

On July 21, around 1 a.m., I left Beijing Jishuitan Hospital and took a taxi home. This was several hours after Ji detonated his bomb. Before that, he shouted and asked people in the airport to stay away from him. The explosion injured just one person: Ji.

I had just seen Ji lying on a gurney, being taken into the operating room. I expected Ji to leave surgery screaming, but he did not. He was lying there very calmly. I saw the thick eyebrows on his gaunt face.

Doctors had just finished amputating his left hand at the wrist. “His left palm was blown to bits,” the surgeon said.

Ji once told his story on a blog. He says that on June 28, 2005, before dawn, he was giving people rides in Dongguan when a security guard beat him. Ji was left paralyzed. He tried to get justice through courts and petitions to the government, but this did not work. He went back to his hometown in Shandong Province, and his elderly father took care of him.

After the explosion at the airport, a picture of Ji from 2005 circulated online. In it, he is naked, his lower body covered with infected wounds.

How strange, after an explosion, to feel sympathy for the bomber. I think what he did was terrifying. My first reaction was that he did not mean to hurt anyone; he meant to take revenge.

Sitting in a taxi, under the wide Beijing night sky, I thought back to two other people I have interviewed who had nothing left to live for.

The Miner

His name was Li Aiping. I remember clearly. Every time I think about him, I ask myself: Is he still alive?

In 2009, I went to Wuhan Steel to investigate a lead pollution problem in the central province of Hubei. A man over 70 years old followed me the whole time. He could not speak Mandarin, so we communicated little.

After I finished my investigation, he led me into a villager’s house. The room was impossibly dilapidated, with nothing in it. In one corner, a man was lying on a filthy blanket.

Later, I wrote his story in a blog post. “I saw a miner who had been injured ten years ago. I didn't know there would be a man lying in that empty room. I walked in and suddenly saw a man with long hair lying under a quilt … He told me to come in and after he found out I was a reporter, he told me about his life, a life he had long dreamed of ending. He struggled painfully to get up, so he could show me his spine and his legs, which had already lost all sensation.

I didn't have time to close my eyes, so I had to take in the whole terrifying scene.

Afterward, this stranger started sobbing. Half lying on his bed, he lifted himself up to bow. I jumped up to stop him, thinking that if he bent his back, he would be in even more pain. This man was trying to bow even though two steel rods were supporting his spine!

I don't know if it was to comfort him or myself, but I took a picture of the yellow, wrinkled verdict document he received from the court. I didn’t know, aside from taking that picture, what I could do for him.”

This man was paralyzed in a mining accident, but the mine owner refused to give him any compensation. The miner won his lawsuit, but the court was unable to enforce its verdict. He had no way of getting compensation. So he asked his wife to carry him to the court and the mine owner’s house, to let his pitiful body speak for itself. As in many other tragic cases in China, the miner’s attempt to defend his rights failed.      

In order to survive, the man sacrificed his dignity and let his wife marry another man who could provide for him. Adding to the tragedy, his wife’s second husband died a few years later in another mining accident.

When I arrived, he had already been paralyzed for ten years. He still hadn’t given in to despair, though, and he still thought the media could help him. After I left Hunan, he often sent me text messages. His language was extremely polite. You could tell he was educated.

Every time I got a text from him, my feelings about it were endlessly complicated. I used to think that if I could get in touch with a lawyer in Hunan, maybe he could help get the verdict enforced. I thought that I should find one of my old friends, who could get in touch with an important member of the Hunan court system and ask him why the verdict had never been enforced.

But I always thought of some reason I should not get involved. “It’s already been ten years. Am I really going to turn this case around all by myself? Besides, I would still have to go ask other people and persuade them to sympathize with Li too.”

Later, Li Aiping texted me less and less. I practically breathed a sigh of relief. But tonight, I am thinking about him again. Four more years have passed. Are those ruined, wounded legs any better? Is he still alive?

If he had been the airport bomber or if it had been any other person I’d interviewed, I would have to shoulder more of the blame. For instance, what if it had been that mother?

The Mother

When this woman’s daughter was just over five years old she was raped at knifepoint by an old man at her school. The thug was imprisoned, but just over a year later he was released early.

The girl’s mother was not satisfied. She sued the school, but lost her lawsuit. The school retaliated. She had three children at home, but after the lawsuit they could not go to school in the area.

The little girl grew up. Her little brother and sister neared the age when they should start school. Every day they watched their parents with eager eyes, eager to attend school. But the girl said to her brother and sister: “You two don’t want to go to school or learn to read. There are bad people at school and the bad people will chase after you with knives.”

In 2009, when I was doing interviews in Hunan Province, this mother brought her daughter to meet me. I felt awful, but again I did not know how I could help. After all, even if I went through her appeal materials, if I investigated and verified the old rape case, if I wrote an article revisiting this old news, would it really help her?

Over the past few days I have interviewed Tang Hui, a Hunan mother who made national news by petitioning on behalf of her daughter, who was forced into prostitution. Tang was wrongfully sent to a labor camp. She won her case and received state compensation. Talking with Tang, I thought back to this other mother. Four years ago, she wanted to come to Beijing so I could take her to the Ministry of Education to petition. I told her that every day a great many people come to the capital to air their grievances with the central government. Her petition would only be one more drop in the bucket. Ultimately, nothing would happen. Her child was so young and the petition would ruin her whole family’s future.

Later, I wrote a blog post about her called “The Common People’s Misery.” When the blog post came out, all it did was relieve my guilt. It did not do anything for that wretched family.

Only after I became a mother did I understand that a woman’s child is her whole life. When a child feels humiliation or pain, her mother feels it more.

I told Tang Hui that I admire her sense of reason because if I had been in her position I would have considered throwing bombs. I would never have been able to persevere for six years, using only reason to stand up for my rights. Despair and hate can twist a person’s mind. She replied that as a woman and a mother, she could not rely on her own strength to kill all the evil people she hates. She might kill one, but then she would not have a chance to kill the second. She could only go through the courts.

Yes, the courts should be the last line of defense for justice.

“Where have all the reporters run off to?

After the airport explosion, a respected lawyer posed a question on Sina Weibo, China’s version of Twitter. He wondered where all the reporters had run off to when Ji was beaten so badly he was paralyzed. Now that he has set off a bomb in the Beijing airport, the reporters are swarming all over him.

My conscience has been asking me the same question. If Ji had found me at the time, would I have told his story? The story's chances of being chosen in a news pitch meeting would have been very small because it would not have been influential enough. It’s too common today. I remember a sentence from a news textbook: “Dog bites man” is not news; “man bites dog” is news. Ji’s experience was a “dog bites man” story.

Today, “man bites dog” news has become common. Tragedies happen every day. A reporter can only write stories that her editor will agree to publish, and different media outlets have different standards. This state of affairs is also a way of relieving our guilty consciences.

The media is not so big and strong. There’s a hand over our throat. Reporters have to race against official restrictions. Sometimes before our voices can be heard, the news has been drowned out. That’s just the way things are. The state’s information mechanisms are closed off. The dark side of a story is often hidden away. Certain people always figure out some way to prevent media supervision. They are unbelievably shameless.

I know from experience as a reporter that these people will never sacrifice their way of life for some idealistic sense of justice. I admit that I, too, am weak. I do not have the energy to spend my life struggling for justice.

My uncle is all alone and over 70 years old. His house has been demolished and he has not received a cent of compensation, so now he’s destitute and homeless. When I was on maternity leave, I represented him in a lawsuit. We lost twice. Still, I would not let this old man petition. I thought that pursuing the state’s empty promise of a right to petition was just a dead end.

I realized that when public rights are unfairly denied, it is too easy for a person in despair to fall back on private help. When I was in court, in front of the defendant, I wanted to use every bit of strength I had to slap him across the face. But unexpectedly, I stayed rational. I smacked the table instead.

The village elders all asked me: “Aren’t you a reporter? Why don't you tell people what's going on here?”
This was my answer: “These years, because of rampant demolitions, so many people have burned themselves to death or been crushed to death or jumped off buildings. Who’s going to care about my uncle’s story?”

After a man set a bus on fire in Xiamen in June, I interviewed Wu Boxin, an expert in criminal psychology from the Public Security University. He said that individual terrorists are often people with nothing left to live for.

“These people were not innately criminal. Most of them were originally workers or peasants. Our political system was founded on the power of the workers and peasants. How can we abandon them now?”