Murder case highlights class struggle in China

Public sympathizes with unpaid worker

September 23, 2005|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,Sun foreign reporter

BEIJING -- It would seem a clear-cut case for any court of law: A migrant worker angry that he hasn't been paid goes on a rampage, stabbing to death a foreman and members of the foreman's family and then trying to kill a more senior boss. A court in northwest China quickly decided earlier this year that 27-year-old Wang Binyu should die for his crimes.

But in the court of public opinion, many Chinese have surprisingly come to a different conclusion, stirring a national debate while a regional high court weighs whether to uphold the death sentence.

Pleas for mercy on Internet bulletin boards and from legal scholars have transformed a multiple murderer into a national metaphor for the widening divide in China between rich and poor. The case has tapped into a deep reservoir of public resentment against wealthy bosses, against the mistreatment of the country's more than 100 million migrant workers and against a flawed legal system that many believe serves only the powerful.

"The peasant migrant workers without money, without power, are not protected by the law, but are only punished by the law," wrote one Internet user, identified as Worldwang, on the widely read Tianya Club Internet bulletin board. "If the law has never protected me, but only punishes me when I commit a crime, what can I do? We enjoy the punishment of the law but never enjoy the protection of the law. There are people who enjoy the protection of the law but never enjoy the punishment of the law."

These issues of inequality are festering in China and have become the subject of greater coverage recently in the state media, which is often given some leeway to cover stories that give vent to popular outrage.

The official New China News Service, the government's chief purveyor of propaganda, gave Wang national attention in a sympathetic dispatch published this month. The article appears in one newspaper online under the headline: "The tear-jerking narrative of a condemned prisoner, Wang Binyu."

Major newspapers responded with stories and commentaries, and the outrage spilled over onto the Internet, drawing educated middle-class readers and Web surfers in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou into the world of a condemned migrant worker in a poor remote corner of northwest China, Ningxia Autonomous Region.

The convicted murderer waits in the Shizuishan City No. 1 Detention Center in Ningxia. His story, as recounted by him to Chinese reporters and by his younger brother in a telephone interview, is, until its violent conclusion, a wrenching but routine migrant worker's tale.

Born in 1978, at the dawn of China's economic reforms, Wang grew up in a village in one of China's poorest provinces, Gansu, adjacent to Ningxia. He left as a teenager to begin an itinerant life as a migrant worker, sometimes paid less than he was promised, and sometimes failing to receive decent medical treatment for injuries.

Two years ago, he ended up on a construction job insulating steel pipes in Shizuishan, where he was joined on the job for brief periods by his younger brother.

Wang was supposed to get a better salary - more than $4 a day at one point when he became team leader, the newspaper Southern Metropolitan Daily reported - and he was supposed to have living and medical expenses covered, but in China these benefits are often promised, even in writing, and never delivered.

In April this year, Wang planned to quit and return home to help pay for needed surgery for his father, but his bosses refused to pay months of back-wages totaling hundreds of dollars, according to the newspaper accounts. On May 11, the day of the murders, one of his bosses, Wu Xinguo, said he wanted to fire Wang and his younger brother, and Wang again demanded his back-pay.

Later in the day, Wu promised in front of a local government official to settle the back-pay within five days, but Wu reportedly locked the Wang brothers out of the company dormitory that night and offered only $6 in living expenses.

Wandering the streets that night, the newspapers reported, Wang saw his boss and his foreman on motorcycles and asked for some living expenses, and Wu sped away. Then Wang, trailed by his younger brother Wang Binyin, tracked down Wu where he was staying. After Wang's boss refused to give him money, his foreman, Wu Hua, and Wu Hua's family, who were all nearby, tried to intervene.

Wang's rage had been seething for far longer than a single day. He had bought a pair of foldable fruit knives a week earlier with his brother, according to Southern Metropolitan Daily, and had his at the ready.

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