Farmer Zhang Zhi, shown outside his home in Gansu province's Duancha village, has traveled to Beijing eight times to seek justice in the killing of his mother and baby son. He says his wife's family is responsible for the deaths and that they used personal connections to thwart a proper investigation.
Farmer Zhang Zhi, shown outside his home in Gansu province's Duancha village, has traveled to Beijing eight times to seek justice in the killing of his mother and baby son. He says his wife's family is responsible for the deaths and that they used personal connections to thwart a proper investigation. Anthony Kuhn/NPR
On any given day in China's capital, thousands of angry citizens from the provinces brave violence and squalor in a largely futile quest for justice.
These protesters — or petitioners, as they are also known — are trying to draw national officials' attention to local abuses of power.
Despite their slim chances of success, petitioners such as Zhang Zhi keep up their struggle. The only time the furrows disappear from Zhang's brow is when he smiles bitterly at the absurdity of his situation.
He remembers coming back from planting the fields one morning in the fall of 1994 to his earthen-walled home in a remote village in China's western Gansu province.
"When I entered, I found my mother and baby son together, both lying face down on the floor," he recalls. "There wasn't much blood on my mother's body, but there was some on her neck. I was too distraught to look closely."
Family Connections, An Alleged Cover-Up
Zhang says he believes his in-laws wanted to marry off his wife, Bao Xindan, to a richer man so they conspired to take Bao away from him. The Baos were discovered by his mother and son, Zhang says, so they strangled the two. He claims they then used personal connections in the government to prevent a proper investigation.
Zhang has an elementary school education. His wife is illiterate.
"When I went to their home, my mother-in-law and brother-in-law said they regretted giving Bao Xindan to me to marry. They said I was too poor," he says.
Police arrested Bao for the murder, but later released her on grounds of insanity. Zhang remains married to Bao, even though he says she fled to a neighboring province and married another man. Zhang has gone to Beijing eight times to petition authorities, but with no result.
Protest Draws Unwanted Attention
The village's Communist Party secretary, Wu Shimin, says the incident is the first murder to occur in the village, and it has put pressure on him.
"When one of our villagers goes to Beijing to petition, it has a very bad effect on every level of the Communist Party organization," Wu says. "Every level of the organization pressures the next level down."
But Wu says that, like other villagers, he sympathizes with Zhang on a personal level.
"If this tragedy befell me, I would not give in either. Anyone in Mr. Zhang's position would have to demand an answer from the state and from society," he says.
In-Laws: Husband Drove Wife Insane
But over in Morning Light village — about 40 minutes away by motorcycle — the Bao family see things differently.
The dusty dirt road to the village snakes through hills terraced with fields and topped by crumbling citadels where locals hid from bandits in more lawless days. The arid hills appear harsh and bleak, but they're home to a resilient people and an enduring local culture.
Loudspeakers in Morning Light blare out traditional music. The village is perched on a hillside, and some of its pathways drop off into deep gullies.
The Baos are the dominant clan here. Zhang accuses his brother-in-law, Bao Fuqiang, of plotting and assisting in the murders of his mother and child. Bao, dressed in a worn Mao suit, blames Zhang for driving his sister mad.
"Zhang's family never sought treatment for my sister's illness. Instead, they locked her up in a makeshift prison in a dark room. They cursed and beat her, and denied her food and drink. This is what the state's investigation found," he says.
Bao says he has no idea where his sister is now. And he says it's not his concern.
"From the point of view of the Bao family, this case has nothing to do with us. My sister was married off to another family. Now she's one of their people," he says.
In traditional rural society, a married woman moves to her husband's village and is no longer considered a full-fledged member of her original family.
Facts Are Murky, Justice Elusive
Zhang admits that he locked his wife up for a while after an argument in which she wounded him with a shovel. But he denies beating her or driving her insane.
Zhang also admits that he faces seemingly hopeless obstacles. There were no eyewitnesses to the murder. The police consider the case closed and refuse to comment on it. Younger people with more options in life might just give up and try to make a fresh start. But Zhang says he just can't tolerate the injustice of it.
"If my wife was really insane, and she alone was responsible for the murders, then I might give up. But it's not like that. She's not insane, and she did not act alone," Zhang says. "China is a society ruled by law. But the authorities have not enforced the law in this double homicide."
As with many petitioners, the facts in Zhang's case are maddeningly complex and blurred by time. Petitioners persist for lack of any other hope.
Zhang says that if he ever finds his wife, he wants to let justice take its due course. Barring that, he says grimly, he'll take the law into his own hands.