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China's 'Biggest Coward' Finds Sympathy

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China's 'Biggest Coward' Finds Sympathy

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China's 'Biggest Coward' Finds Sympathy

China's 'Biggest Coward' Finds Sympathy

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Fan Meizhong i

Teacher Fan Meizhong was dubbed "Runner Fan" after running away from his classroom to an open field during the earthquake in China. Louisa Lim/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Louisa Lim/NPR
Fan Meizhong

Teacher Fan Meizhong was dubbed "Runner Fan" after running away from his classroom to an open field during the earthquake in China.

Louisa Lim/NPR

Chinese teacher Fan Meizhong woke up one morning to discover he had become the most hated man in China.

The Sichuan native had written a blog post describing his cowardly behavior during the massive earthquake that left nearly 90,000 people dead and missing.

While his actions during the quake didn't result in any deaths, his post kicked off a chain of events that has left this antihero looking almost heroic.

The man labeled China's biggest coward is a slight man with thick black glasses. He looks so unassuming, it's hard to imagine one person could have unleashed such vitriol and such a bitter nationwide debate.

But almost everybody agrees on one thing: His downfall was his honesty.

Fan Meizhong was teaching a Chinese-language class in a school when the earthquake happened. This summary from his blog, written 10 days after the quake, describes what he did next.

"I ran as fast as I could, almost on all fours, to the soccer field. Then I realized I was the first person to make it there. I'm not brave enough to sacrifice myself for others. I care only about my own life. I can only imagine sacrificing myself for my baby daughter. I wouldn't think about it for anyone else, not even my mother."

"I just wanted to leave a true account of what happened during this extraordinary experience in my life," he says about why he wrote the post. "I was very dissatisfied with the narrative of sacrifice and emotional upheaval in the mass media. I felt this was a false construct, which obscured what really happened."

Runner Fan

To many, this seemed like an excuse. The blogosphere went wild, christening him "Runner Fan," or "Fan Pao Pao" in Chinese.

"Runner Fan runs and runs and runs" is part of a verse from a satirical song. "He's a strange man; he pretends he loves doing whatever he wants. But he doesn't even love his mother or father. When he runs, he runs faster than a rabbit."

"When I saw my mother, she didn't mind what I said," Fan says. "She thinks I've always been good to her. And she said if such a thing did happen, it would be right to save my daughter."

As the satirical songs blossomed, so too did the criticism. Many felt Fan had violated a Chinese code of ethics — both as a teacher who abandoned his students, and as a son who openly said he would not sacrifice himself for his mother.

Fired For 'Speaking Improperly'

A widely watched live television debate followed. This quickly descended into farce with Fan and his opponent accusing each other of idiocy.

Then Fan was fired, not for running out on his students, but for "speaking improperly." He says this didn't surprise him.

"I expected this result, but I still had to write this essay," Fan says. "I couldn't give up my freedom of speech and expression because of the possible consequences of my actions."

One reason he was not surprised was that he had already been fired three times for talking about taboo political topics in class. This time, he is preparing to launch a lawsuit.

But the saga still wasn't over.

The next twist came when the education ministry changed its code of ethics, requiring teachers to be responsible for the safety of their students.

Upon releasing this, an education ministry official criticized Fan as shameless, which made him feel like a scapegoat.

"I think the education ministry are really the shameless ones," Fan says. "Twenty thousand students died in the earthquake. That wasn't because teachers didn't save people, but because the buildings were disgracefully weak. Why don't they blame themselves as shameless, instead of blaming a teacher whose actions didn't cost any lives?"

'An Honest And Brave Man'

At his former school, Guangya IB school near Dujiangyan, two enormous red stone doves flank the gates. Engraved on them are the values prized by the school: honesty, universal love, diligence and bravery. There's much sympathy for him here.

Long Yushan, 10, says she understands Fan's behavior. Her teacher at another school also fled. But her class forgave him, she says, because everyone is human.

English teacher Li Min says the mob mentality reminded her of darker periods of Chinese history, like the Cultural Revolution.

"Fan Pao Pao just said something not quite proper, but he was telling the truth. So he didn't commit some crime," Li says.

And so it seems the tide of public opinion is turning. Almost 60 percent of people in one survey found Fan to be an honest and brave man.

One of the most perceptive, and perhaps saddest, comments on the saga came — as so much else does — from the Internet.

One blogger summed it up, saying, "He overexercised his freedom of speech."

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