ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
To Southwestern China now. One recent morning, teacher Fan Meizhong woke up to discover that he had become the most hated man in China. The reason? A blog post that the native of Sichuan Province had written. He described abandoning his students during the May earthquake which left nearly 90,000 people dead or missing, many of them students. No one died at Fan Meizhong's school, but that blog post kicked off a chain of events that have left this antihero looking almost heroic.
As NPR's Louisa Lim reports.
LOUISA LIM: 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, such a bitter nationwide debate. Almost everybody agrees on one thing. His downfall was his honesty.
Fan Meizhong was teaching a Chinese class when the earthquake happened. This summary from his blog written 10 days after the quake, describes what he did next.
Unidentified Man: (Reading) 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.
LIM: He told me why he'd written this.
Mr. FAN MEIZHONG (Teacher): (Through translator) I just wanted to leave a true account of what happened during this extraordinary experience in my life. 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.
LIM: To many, this seemed like an excuse. The blogosphere went wild, christening him Runner Fan, in Chinese, Fan Pao Pao.
(Soundbite of music)
LIM: Runner Fan runs and runs and runs, according to this satirical song. He's a strange man, it said. 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.
Mr. MEIZHONG: (Through translator) When I saw my mother, she didn't mind what I said. 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.
(Soundbite of music)
LIM: As the satirical songs blossomed, so, too, did the criticism. Many felt Fan Meizhong had violated a Chinese code of ethics both as a teacher who'd abandoned his students and as a son who'd openly said he wouldn't sacrifice himself for his mother.
(Soundbite of Chinese television show)
LIM: A widely watched live television debate followed. This quickly descended into farce with Fan and his opponent accusing each other of idiocy. Then Fan Meizhong was fired, not for running out on his students, but for speaking improperly. Fan Meizhong says this didn't surprise him.
Mr. MEIZHONG: (Through translator) I expected this result. But I still had to write this essay. I couldn't give up my freedom of speech and expression because of the possible consequences of my actions.
LIM: One reason he wasn't surprised was because he'd already been sacked three times for talking about taboo political topics in class. This time, he's 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 Meizhong as shameless. This made him feel scapegoated.
Mr. MEIZHONG: (Through translator) I think the education ministry are really the shameless ones. 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?
LIM: At his former school, Guangya IB school near Dujiangyan, the gates are flanked by two enormous red stone doves. Engraved on them are the values prized by the school, ironically, honesty, universal love, diligence and bravery. There's much sympathy for him here. Ten-year-old Long Yushan says she understands Teacher Fan's behavior. Her teacher at another school also fled. But her class forgave him, she said, because everyone is human.
English teacher Li Min says the mob mentally reminds her of darker periods of Chinese history like the Cultural Revolution.
Ms. LI MIN (English Teacher) Fan Pao Pao just said something not quite proper. But he was telling the truth. So he didn't commit some crime.
LIM: And so, it seems the tide of public opinion is turning. Almost 60 percent of people in one survey found teacher Fan to be an honest and brave man. Perceptive and perhaps saddest comments on this saga came as so much else from the Internet. One blogger summed it up saying he over-exercised his freedom of speech.
Louisa Lim, NPR News, Dujiangyan, Sichuan, China.
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