Skip to content Skip to navigation

Chinese Voices

December 30, 2013

In 1983, I spent five weeks traveling around China with my family on our first visit to the country. In those days, less than a decade after the death of Mao Zedong and the end of the Cultural Revolution, people were still wary of speaking to foreigners. Although my young daughter and I attracted crowds of curious people on the street, for the most part, people just stared at us blankly. The few discussions I had were carried out in whispers, as if Big Brother were looking over our shoulders.

By the time I returned to China in April of 1989, the country was caught up in the excitement of a brief period of political liberalization. Students, intellectuals, dissidents, and average citizens engaged excitedly in wide-ranging debates in restaurants, dormitory rooms, parks, salons, and other venues. Writers, journalists, film directors, and documentary makers tackled subjects that had been forbidden since the Communists came to power in 1949. The mood was ecstatic.

I returned to Beijing again in May to cover the pro-democracy student demonstrations, and I was shocked by the outward expressions of anger and criticisms of the government and the sight of demonstrators marching down the streets of the city carrying protest signs and shouting slogans.

This hopeful mood crashed a few weeks later on the evening of June 3-4, when soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army opened fire on people on the streets of Beijing.  In the middle of the night, I watched as the wounded and dead were carried passed me on East Chang’an Street, in commandeered buses, rickshaws, and a few propped up precariously on the backs of bicycles. Some say at least 1,000 people died in that incident, others put the number at several thousand.

Throughout the night, as bullets whizzed overhead, Chinese on the street begged me: “Please tell the world what’s happening.”

I’ve never forgotten those words, or the looks of anger and fear on their faces that night.

The crackdown was brutal and in the space of just a few hours, the Chinese fell silent again. The people I’d recently befriended in and around my hotel suddenly looked away when they saw me approach. Some of the students I’d met called me occasionally over the following weeks, their voices full of fear as they described life on the run. Gradually, these voices too fell silent. I often wonder what happened to them.

I moved to Beijing as a reporter in 1994, as people were once again finding the courage to speak out. Every week, I was approached by Chinese from all walks of life who were keen to tell me their stories, despite the Orwellian controls that were still in place.

Over the next 18 years working as a journalist in Beijing, I continued to tell people around the world—and in China—what was happening there.

My reporting won me many critics, both Chinese and foreigners, who saw my writing as anti-China, an accusation that one often hears there.

The majority of the people I wrote about certainly never saw my reports as biased. They had no voice because the government used intimidation to silence them. There was, and is, a growing number of bold Chinese journalists who dare to write about sensitive things for a handful of progressive newspapers and magazines. But even the most intrepid Chinese journalists know where the line is drawn. And even if they forget, there are always editors ready to remind them.

As a result, many Chinese began to turn to the international media, hoping the publication of their stories abroad would somehow bring them justice. Or maybe just seeing their stories and photographs on the pages of a newspaper or a magazine, even in a language they couldn’t understand, gave them a sense of hope. Even though I was frustrated that my reports could not provide practical help, the people I wrote about seemed to be satisfied just to have their voices heard anywhere, even outside of China.

Many of the people I wrote about faced enormous difficulties resulting from government policy, corruption, or neglect.

L-R: Ren Zhi's mother Ms. Li, Eileen (Mooney’s wife), Ren Zhi, Paul Mooney, Beijing United Family Hospital, 2012.

In the summer of 2009, I met Ren Zhi (任智) while I was doing a story about the lack of pediatric medicines for rural children infected with HIV. The 14-year-old girl had been exposed to HIV/AIDS at the age of 18 months when a hospital gave her a tainted blood transfusion to treat diarrhea. This was how hospitals made easy money in the 1990s. Local governments were in turn racking up revenues from their illegal blood collection centers, which bought the blood of poor farmers, but which lacked an elementary understanding of hygiene. The practice made Henan the center of a huge AIDS epidemic that began to ravage the province in the mid-1990s, and that may have infected as many as a million people.

A few months later, I was back in Henan, this time to do a story on the infamous illegal brick kilns that dot the countryside. It’s estimated that 1,000 young men have disappeared into these Black Kilns, where they work under grueling conditions without pay and with little food.  I visited kilns in the countryside with nine parents to look for their sons. That first evening, each of the parents took turns going around the dinner table, explaining how their sons had disappeared. As they spoke, they held up small photos of their children, tears flowing down their faces.

One of the saddest stories I reported was the death of Bingjie, a 6-year-old girl in the village of Majiahe, Hunan province. She died from lupus and cadmium poisoning, the latter ailment caused by an electroplating factory that, villagers charged, bribed local environmental officials to certify that it had waste-control equipment. The heavy metals waste from the factory was actually pumped right into the fields, poisoning water, vegetables, and rice. Her father told me how his little girl died in his arms just one day before her sixth birthday.

Some of the stories I encountered were bittersweet.

Yu Xiaolong (Xi Fu) and Paul Mooney, after a dance performance by Yu at Penghao Theater, Beijing, 2012. Yu Xiaolong on his foot-driven motorcycle, Beijing, 2011. Yu Xiaolong performing at the Penghao Theater,Beijing, 2012.

For years, I’d seen Yu Xiaolong (于小龙), nicknamed Xi Fu (希福), in the Jianwai Underpass near my house, where handicapped people sold their wares or begged for a living. Disabled since birth, Xi Fu has difficulty walking, and has almost no use of his hands.

With no viable assistance from the government, he supports himself by selling the calligraphy which he did with a Chinese brush held between his toes. I spent months visiting him in different underpasses. I went to his home in the southern reaches of Beijing to see how he used his feet to put on his shirt and pants, brush his teeth, wash his face and even operate his TV remote control and mobile phone. I was impressed by the way he used his toes to deftly lift a hefty mug of Beijing Beer to his lips or to skillfully wield chopsticks that pinched finely chopped vegetables.

I listened to him tell stories of harassment by Beijing’s notorious Urban Management Enforcement Bureau (城管), whose job it is to keep people like him off the streets, of taxi drivers who refused to stop for him, of the paltry government subsidy for the handicapped that he hasn’t even bothered to collect, and of people who are rude to him because of his disability.

He refuses to accept any limitation. “As soon as anyone tells me I can’t do something,” he once told me, “I’m determined to do it.”

Xi Fu likes music, and despite having trouble walking, he loves dancing even more. I enjoyed watching him perform modern dance with friends from the Beijing Dance Academy (北京舞蹈学院) at several theaters in Beijing. We met often to go to concerts, to sip beers or just to have coffee at a McDonald’s, where he talked about setting up programs to help disabled children.

Despite facing so many obstacles in life, he’s constantly trying to help others. He introduced me to a young Sichuan factory worker whose infant daughter had water on the brain and needed money for medical care—he put on several dance performances to raise money to cover her hospital costs.

Xi Fu also introduced me to Zhang Yonghong (张永红), whom Chinese refer to as a boliwawa (玻璃娃娃), a “glass doll”—so-called because he suffers from brittle bone disease that left him crippled and shorter than normal. The medical term is osteogenesis imperfecta.

On the day we met, Zhang was despondent. His wife had just run off with another man leaving him to care for their 4-year-old daughter, who suffers from a milder form of brittle bone disease.

“She felt we were not going anywhere, and that it was difficult having to spend so much on our daughter's medical expenses,” he told me.

The son of Shaanxi farmers who never had a chance to go to school, Zhang makes a living selling intricately-carved paper cuttings on the rough streets of Beijing. He constantly has to play cat-and-mouse with the police. He was detained once and had to spend a night in a police station. For a period, he lived on the streets, where without a wheelchair he had to drag his broken body to get from place to place. He told me of sleeping in doorways on snowy nights, and of having his hard-earned cash taken from him at knifepoint.

Zhang Yonghong and Tianyu outside his apartment in Beijing, 2011.

With no one to help him, he took his daughter Tianyu (田雨) to an underpass where he worked, tying the little girl to his wheelchair to keep her from wandering off. When people criticized him for doing this, he sent her back to his village to be cared for by his aging parents. “But God! What was I to do?” he says in defense of himself.

Over the next 12 months, I made dozens of visits to Zhang in his various apartments—landlords never seemed to want him around for more than a few months. We had long chats in the soothing courtyard of Beijing’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, where he briefly toyed with converting to Catholicism. The guards would often block him from entering the church grounds to take classes on Catholicism to prepare for baptism because they thought he was there to beg.

I can’t remember how many times I saw him working the streets of Beijing. I would observe from a short distance as people gawked at his small frame or stopped to buy his handicrafts.  Many would stand silently, looking at the large plastic sheet on the floor that told his story. On display were Zhang's recent divorce papers and a photo of little Tianyu lying on a bed crying, casts on both an arm and a leg. The headline proclaimed: “I use my skills to save my daughter.”

I particularly recall one bitterly cold day. Zhang was wearing a pair of children's padded pajamas and several layers of sweaters, his Sponge Bob backpack at his side. People stopped to watch him carve his paper cuttings with a sharp knife, some buying a few pieces, others dropping small bills into a red donation box.

A young man of about 20, with a wispy beard and a woolen hat pulled down over his head to keep warm, stood staring at the paper cuttings. He then bent down and gave Zhang a hug, and whispered something in his ear. I patted the young man on the shoulder as he spun away and thanked him for his kind gesture. He turned to me, tears welling in his eyes, and said somewhat helplessly, “This is my country.”

Zhang invited me to go back to his rural home to celebrate Tianyu’s fourth birthday, and I jumped at the chance.

I wanted to see how he managed to get around. China has little infrastructure for the handicapped, and going from place to place in a wheelchair can be a challenge. I waited for him at the West Beijing Rail Station, worried because he was late and the train would be leaving soon. When he arrived, he explained that he was delayed because he’d had trouble getting his heavy electric wheelchair on a public bus. He asked a traffic warden to help, but the man snapped at him.

“Do you think there's still a Lei Feng spirit here?” the warden asked angrily, referring to the PLA soldier extolled by the communists in the 1960s for his selfless deeds. “There are no more Lei Fengs here. Who's going to help you? Get out of here.”

Hearing this exchange, three passengers got off the bus and lifted the wheelchair onboard.

When we got off the train in Yan’an, we hired a car for the three-hour drive to his mountain village, which has neither paved roads nor running water. He wanted to surprise Tianyu and so did not tell her he was coming. When Zhang was wheeled inside the door of his yaodong, or cave dwelling, Tianyu was lying on a kang, a traditional brick-heated bed found in farm homes. Her leg was bandaged. She smiled when she saw her father enter, and cried as he made a fuss over her.

“I’m happy to be home, but when I see my daughter like this, I feel sad,” he said to me quietly. “God is just not fair to us.”

Zhang Yonghong and Tianyu sitting on the heated kang at the family’s rural home in Shiwan Village, Shaanxi Province, 2012.L-R: Aunt, grandmother, Tianyu, Zhang Yonghong, grandfather sitting at their rural home in Shiwan Village, Shaanxi Province, 2012.

He leaned over and sweetly put his small face against hers as she sucked on a lollipop he brought her. He asked, “Did you miss me?” She gently put her small hand on his and replied excitedly: “I missed you at New Year, when the fireworks were going off.”

“Tomorrow is her birthday and I wanted this to be a happy time,” he told me. “But when I see her like this, I cry inside because I can't let her see me cry.”

The discussion turns to Tianyu's education. There's no school in the village, and so if a school in Yan’an is willing to overlook her disability, someone will have to move there to take care for her.

“If I'm still here, I'll make sure she goes to school,” her grandmother promises. “If they don't accept her, I'll have to think of a way.”

Zhang says he would like nothing more than to have his daughter by his side in Beijing, but he cannot take care of her. He can barely care for himself.

“I love my daughter very much,” he tells me. “Whenever I'm worried, I think about her. I could never lose her. If I didn't have my daughter, I might commit suicide.”

“My dream is that she can be like other children, that she can go to university, and that she can have a stable life,” he says. “If that can happen, my mission will be completed. Then I can die in peace.”

I spent the final weeks of the summer of 2012 traveling around Henan, where the AIDS crisis is still raging. With the help of some friends, I was able to get into AIDS villages, into two AIDS wards in dingy rural hospitals, and into an infectious diseases hospital in Zhengzhou, where dozens and dozens of AIDS patients were seeking treatment.

The government works hard to prevent news of this tragedy from being reported. I was kicked out of one village home by local Party officials who walked in the door just minutes behind me—five of six people in that family had AIDS. I skirted around other villages, where I was warned that swarms of police were on the lookout for journalists, instead meeting AIDS victims in nearby restaurants. I was asked to leave the Zhengzhou Hospital on a quiet Sunday morning after the director realized I’d been there talking to patients for several hours.

I met Xiaolan (小兰, not her real name), a young teenager, who had contracted the disease during birth. Her mother had become infected selling blood and her father from using drugs—both died from the disease and she was left in the care of her aging grandmother.

AIDS victim, who contracted the disease after receiving a blood transfusion during childbirth. Ruicheng, Shanxi Province, 2012.

When I interviewed Ma Guihong (麻贵红) in a rural area of Hebei, who said she’d sold her blood several times a week to cover basic living expenses, I noticed a rough tattoo on her arm. It was the Chinese character ren, or endure. She said she’d drawn it on her arm after she survived a suicide attempt to remind herself that she must never give up.

I saw Ren Zhi, now 18, one last time in the summer of 2012. We met at a small American clinic that examined her for free so that doctors in the United States could decide if she could be helped by a costly new hepatitis medicine. She posed for photos with her mom, my wife Eileen, and me. She was more mature and confident, and she defiantly said that she was no longer afraid of using her name. The doctor told me her AIDS was under control, but that he was worried about the Hepatitis C. The government provides no free help for AIDS victims with hepatitis.

I left China in September 2012, after my journalist visa expired. I was offered a new job earlier this year and I applied for a journalist visa this past March. What normally should take a month or two dragged on for eight months. On November 8, Journalists’ Day in China, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that I’d been refused a visa to return.

No reason was given for the decision, but based on questions asked during a 90-minutes visa interview at the Chinese Consulate in San Francisco this past April, it was clear that the authorities were not happy with my reporting on human rights.

I’ve kept in touch with many of the people I met in my reporting.

Xi Fu can’t type with his toes on his small mobile phone, but we exchange voice messages on WeChat, which is similar to Skype. He often sends me his news or photos of his recent performances.

After my story on Zhang Yonghong appeared in the Post Magazine, generous people in Hong Kong donated around US$10,000 to help him and his daughter. Eileen found a new place for him to work and live so he won’t have to battle bad weather and the police anymore. An architect friend donated her time to design a handicapped-friendly environment for him, and some Chinese and foreign friends have helped him to promote his handicraft business. Zhang never went to school and can’t read or write, but he recently downloaded WeChat to his mobile phone and so we now keep in touch via voice messages.

Xiaolan chats with me at least once a week on QQ, which is similar to Skype. She dropped out of school a few months ago to take a job as a housecleaner in a small hotel. She says her classmates teased her and that teachers did not welcome her. Villagers threw stones at the dilapidated house where she lived with her 80-year old grandmother. It was more than the frail young girl could endure.

I often hear about AIDS victims traveling to Beijing to petition the government for compensation, of one person being harassed by police, another one threatened with a jail sentence, and of hospital visits they made to take care of the many opportunistic infections related to AIDS. When I chatted with one friend recently, he told me that a man I’d interviewed in Zhengzhou last year had passed away a few weeks earlier at the age of 46. I found it difficult to believe that he was gone.

For the past year, I’ve been asked every day by someone when I would be coming back to China. Xiaolan invited me to visit her home and meet her grandmother. Xi Fu repeatedly asks if I’ll be back in time for one of his upcoming performances.

I would simply reply, “Soon.” But as my wait for my visa stretched on and on, I became less and less confident. When the news finally came, I delayed several days before telling my friends that I wouldn’t be returning any time soon, if at all.

They expressed disappointment when I finally told them the news. They find the suggestion that telling their stories could somehow be considered anti-China difficult to grasp. Some of them took my rejection somewhat personally, possibly seeing it as just one more setback for themselves.

In reality, they may be right, because the refusal to grant me a visa is ultimately not aimed at me, and has nothing to do with the objectivity of my reporting. This is rather an attempt to silence the inconvenient stories of Chinese people whose lives show that the Communist Party’s claims about the good quality of life in China today are lies.

A friend recently told me about a Chinese cartoon she’d seen on the Internet that depicted a rooster being strangled. The headline proclaimed: “Dawn will still come, even if you kill off every single crowing rooster.”

The Communist Party needs to recognize this: silencing journalists and bloggers will not hold back the flood of news about what is happening. The troubling reports will only end when the Chinese government takes responsibility and concedes that its misguided policies are the real cause of most of China’s problems.

Paul Mooney

Paul Mooney, an American freelance journalist, reported on China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong from 1985-2012. At various times, he has been on staff at Newsweek, the Far Eastern Economic Review, and the South China Morning Post. He now writes about China from his base in Berkeley, California.