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The Story of Wang Lianxi

June 4, 2009

Hou Jie

In 1989,Wang Lianxi, a mentally impaired sanitation worker in Beijing, was convicted of burning military vehicles. He explained later that he acted because he felt that soldiers firing on unarmed students was unfair. His sense of fairness earned him a death sentence that was commuted to life imprisonment. Eighteen years later, Wang was released from prison but no longer had a wife or parents. In July 2008, he lost his freedom again as the pre-Olympics cleanup effort in his neighborhood landed him in a psychiatric hospital. Through this poignant portrait of an ordinary and apolitical man, writer Hou Jie, who was himself imprisoned for his activities in 1989, reminds us that, ultimately, it was ordinary Beijing residents like Wang Lianxi who paid the heaviest price for the events of 1989.

North of Xizhimennei
Avenue in Beijing’s
Xicheng District, in one of
the small buildings belonging to
Ping’an Hospital, there is a bed
in a busy corridor. A gaunt middle-aged man with grizzled hair
sits hunched on the edge of the
bed. His face is frozen in a stupefied
smile as he strains to listen
to what people are saying. He
occasionally interrupts to ask
that they repeat what they had
just said. He doesn’t do this
because he is hard of hearing,
but because his powers of comprehension
can’t keep up with
the speed of people’s speech.

His name is Wang Lianxi. He
turned 54 this year. Since July
2008, he has spent eight months
in this bed.

Ping’an Hospital specializes in
psychiatric disorders, but Wang
Lianxi is not a mental patient.
Doctors have evaluated him as
being somewhat slow intellectually
and slow to comprehend,
but this is not at all the reason why he has been confined
here. The real reason is his peculiar status: Wang
is a “June Fourth hooligan,” released after serving his
prison term.

Ping’an Hospital specializes in psychiatric disorders, but Wang Lianxi is not a mental patient.

Looking at him, you would never think of him as a hooligan.
He is good-natured and easygoing. He speaks hesitantly,
with a lisp. In 1989, he was
a worker with the Beijing Xicheng
District Sanitation Bureau, and in
spite of his slow-wittedness, he
led a fairly happy life. He was
even married. Nobody would
have imagined that this simpleminded,
dim-witted guy, always
half a beat behind everyone else,
would get swept up in the political
storm of 1989.

Wang Lianxi’s crime was burning
military vehicles. Seven others
were charged with the same crime,
but those seven received death
sentences that were swiftly carried
out. Wang’s life was spared—his death sentence commuted to life imprisonment—because
upon evaluation, the judicial
establishment concluded that he
had a mental handicap or defect.

So it came to pass that after 18
years of incarceration, this mentally
challenged or handicapped
man, the only “June Fourth
hooligan” to survive, returned to
society.

Why did an ordinary sanitation worker, a city resident
at the very bottom of the social scale, get involved in a
political incident? Sitting on the edge of his bed, Wang
Lianxi cannot explain it himself. All he can say is that
when he saw soldiers open fire on completely unarmed
students, he thought it was unfair. He got mad and
threw himself into the fray. Unfair—this was the fundamental
judgment of right or wrong made on the cusp
of summer in 1989 by a man deemed mentally handicapped
by judicial evaluation.

People often talk about “popular sentiment,” but what
does it really mean? Popular sentiment is the ability of
an ordinary person to discern right from wrong without
specialized knowledge, the ability of a person like Wang
Lianxi to make an ethical decision without a high IQ.
On that night 20 years ago, the popular sentiment of
Beijing residents was expressed very directly and somewhat
desperately. They used their own bodies, their flesh
and blood, to block military vehicles and troops, thus
expressing their popular sentiment and support.

Why did an ordinary sanitation worker, a city resident at the very bottom of the social scale, get involved in a political incident?

On that night, who knows how many ordinary Beijingers
of good conscience, who had no understanding
of politics but had a basic sense of right and wrong,
joined in the fray like Wang Lianxi to protect the students
and see justice done? Some were brought down
by the bullets; some were jailed and executed; some got
heavy prison sentences. Many hadn’t figured out the
politics of it even as they were dying.

Wang Lianxi’s intellectual development may have been
slow or stunted, but he had his own moral judgment.
He thought that opening fire on unarmed students was
wrong, and so he sacrificed himself to block the army.
The hearts and minds of ordinary people are like a balance
that can be tipped by the weight of popular sentiment.
Popular sentiment inclines not toward what you
say, but what you do. If 20 years ago the students had
simply shouted slogans but had not gone on hunger
strike, they would not have moved the hearts of ordinary
Beijingers like Wang Lianxi.

The price paid by this man, whose mental faculties are
impaired but whose innate knowledge of right and
wrong is normal, was heavy. His death sentence was
commuted to life imprisonment. But when he regained
his freedom after being locked up for 18 years, his parents
were dead, his wife had divorced him and remarried,
his house was demolished, and he had become a
homeless vagrant without a family.

June 4, 1989 changed the fates of many people. If it
hadn’t been for that movement, Wang Lianxi and the
students in the square would never have crossed paths,
and their fates would have been completely different.
Because of that night, Wang Lianxi and the students
did cross paths, but their fates have been different
nevertheless.

There is no doubt that the penalties meted out by the
government to ordinary citizens were much more
severe in comparison to those imposed on students and
intellectuals. Only ordinary Beijing residents got the
death penalty or life imprisonment. The fates of those
who did regain their freedom and returned to society
have likewise been different because of disparities in
knowledge, intelligence, and personal resources. The
Wang Lianxis lack special skills; they seem to have no
choice but to sell their physical strength to make a living.
They continue to struggle at the bottom of society.
What differentiates them from other people is the cross
of politics that they have been made to bear. The barriers
of knowledge and intelligence have made these formerly
ordinary Beijingers discover that they no longer
have a way to establish themselves in this society; they
have become social outcasts.

On his release from prison, Wang sensed that he was
one such outcast. On August 1, 2007, following his
release, the neighborhood committee arranged for him
to live in a conference room in the District Bureau of
Justice. Six months later, he was settled in a small room
and given a monthly subsistence allowance of around
350 yuan [$51].

On that night, who knows how many ordinary Beijingers of good conscience, who had no understanding of politics but had a basic sense of right and wrong, joined in the fray like Wang Lianxi to protect the students and see justice done?

Anyone who has lived in Beijing might ask, how can a person who has no family, no place to live, and who is unable to earn a living survive in Beijing on those 350 yuan—especially a person like Wang Lianxi whose mental capacity is impaired or deficient? Wang Lianxi, money in hand, went looking for a grain store to buy rice. He looked everywhere, but he found no trace of a grain store. People told him there were no grain stores anymore, no grain coupons or grain rationing books either. He found a small privately run rice shop. Looking at the bags of rice, he said: “I don’t want unprocessed rice; I want polished rice.” The proprietor gave him a strange look wondering: “What age is this guy from? Who’s got polished rice anymore? It’s all unprocessed now.”

Boarding a city bus, he wanted to buy a 5 fen [$0.007] ticket. The conductor, too, gave him a strange look, saying, “If you have a card, swipe it. If you don’t, pay for a single fare. The lowest is one yuan.” One yuan? In 1989, Wang Lianxi’s monthly wages had been just over 50 yuan.

The June Fourth incident of 20 years ago has become a symbol of the disposition of public sentiment.

350 yuan, the monthly allowance, was just enough for Wang not to go hungry. In prison, he was never fed meat. Every day he dreamed of eating meat when he got out. He got out, but the high price of pork meant that he still could not eat meat. Because of poor nutrition, Wang had low blood sugar and was often so dizzy he could hardly stand straight. He had no money for a bath or for new clothing. He roamed the streets everyday in the same filthy outfit. In July 2008, as the Beijing Olympics drew near, the neighborhood committee, concerned with protecting the Olympic image, sent him to Ping’an Hospital for Psychiatric Disorders, where Wang Lianxi settled down in the corridor.

At Ping’an Hospital, Wang Lianxi’s food and shelter needs are taken care of, as are his bathing and clothing. The government has resolved his “subsistence issues” due to its professed humanitarian commitment. But after being locked up for 18 years, Wang Lianxi has discovered that he has once again lost his freedom. The psychiatric hospital strictly limits patients’ movements, and although Wang Lianxi is not mentally ill, the hospital administration treats him as though he is. From the time he entered Ping’an Hospital in July 2008, Wang Lianxi has endured another eight months of his life without freedom.

“I’ve got to get out. Being stuck in here is not a solution!” Wang Lianxi, ingenuous and to the point, mutters this to everyone he meets. He seems to expect that everyone he meets will be able to help him get out of there.

But how will he support himself once he gets out? Start a small business? His intelligence isn’t up to the task. Wang Lianxi says that his greatest hope is to find a job as a sanitation worker, which is what he did before. Today, he has no job skills; his only asset for survival is his physical strength.

Everyone says popular sentiment is valuable. So, how do we express this then? Are Wang Lianxi’s sentiments valuable as well? Should we care about Wang Lianxi to the extent of giving him material assistance?

Xu Yonghai, a psychiatrist who used to work at Ping’an Hospital, is one of Wang Lianxi’s most active advocates. Since he’s familiar with the hospital authorities, he often goes there to visit Wang Lianxi and bring him fruit and food. Wang Lianxi, who sleeps in the hospital corridor, has sufficient food and shelter, but he needs freedom; he needs to get back his former home. Xu Yonghai constantly makes appeals to overseas groups for humane care of those who received the heaviest sentences as a result of the June Fourth incident, those ordinary people at the bottom of society who are now in desperate straits because of their political naïveté—not only as an expression of humanitarian concern, but in order to show how one should deal with public sentiment and public opinion.

The June Fourth incident of 20 years ago has become a symbol of the disposition of public sentiment. In a sense, Wang Lianxi, sleeping in his hospital corridor, has become a symbol of the disposition of public sentiment, too. Through him, people are watching to see how the government treats a person’s “right to life.” Perhaps they are also watching to see how the dissident community uses his case to handle the issue of “popular sentiment”?

Translated by J. Latourelle

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