Witness to Divorce: A Chinese Judge's Perspective

No. 13

Greetings from Chinarrative. In our second longread of the year, we shift focus to the domestic sphere. What is the state of the Chinese family in the late 2010s? Family judge Zhou Bingyi offers some insight in a candid interview with Southern People Weekly’s Qiu Yuanting. Zhou is the chief judge at the family court of the Yushan District courthouse in the eastern industrial city of Ma’anshan in Anhui Province.

Besides her brutal honesty, Zhou’s account is also remarkable for its rich, revealing anecdotes and blunt policy suggestions for a system that’s still very much evolving. Family court is a relatively new development in mainland China, the first such court having been established only in 2011. Before that, family cases were considered alongside other civil matters.

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Witness to 200+ Divorces a Year: A Chinese Family Judge’s Story

Family judge Zhou Bingyi. Courtesy Southern People Weekly.

I am a judge serving in a local family court. I handle more than 200 divorce cases a year. In other words, I come into contact with more than 200 families on the verge of breakup.

When I first started handling divorce cases, I stuck with the general trend and refrained from granting divorces after the initial petition.

During the first hearing, once the other party challenges the divorce and if circumstances don’t warrant mandatory approval—such as in cases of polygamy or domestic abuse—the judge can start dilly-dallying. Really, he or she can stop listening and go straight to a rejection. That’s the safest move for the judge.

The risks of granting a divorce immediately include threats from either party and a high appeal rate. If a divorce is granted without careful consideration, the fallout might be never-ending.

Many judges figure that anyone who wants a divorce badly can refile their petition six months later, plus an initial rejection is basically expected. Most lawyers and petitioners have already factored it in.

The rejection rate for divorce cases after the initial filing is relatively high in China. When I attended Renmin University’s fourth conference on marriage law last year (2017), a lawyer asked:

Why don’t you judges grant divorces at the initial hearing? What’s your thinking?

I was a speaker that day as well, the first on the schedule that afternoon. I ditched my prepared remarks, offering my views on my work and the relationship between judges and lawyers instead.

Relatively speaking, I am a rather impulsive judge. I’ve granted many divorces after the initial filing. I’ve always been the bad guy (laughter). But I said that day that indeed, many local courts tend to reject initial divorce filings.

The first reason is we’re simply too busy. The current filing system had generated a deluge of cases and the quota system for judges has translated into fewer jurists, which means everyone has to handle more cases. There’s also a time limit on cases. It’s simply impossible to delve deep into a case. An initial rejection is the most hassle-free approach.

The second reason is that some petitioners have acted rashly. An initial rejection gives them time to work on their relationships. We’ve actually run into applicants who initially filed for divorce but ended up heatedly berating us for not suggesting mediation first. I came across a young couple once. One party filed for divorce as a bluff, but lo and behold the other actually agreed, leaving the petitioner dumbfounded.

These are cases that occurred before the recent reforms that implemented a mandatory “cool-down” period before the divorce takes effect. When both parties agree to the divorce, it’s automatically granted. And yet once approval is granted, we face a backlash. “How come you didn’t try mediation?” “Did my spouse pay you off?” “You’re a woman too. How could you do this to me?”

The third reason, which is very important, is that judges and lawyers have different missions, so they look at the same issue differently. A lawyer is advocating on behalf of his or her client to the best of his or her ability, while a judge’s role is to balance competing interests. It’s only natural they arrive at different conclusions about the same case.

The fourth reason is that as “impulsive” of a judge as I am, I am extremely careful when it comes to families that have children. The impact of a divorce case isn’t short-term. More often than not they have profound repercussions on the rest of a child’s life. And these kids will be getting married and having their own children in 10 or 20 years, as they become the driving force behind social progress. Being cautious now is a way of taking responsibility for our future.

The fifth reason is that judges have to look out for their own well-being. Many petitioners don’t consider themselves the main reason for the breakdown in their marriages. Some actually blame the judge for tearing their families apart. Others believe that when a court is biased whenever things don’t go their way, that the judge is in their spouse’s pocket.

“If You Approve the Divorce, I’m Going to Down Pesticide”

The more serious examples of violence against judges in recent years have all stemmed from divorce cases. Headlines like “Petitioner Seeks Revenge Against Judge over Divorce Ruling” can be easily found in a search engine query. There was one such case in Luchuan province in Guangxi Province last year. (Editor’s note: On Jan. 26, 2017, a man stabbed retired judge Fu Mingsheng to death in Luchuan. The man, who physically abused his wife, appeared before Fu on a divorce case. Fu granted the divorce as required by law, but the husband nursed a grudge against him. On Aug. 25 that year, the man was sentenced to death for voluntary manslaughter.)

The worst abuse I have faced is verbal abuse and stalking. Once when a rather fierce-looking woman who had appeared before me asked to see me, I brought along some court documents that didn’t pertain to her case, so I could shield my face in case she decided to pour acid on me.

Luckily, I have escaped unscathed so far. We meet all sorts of characters in court, like Li Yun. All of my colleagues have worked on her case at some point. She is a woman from a farming community whose husband has petitioned for divorce three times.

Li Yun was steadfast in her refusals, saying she loved her husband deeply. Her husband worked in the city and took on a girlfriend. The couple have been living separately for an extended period and didn’t communicate. But Li Yun had heard about a fellow villager whose cheating husband ultimately returned home after getting old, so she was confident her husband would do the same. She also thought getting a divorce was a major loss of face.

In reality, the husband no longer had any feelings for his wife and avoided any contact with her. Li Yun would kick and scream to avoid a divorce. She’s made a scene at the courthouse and the local police station.

She tumbled on the floor in the courthouse’s reception area and broke a glass window at the police station, which led to her arrest for disturbing public order and damage of public property. She called her husband while she was detained, asking him to deliver fresh clothes, but her husband ignored her.

The case was initially handled by my colleague Hou Weijuan, whom we refer to affectionately as Xiao (Little) Hou. Before the initial ruling was handed down, Li Yun visited Xiao Hou with her elderly mother, a bottle of pesticide in hand. She said:

If you grant the divorce, I’m going to down the pesticide.

Xiao Hou was terrified. She was genuinely afraid that Li Yun might drink the pesticide. Caving to the pressure, she ruled against the divorce. Li Yun’s husband filed for divorce again six months later. This time the case was assigned to another judge, but the result was the same.

NYC Migrant Recalls Fleeting Romance, Brush with Chinatown Underworld

No. 12

Happy new year from Chinarrative! We kick off 2019 with the first of what we hope will be many authorized translations from Truman Story, another leading nonfiction platform in China.

Founded by former journalist Lei Lei, Truman Story has an uncanny ability to source tales from the general public, from all walks of life and transform them into succinct, compelling reads with first-rate editing. Lei said in an interview with The Paper published in September that some 30 of their stories are in the process of being adapted for TV or film, with at least seven projects expected to go into production by early 2019.

Zhao Zifu, the author of this week’s longread, first published in October, was a foreign student pursuing graduate studies in Queens in the late 1990s. To help with expenses, Zhao worked as an occasional translator for a local laywer on his pro bono cases, many of which involved characters from the Chinese underworld. It was in this capacity that he met and become romantically involved with Haiyan, an illegal immigrant from a small town near the coastal city of Wenzhou.

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Memories of Haiyan: NYC Migrant Recalls Brief Romance, Brush with Chinatown Underworld

偷渡美国20年,消失在红灯区的女孩
A snow-covered street corner in Flushing. Photo by author.

Flushing

Time appears to be on an endless loop in Flushing. It was yet another Christmas. Without exception, heavy snowfall hits New York City that time of the year and every household is lit up and festively decorated.

Christmas carols played softly in the background on every street, striking a melancholic tone that defies description. Come evening, I had to shut my curtains airtight. I couldn’t bear the sight of snowflakes drifting under the dim, yellow street lights because they reminded me of the past, of her, the illegal immigrant.

It’s been 20 years now. In 1998, I was a graduate student at a university in Queens. It was early morning a few days before Christmas, just after a heavy round of snow. I got a call from my lawyer friend Brian. As was our routine, he identified our destination succinctly—a detention facility on 82nd Avenue in Queens. This time around the case involved armed assault, a felony.

As Brian’s translator, I had met all sorts of Chinese clients—cigarette smugglers, fake luxury bag vendors, snakeheads and Chinatown gangsters. There were quite a few prostitutes too. Asian economies were struggling at the time and many Asian university students were selling sex in Flushing and its vicinity.

Flushing is now a household name within the ethnic Chinese community in America. The area has seen an influx of Chinese immigrants in the past decade or so, especially from mainland China, for whom Flushing has become a foothold on the American east coast.

Some states are relatively lenient on illegal immigrants and thus have attracted them in large numbers and absorbed them into the underground workforce. Yet these undocumented migrants discover upon arrival that life isn’t all that rosy.

Flushing Chinatown is centered at the intersection of Main Street and Roosevelt Avenue. Chinese signs are everywhere in this densely packed neighborhood filled with Chinese supermarkets, restaurants, bookstores and clinics. It’s a picture of prosperity.

Yet in the early 1990s, Flushing was dominated by Korean and Indian immigrants. The opening of the area’s first Chinese supermarket, A&N, led to an inflow of ethnic Chinese residents and the Korean community was gradually exiled to Flushing’s fringes, where Northern Boulevard extends into Long Island.

After the Twin Towers fell on Sept. 11, 2001, the old Chinatown in Manhattan suffered a downturn, which also drove many business owners to Flushing. Standing on the streets of Flushing, you wouldn’t have an inkling that you were in America. This is a safe haven for illegal immigrants.

Shooting

After quickly downing a glass of milk for breakfast, I grabbed my backpack, which contained my laptop and recorder, and headed out. The ground was covered by a layer of pristine white snow. The piercing windshield howled and ruffled white powder from the ground. I instinctively broke into a brisk trot.

When I arrived at the detention center, I saw a tall, slim figure draped in a wool jacket from a distance. The man held a black briefcase under his armpit. Brian had already arrived. Brian was Jewish, in his early 30s and conscientious. He had a soft spot for the underdog. Besides his day job at a law firm, he also did pro bono work, representing clients in need.

After exchanging greetings, Brian gave me a quick briefing. “Jack Li is in trouble again. He threatened someone with a gun. You remember him. Oh, maybe you don’t. He’s the awkward-looking fella who was abused by his boss and sued for damages. The police say he tried to threaten the owner of a liquor store. What he told me when he called was that the owner owes him money and attacked him while he was trying to collect. He said he fired his gun in self-defense, purely as a deterrent.”

The first time I saw Jack Li was on an early spring morning at Brian’s office. Sunlight seeped through the window and illuminated half of his face. Add to that the shadow created by his lengthy hair and he looked like a grim sidekick in a Disney animated film.

Even though he looked very upset on that occasion, he spoke confidently. “Even though I am a regular worker, I have rights. I’ve made up my mind this time. There’s no going back. Please help me. I can’t afford to pay but I will remember your generosity.”

Contrary to what first impressions may have suggested, Jack Li laid out his case in an orderly manner, easily evoking our sympathy as he detailed his grievances.

Jack Li’s real name was Li Baofa. He came from a village just south of the coastal Chinese city of Wenzhou. He used to teach at the village primary school. He smuggled himself to New York City years ago.

Unlike most illegal immigrants who were employed at Chinese restaurants, Li Baofa worked under a fellow villager who was a contractor. He and two others lived in the basement of his boss’ home, only venturing out to work, effectively living as a prisoner. Food and lodging were covered by his paycheck, with the rest going toward repaying the cost of his journey to New York.

Li Baofa quickly became a target because he wasn’t physically up for the job. His boss regularly beat him up and withheld meals. He flashed his teeth and showed us a gap in his lower jaw. “Look—he did this.” He called the police out of desperation.

A verdict was handed down in Li Baofa’s case quickly. His boss was intimidated by the lawsuit, plus he was afraid of acquiring a criminal record. The whole case took less than four months. Li Baofa was awarded $180,000. Minus his legal fees, he came out $120,000 ahead.

The meeting room in the Queens detention center was bright and well-heated, unlike the dark rooms with a lone light bulb dangling above you see in movies. Yet the solid concrete walls and metal door served as a constant reminder that this wasn’t an ordinary room.

Li Baofa started proclaiming his innocence the moment he saw us. “Isn’t debt collection a God-given right? Who would have thought he would pull a fast one on me?”

Perhaps it was nerves or the heating—Li Baofa’s face was sweaty. The severity of the charges seemingly weighing on his mind, he was a bit incoherent. We had to keep interrupting him for clarification.

Li Baofa was convinced that his attacker was a member of a Chinese gang and claimed that his gun was for protection. He said the gun was registered and that he had a permit for it—although he wasn’t authorized to carry.

After taking notes on Li Baofa’s account and asking if there were any witnesses to the altercation or others privy to it, Brian said with a straight face: “I can’t promise a positive outcome, but I’ll do my best.” The usual defense attorney boilerplate.

Refugee Camp to Center Stage: Palestinian Rap Group's Journey

No. 11

Hello from Chinarrative. A few words of gratitude to kick off our final issue of the year: big thanks to our subscribers in our inaugural months as we seek to build our following and reach a broader audience.

Stay tuned for more improvements in 2019. In January, we will be moving to a regular publication schedule of the first and third Fridays of each month. We will also be expanding the list of Chinese publications we source from over the course of the year. In the meantime, happy holidays!

One of our areas of interests at Chinarrative is seeing the world through the eyes of ordinary Chinese people. In this issue, we bring you our first piece in that vein, a profile of the up-and-coming Palestinian rap group Saaleek first published online by The Paper’s Reflections Workshop in October.

Author Feng Shihao majored in Arabic at Shanghai International Studies University and holds a master’s in Middle Eastern studies from Hebrew University. Feng said she was inspired by a veteran journalist who stressed the importance of knowing the local language in international reporting.

She told Chinarrative that even though she didn’t consider herself very knowledgable about the Middle East, she felt acutely that “language was the key to unlocking a different culture, paving the way for deep and accurate observations about local culture and society.”

Reflections is a platform that features the best of Chinese non-fiction writing from around the Web, as well as its own original content.

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Saaleek’s Journey: From Refugee Camp to Forefront of Palestinian Rap

Saaleek performs at the Palestine Music Expo in Ramallah in April. Courtesy author.

Under dizzying lights, the three members of the Palestinian rap group Saaleek strutted their stuff on stage. During the chorus of their song, they raised their right fists and repeated the following refrain: “The sun sets and rises/But we still ain’t free.” Members of the audience also lift their right fists and rap along. There’s a highly ritualistic quality to the scene.

It’s April 2018. The weather in Palestine has already turned mild and warm. The second Palestine Music Expo has just kicked off in the de facto capital city of Ramallah. The three-day festival encompassed Palestinian musicians and artists of all stripes—pop, rock, folk and hip hop. Admission was a mere 30 Israeli shekels ($8) and you could party into the wee hours with the performers.

Ramallah is just some 20 kilometers from Jerusalem, but to get from one to another, you have to navigate the biggest checkpoint between Jerusalem and the West Bank. The two cities are separated by walls. Travelers returning to Jerusalem from Ramallah are subject to stringent security checks. Local cabbies say that during rush hour, clearing the checkpoint can take as long as two hours.

In this modestly sized city, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is always lurking in the background. Scenes of busy daily life unfold before your eyes as vendors hawk their fresh produce in the wet market and calls to prayer are broadcast punctually from local mosques. You can also choose to meditate before the solemn monument on the grounds of the Yasser Arafat Museum and take in the “freedom” graffiti markings on a neighboring separation wall. Locals always greet outsiders enthusiastically, even though their living conditions are poor and their movement is restricted. Yet they are free to love or hate.

Third-world Rap Group

If you’re from a Palestinian refugee camp, that means your life revolves around unemployment, debt and isolation. Ma’en Ozreil, the lyricist for Saaleek, feels as if he was born into a never-ending cycle of debt. At age 21, he’s still helping his father pay off debts—in his own words, he feels that he hasn’t even been able to start his life from “zero.”

Rapping provided him with an outlet. During a visit to a friend’s place, he heard his friend’s brother, Tysser Aka, rap, which began his love affair with the art form. When the two started working together, Ozreil once wrote 120 lines in a day. He also serves as the group’s producer.

When I was growing up, I didn’t have someone to tell me to hold on, but when I tell someone they will reach their zero, I know it helps them to keep going.

As far as Ozreil is concerned, rapping gave him a reason to lead a meaningful life.

Their partner, Mohammad Silwad, was once a street hustler. Before joining Saaleek, he had already been rapping for three years. He incorporates his time on the streets into his work, lending Saaleek a certain gangsta sensibility. Even though he is the quietest of the trio, he is the most energetic performer on stage.

Besides poverty, the trio face the stiffer challenge of personal safety. Qalandia, the refugee camp where they live, is a frequent flashing point in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Founded in 1949, the camp spans East Jerusalem and Area C of the West Bank and neighbors the biggest checkpoint between Jerusalem and Ramallah. Many of its residents used to work in Jerusalem. But after the Second Intifada, the Israeli government added separation walls that isolated Qalandia from Jerusalem completely and many Palestinians have been barred from setting foot on Israeli soil.

As residents of the refugee camp were prevented from making a living, unemployment soared and social instability ensued. Domestic violence, truancy and drug abuse became more widespread. Like many other young Palestinian men and women, the three members of Saaleek have had to endure this depressing and dismal environment.

Self-control is especially important in a community like this. In the absence of jobs and life goals, how does one restrain oneself from letting go and leading a decadent lifestyle? These three rappers told me that they had each fooled around on the streets aimlessly to some extent, but now that rapping had made them idols of the dispossessed, they felt an obligation to set an example, “at least a somewhat decent example.”

That’s why they named themselves “Saaleek,” an ancient term in Arabic that roughly translates as “Robin Hood,” hoping to highlight the kindness and righteousness that characterizes supposed lowlifes who rob from the rich and give to the poor.

They have their own code of conduct, which includes no drugs or alcohol, no petty theft and respect for women. “We don’t do the kind of over-the-top stuff that celebrities do,” Aka said. “If I’m drunk, I can’t possibly write music.”

Sobriety is their basic requirement for themselves. Their agent, Mohammad Deckeideck, added that their goal is to stay away from unhealthy behavior and most importantly avoid hypocrisy, like engaging in behavior that they condemn during their daily prayers.

For Saaleek’s fans, the group resembles a political movement more than a rap act. The group had refused new members on account of their bad behavior. Their fans have also adopted cleaner lifestyles under their influence. Word has it a thief was once inspired to turn his life around after listening to Saaleek’s music.

The three members of Saaleek don’t like calling their fans “fans” and don’t consider themselves “hip-hop artists.” They believe they are artists with a platform. In their minds, Saaleek is a symbol for the entire Third World and all oppressed people and the desire to drag oneself out of the trenches of poverty and lead a better life.

Activists or Artists?

From left to right, Ma’en Ozreil, Mohammad Silwad and Tysser Aka. Source photos courtesy author.

Star Designer's Redo of Para Games Uniform

No. 10

Greetings from Chinarrative. A warm welcome to our returning readers and an even heartier hello to newcomers. If you like what you read, be sure to subscribe and please spread the word.

In this issue, we continue on the theme of disability—with a lighter touch. Outfitting China’s para athletes for opening ceremonies has always been a tall order, given the range of disabilities among the athletes and the competing demands of decorum. For the 2018 Asian Para Games, Chinese officials decided to venture outside the box, turning to star designer Wang Peiyi. For a piece published by Meirirenwu in October, reporter Zhou Qu sat down with Wang—whose clients include Chinese A-list actresses like Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi—for a behind-the-scenes look at his meticulous design process. We also bring you the long-overdue third and final installment of Southern People Weekly’s profile of secondary school dropout Jiang Bo.


Star Designer’s Para Games Uniform Makeover

The Chinese contingent makes a dashing entrance at the opening ceremony for the 2018 Asian Para Games in Jakarta on Oct. 6. Courtesy Meirirenwu.

Sitting in his office, Wang Peiyi kept his eyes fixed on his phone as he watched a video of the Chinese para national team. With its blue-and-white tones and sleek lining, their team uniforms looked especially eye-catching—and strikingly unlike the uniforms of years past.

It was Wang who had designed their attire for the opening ceremony. Before that, he had made a name for himself in fashion, often mentioned in the same breath as Gong Li, Gao Yuanyuan, Yang Mi, and other A-list actresses. He was even hailed as "China's groundbreaking designer" and "the red-carpet designer for top actresses."

Now Wang Peiyi would be crossing over from fashion to a different world: the world of sports. At past Para Games, athletes from other countries had drawn global attention for their opening ceremony uniforms. Some have likened the Olympic opening ceremony to Milan Fashion Week due to the significance of the uniforms. They had to be nothing less than functional and stylish while conveying an image of the country. But its success or failure hinged completely on the designer, and the Games also served as a platform for a competition between designers.

At the 1992 Summer Olympics, Lithuania’s team uniforms were designed by Japanese designer Issey Miyake, who decked them out in metallic baseball caps and drawstring caped jackets. Still hailed as a classic today, that ensemble was a perfect blend of Lanvin menswear and Hood By Air’s street style. Meanwhile, Giorgio Armani dressed the Italian team in sharp formal wear and athletic wear, reinforcing his country's status as the fashion capital of the world, whereas Ralph Lauren produced a simple, clean, naval-style uniform for the American team.

Yet when China joined the Para Games for the first time in 1984, the athletes wore borrowed uniforms. Then the color of "China red" started taking over clothing, spanning everything from red ties to red suits to red dresses. The use of red and yellow hues was so predominant by 2008 that people jokingly likened the color scheme to "stir-fried eggs and tomatoes," a popular, homestyle Chinese dish.

Chinese athletes enter the Bird’s Nest stadium at the 2008 Beijing Olympics clad in their classic yellow-and-red color scheme, mockingly compared to ‘stir-fried eggs and tomatoes.’ Courtesy Meirirenwu.

But given his artistic ambition, Wang Peiyi refused to settle for anything so trite. He began by reconsidering the color scheme of the uniforms "because color and pattern leave the deepest visual impressions” and then boldly decided to retire the traditional red-gold pairing, saying:

These two colors are too hard to wear well. If models can't pull it off, then normal people don't stand a chance.

Instead, he wanted a dual palette that could convey a strong spirit and opted for dark blue.

That color was then paired with white pants and other design elements to create a sense of liveliness. For instance, white lines were threaded on the edges of the dark outerwear to make the colors pop, while the two-sided slit on the back of the jacket complemented the waistline. Gender designations were inherent in the uniforms as well: the men's uniforms had a single row of double buttons, and the women's version had a double row of single buttons. Lastly, Wang chose white buttons for added effect.

The tie was the central visual element. Its red-and-blue colors enhanced the red national emblem pinned onto the uniform, and its stripes, coupled with a crisp white shirt underneath, broke through the monochromatic blue scheme. The athletes' leather shoes capped off the entire uniform with a sense of stateliness.

Close-up of Chinese athletes donning Wang Peiyi’s design at the opening ceremony for the 2018 Asian Para Games in Jakarta on Oct. 6. Courtesy Meirirenwu.

Simple as it might look, the uniform is actually a testimony to the designer's hard work and effort. Every detail of the design has a direct impact on the overall style.

Wang's colleagues often found him "too stubborn" because he would push them to work until they shouted, "It's good enough!" But Wang would not settle for "good enough." Taking no pains to gloss over his own prominence, he said:

It has to meet my exact standards. I need to be proud of the clothes that bear my name.

Indeed, many celebrities clamor for the opportunity to be dressed by Wang. Actress Gao Yuanyuan asked Wang to design a black strapless dress for her. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon star Zhang Ziyi was wearing one of his jumpsuits when she accepted an award at the Hong Kong Film Awards. When actress Yang Mi married Hong Kong actor Hawick Lau in Bali, she was draped in a Wang-designed, half-sleeved wedding dress.

But athletes and celebrities have different styles: the latter sophisticated, the former simpler.

"I sometimes joke with (the actresses) that something has to give. If you want to look stylish, then you have to bear the discomfort," Wang said. The designer, however, who was born in the 1970s, prefers to wear torn jeans and black baseball tops in his everyday life.

The manual work that goes into designing red carpet looks is complicated, involving irregular cut-outs, custom tailoring, and ample amounts of crystals, embroidery, lace, and sequins. Wang usually spends several months’ time designing a single gown, while his assistants work eight hours each day adding beads, sequins, or rhinestones by hand.

With this particular design project, though, Wang had to start from scratch. Simplicity was key, and although there was no complex ornamentation, the uniforms still reflected his design principles, through and through. But aesthetics could not come at the cost of comfort, so he used spandex for the uniforms to allow for flexibility.

Wang also had to pay close, equal attention to functionality and detail in designing uniforms for athletes with physical disabilities. The male athletes wore pants that had a custom-designed elastic waist belt, and their ties were easy to remove to save them from having to knot it by hand.

During their measurements, some athletes were sitting in wheelchairs and some were lying down. Some had uneven shoulders or impairments in their arms. Wang's team needed to take note of these different body types when placing uniform orders. They had to use looser dimensions and make adjustments to accommodate the athletes.

Father Was His Gentlest on Road to Orphanage

No. 9

Greetings from Chinarrative!

In this issue, our single, longread investigates the lives of disabled customer services representatives who work for e-commerce giant Alibaba’s Taobao platform. The story was first published in September in Renwu, a leading nonfiction platform in China.

While the piece does contain some glowing references to the company, founder Jack Ma, and its Singles’ Day mega shopping festival, that doesn’t change the facts nor the essence of the subjects’ stories, and the piece offers rare insight into the plight of China’s disabled poor.


Father Was His Gentlest On Road to Orphanage

Liu Xiang takes the elevator at the headquarters of the Henan Disabled Persons' Federation in July 2018. Courtesy Renwu.

After some basic washing up in the morning, Liu Xiang donned a red jacket and rolled her wheelchair into the sunlit corridor.

Polio had completely distorted her spine into an “S” shape. Her bladder was also damaged. Even sitting still for an extended period was very painful. But as far as Liu Xiang was concerned, the moment she pushed through those doors and entered the computer-filled office of Taobao online customer service representatives, she was no longer the least fortunate person in the room.

Alibaba set up an online customer service operation for its Taobao website in 2010 with an eye toward providing part-time employment for university students. But soon executives noticed that the physically disabled faced an uphill challenge landing jobs and so they expanded their recruitment.

Liu Xiang’s colleagues started filing in. They were collectively known as the “special” online reps. One had suffered major burns and another could only maneuver two of his fingers. A third colleague couldn’t lift his arms and could only type by cradling his keyboard in his lap. A fourth lost his arms in an accident and typed with his feet.

Pleasantries were exchanged, followed by the sound of typing. Liu Xiang turned on her computer, logged in and clicked on a flashing window to type her opening greeting:

“How do you do, dear? Happy to be at your service.”

Human Waste

Born in Xinyang Village in Henan province, Liu Xiang contracted polio when she was 3. Her legs started shriveling like dying branches. Soon she could only wiggle on the ground by latching onto a small stool.

When she was old enough to understand speech, she once overheard an elder in the family tell her father: “Her legs are immobile. All you have to do is fill up a basin, dunk her in the water and press her head down…”

Her father didn’t take the advice, but his disgust grew by the day. Liu Xiang was followed by another girl and her mother was chronically ill. The immense pressure turned her father, who was kind by nature, into a tyrant. Liu Xiang was called a “cripple” who drew a tongue lashing for merely making a sound, saying:

I was either being beaten or scolded all the time.

The year Liu Xiang turned 9, her father decided to give her up for adoption, so he could get government approval to have another child.

On a dark night, Liu Xiang’s father carried her on his back and took her for an extended trek in the mountains. He said he was taking her somewhere that was better than home. She could even get an education there.

Liu Xiang’s father was unusually tender during the trek. Lying on her father’s back, Liu Xiang felt a sense of security she had never experienced before. Her father whispered:

Are you sleepy? If you are, go ahead and take a nap.

The “better place” turned out to be an orphanage.

After her father abandoned her, he told his fellow villagers that the “cripple” had died. After spending several months at the orphanage, she was returned to her parents when local police intervened.

Somehow Liu Xiang survived until her 16th birthday, when she left her village for the first time. Her family used their savings to buy her an electric tricycle, so she could become a cabbie in a neighboring town.

The city was another form of torture. Her fellow cabbies were mostly healthy and able men. They could help their passengers with their luggage and open doors for them—tasks that were impossible for Liu Xiang. She was frequently bullied. Some fellow cabbies tried to steal customers from her by standing next to her tricycle.

Back then there were few disabled-friendly facilities in the city. Liu Xiang had no choice but to visit the bathroom once in the morning and once in the evening. The practice took its toll on her bladder over the years, eventually leading to incontinence. She has worn adult diapers since then.

Even scam artists who staged fake accidents liked to target her. The worst case was when a repeat offender rammed into Liu Xiang’s tricycle on purpose and faked a seizure. He demanded 1,000 yuan (around $144). Liu Xiang, 16 at the time, was a greenhorn and thought she had actually injured someone. She was terrified. Thankfully, sympathetic onlookers helped talk the scam artist down. Liu Xiang eventually paid out some 500 yuan, a month of her earnings.

Liu Xiang’s marriage didn’t fare much better. When she was 20, a matchmaker introduced her to her husband, a man with an amputated left leg 17 years her senior. Liu Xiang never fantasized about genuine romance. “I knew what I had to offer, so I didn’t go there,” she said. The couple married 13 days after they first met.

After their wedding, Liu Xiang realized her husband was a gambling addict, even betting away their welfare payments. Liu Xiang could only raise her daughter on her meager earnings from tricycle cabbing.

At age 26, Liu Xiang gave birth to her second daughter. She had no choice but to bring her two kids to work. Her older daughter sat in her back seat while she simply tied her younger daughter to her body with a scarf.

There’s Always Worse

Just as Liu Xiang’s life was poised for a downward spiral, a friend who worked at the local disabled persons’ federation told her that there was a training center for those with disabilities at the provincial capital of Zhengzhou that prepared students for careers as Alibaba customer service reps. You could even work from home, the friend said. Liu Xiang was skeptical but decided to check it out.

Dozens of disabled workers attend a training session for aspiring Alibaba online customer service reps at a facility in Zhengzhou's Zhongmou County. Courtesy Renwu.

Wang Shaojun, the founder of the training center, was also disabled. He was diagnosed with fibula muscular atrophy when he was 17. This is a progressive illness that gradually shuts down motor function, saying:

Last year I could still cut my fingernails. This year, I can’t use my right hand to cut the fingernails on my left hand.

Wang Shaojun became a successful businessman, but there was nothing he could do about his crippling disease. He tossed and turned the night his son was born and resolved to do “something meaningful” so his son would be proud of his father when he grew up.

First, Wang Shaojun set up an online forum for the disabled. In 2008, due to his charitable efforts, he took part in the torch relay for the Beijing Olympics. In 2015, Alibaba and the disabled persons’ federation in Henan set up a program that placed the disabled in online customer service positions. Wang Shaojun realized that was right up his alley, so he built a training center on a 7.2-hectare garden he owned and started offering free tuition for disabled job seekers.

The “special” customer service reps performed similar duties to regular representatives. They mainly assisted Taobao members with tasks like how to obtain refunds to how to set up an online shop. But unbeknownst to the customer, their service rep might be typing with a single finger or his or her toes. Even though that was a challenge, it was still easier and more comfortable than other types of physical labor, so the job was popular among people with disabilities.

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