Taking on the System

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The moment the light went off in the small room in Fenghuo village, Wu Fang knew something terrible was going to happen to her. Three women from the village rushed in, knocked Wu Fang to the floor and began stripping her. Then her husband threw sulfuric acid on her face, chest and thighs. She let out a long cry. The women held her down, rubbing the acid onto her face and breasts, disfiguring her horribly for the rest of her life. Twelve years later she still seeks words for the pain: It was like being thrown into the sky and hurled around. Worse than the memory of the pain is the wall of silence that immediately fell around the village chiefs who were implicated in the attack. Powerful and arrogant, these officials from Fenghuo village in northwestern Shaanxi province have consistently blocked Wu's attempts to bring them to justice. When a Chinese newspaper wrote an article sympathetic to her case in 1996, the village sued for libel—and won in a local court this year. The case has been appealed to a higher court in the provincial capital of Xian, but the paper doesn't expect to win, despite growing interest in the case from lawyers and journalists in Beijing. Everywhere in China there are outside factors that interfere with legal cases, says Wang Weiguo, professor of political science and law at China University in Beijing who has agreed to represent the paper in the libel case in Xian High Court. For centuries China's rulers have struggled with corruption and lawlessness across their empire. Entire dynasties have collapsed after losing control over unruly provincial governors, warlords and self-enriching local officials. Today the Communist Party is facing the same nightmares—rampant corruption by officials at all levels, and growing discontent among ordinary people over the unaccountability of those who rule them. Every month sees protests by farmers or workers against corruption and illegal tax gouging by local officials. So explosive has the problem become that President Jiang Zemin has acknowledged it threatens the future of his government, and has issued edicts to crack down. Last month the nationwide purge netted Cheng Kejie, the former vice-chairman of the National People's Congress, who was executed for taking $4.9 million in bribes for awarding government contracts. Since late last year hundreds of officials have been arrested or questioned in a $10 billion oil-, car- and cigarette-smuggling case in the port city of Xiamen. But despite Jiang's declaration of war on graft, cases involving powerful officials are still frequently held up or dismissed due to lack of evidence. Even Jiang himself is reported to be protecting some of his friends. When the Xiamen case was on the verge of implicating the wife of Beijing Communist Party chief Jia Qinglin, a personal friend of the Jiang family, the President effectively blocked the investigation in January by appearing on television with Jia beside him. The corrosive effects of corruption have bitten deep into China's body politic, and will take more than a few decrees to be washed away. Wu Fang's scars can never be washed away. Her face is ravaged. The acid ate into her right cheek and nostril, and her left eye has no eyelashes. Her right ear was burned off completely—subsequent second-rate surgery has completely covered up the orifice with a skin graft. She hears a constant buzzing and instinctively keeps trying to pick a hole in the skin with her finger. Hair has stopped growing on most of her skull, and she wears a wig to cover her baldness. Her hands are burned from where she tried to shield her face from the acid, and her breasts, stomach and thighs are covered in ugly scar tissue. She was once one of the prettiest girls in the village. After the acid attack her family removed all of the mirrors from her house so she would not see her own face. I tried to kill myself several times after the attack—eating rat poison, climbing over the balcony in the hospital. Her attempts failed, and with her family's help she found the strength to go on. I want justice, she says. I believe heaven's law will prevail.Born in 1958 in Beitun, not far from Fenghuo, Wu Fang left school at 15 to work in the fields. People in Beitun were envious of Fenghuo, which received large subsidies from the central government after it was designated a model village under Mao Zedong's policy in the 1950s of singling out villages, factories and individual workers as exemplary units of production. Fenghuo villagers received better houses, higher incomes and more food. The local Communist Party secretary, Wang Baojing, had been declared a model worker in 1957. He made frequent trips to Beijing, and claimed he had met Mao 13 times. Wu Fang's parents were delighted when a Fenghuo family said they wanted to arrange a marriage between Wu and their son, Wang Maoxing. (Fenghuo has six branches of Wangs, all of them related in some way to one another.) ALSO IN TIMECOVER: When Things Go WrongThe horrific tale of one woman's disfigurement and abortive quest for justice highlights how official misconduct continues to plague society at every level• Don't Go There: The fight against corruption has its limits• Muckraker: The journalist who broke Wu Fang's storySPECIAL SITETIME at the Olympics: Sydney 2000TIMEasia, TIMEeurope, TIMEpacific and TIME.com bring you our take on the first Olympics of the new millennium SUMMER OLYMPICS: NotebookHighs and lows from the Sydney GamesINDONESIA: Doctor's ExcuseSuharto is ruled medically unfit for trial, raising the possibility that he may never be held responsible for alleged misdeedsJAPAN: Up in SmokeOn the eve of a big international conference, the country's anti-cigarette activists try to rally against the tobacco lobby• Taking on Tobacco: Asia starts kicking some buttsJAPAN: Where Harpoons FlyWhale hunting may stir global outrage, but to this proud Japanese village, it's a venerable way of lifeTRAVEL WATCH: Driving Yourself Around the Bend in Bali Wu Fang resisted, but her parents received gifts and money from Maoxing's family and finally in 1981, at age 24, she gave in and got married. The following year she had a daughter, but she quickly discovered that her husband—whom she had not met until they were married—was a layabout and a wife-beater. She did all the work in the fields while he stayed at home, and at night she did some sewing to earn a little extra money for the family. She was also head of the village women's federation, but the harder she tried to make her life a success, the more her husband hit her. The whole village knew he was beating her, says Wang Xingxing, 58, a former assistant to party chief Wang Baojing. They weren't suited. In the village we said it was 'like a cabbage spoiled by a pig.' Wu Fang asked for a divorce several times, but Maoxing refused to give his assent. He said he would rather see me in a coffin than divorce me, says Wu Fang. Finally she couldn't take the beatings any longer, and in 1987 she ran away to Hancheng, a town 250 km away in Shaanxi. She changed her name to Dong Ping and tried to start a new life. Wang Baojing was not in favor of a new life for anyone. As a model worker he was able to rule Fenghuo village like a feudal lord—a centuries-old tradition that survived, even flourished, under communism. If Wu Fang were allowed to abandon her arranged marriage and go off on her own, she could tarnish the reputation of the model village and even endanger the flow of subsidies and loans from the state. It threatened the entire old order. Somehow—Wu Fang does not know how—the village discovered she was in Hancheng. Wang Baojing called a meeting at which the village decided to send two policemen and her husband's elder brother to bring her back. In Hancheng they promised her a divorce if she returned. Wu Fang was skeptical, but she wanted to resolve the matter so she would be free to go back and visit her parents. But when we got back to the village they drove straight past the courthouse where I should have gotten my divorce. Instead they put me in a room in the official village guest house. She realized she had been tricked. That night her husband came to her room. He said I was still his wife and had a duty to serve him. He tried to take my clothes off and have sex—I spent two nights fighting with him. Unable to have his way with her, Maoxing beat her badly. Her room had a lock on the outside, but not on the inside—she was completely at the mercy of the village. On the third night—April 26, 1988—three village officials went into Wu Fang's room with her husband to make one final attempt at reconciliation. That night the atmosphere was quite dangerous, says Wang Xingxing, the assistant to Wang Baojing. There were 300 to 400 people standing in the courtyard outside. The villagers knew something was going to happen. Wu Fang was adamant that she would not go back to her husband, and demanded the divorce she had been promised. The three officials tried to persuade her to reconsider. After one point, Wang Baojing's son, Wang Nongye, entered the room and told the other three officials to leave. After they had walked out, Nongye headed for the door, too. By now Wu Fang could sense the danger, and held onto his legs, begging him not to leave her with her husband. Nongye pulled himself free, and as he went out he switched off the light in the room. It was at that moment that Xingxing, standing outside with the crowd, saw three women rushing in. He remembers it was about 7 p.m. Then I heard a loud scream—'Ma!' I saw the three women beating her, but I didn't know then that they had acid.After the attack someone turned on the light in the room. Wu Fang was lying on her right side in a pool of acid—this is apparently why the right side of her face and her right ear were so badly burned. She was temporarily blinded. Xingxing heard one official telling others to dispose of the burned clothes, and then he realized what they had done to her. Most people in the crowd felt sympathy for Wu Fang's fate, but nobody dared to go in because there were officials involved, says Xingxing. Everyone thought it was too cruel, but nobody would denounce Wang Nongye, because since the '50s they had been trained by Wang Baojing [Nongye's father] not to speak badly of the village. There was little mercy for Wu Fang, even after the attack. Around 9 p.m. she was loaded onto a truck and driven to the district hospital in the small town of Liquan. The doctor there said her injuries were too severe to treat. The village officials then left the semi-conscious—and still untreated—Wu Fang overnight in a bus station. I think they hoped I would die, she says. The next morning they returned, and brought her to the No. 4 Military Hospital in Xian, about three hours' drive from Fenghuo. They left her there with $200 to pay for her treatment. Wu Fang spent a total of seven months in the hospital. The $200 quickly ran out, and her mother went to Baojing to ask for more money to pay the doctors. The party chief turned her away, even after she went down on her knees to beg. Her family sold their belongings and the entire proceeds of that summer's harvest to pay for continued treatment for their daughter. When she was released in December 1988, she had had multiple skin grafts, but the military surgeons still had not been able to lift her appearance above the level of the grotesque. The only thing keeping her alive was her determination to get justice. Wu Fang spent long hours badgering people outside the local courthouse and arguing her case with provincial officials. Her husband had been arrested in 1988, but nobody else had been investigated, and the local court kept returning the case to the prosecutor saying not enough evidence had been collected. Finally in 1991 a member of the provincial people's committee took an interest in her case and complained in public that nothing had been done about it. Shortly afterward, her husband was executed, and his brother, Maozhang, was jailed for providing the acid. The case seemed closed. But they were just scapegoats—the real guilty person is Wang Nongye, she says. When he turned off the light, that was the signal. They had planned it all in advance. All her attempts to have the investigation widened came up against an immovable obstacle—the power of Wang Baojing and Nongye. Wang Baojing is so powerful that if anyone in the village wants a job in the nearby town, he can fix it, says Wu Fang. He has a huge network of patronage—everyone is scared of him and his son. Wang Xingxing, who worked for Baojing for 38 years until he retired in 1996, knows only too well how intimidating his former boss can be. Wang Baojing is the kind of person who eats your food and then breaks your bowl, says Xingxing. He had a falling-out with Baojing in 1997 after the party chief suspected him of informing on one of his aides for beating up Wu Fang's mother. Baojing did not like anyone interfering with his business. As party chief of a model village, Baojing became rich. In Fenghuo's history, whoever got money got it from Wang Baojing, claims Xingxing. When the government set up a cement factory and a paper-box factory in Fenghuo, they became Wang Baojing's family's factories. The financial statements of the factories were never released. For example, I know the cement factory was making a good profit every year, but the village never saw any of it. Wu Fang had almost given up hope of getting justice when she was contacted in 1996 by Lu Yuegang, a Beijing journalist for China Youth Daily. Lu had heard about Wu Fang's story from an acquaintance in Shaanxi. In August 1996 he wrote a story about the case, headlined The Strange Affair of the Destroyed Face. The article questioned why nobody apart from Wu Fang's husband and his brother had been investigated in the case, particularly since witnesses say Wang Nongye was implicated in the attack. Lu's article also cast doubt on Baojing's record as a model worker dating back to the 1950s, during which time, Lu claims, the figures for Fenghuo's grain production were vastly exaggerated. But soon after the article appeared, China Youth Daily found itself subject of a libel suit, brought by three defendants: Wang Baojing, Wang Nongye and the village of Fenghuo. They claimed that Nongye had been unfairly linked to the acid attack, and that Wang Baojing's reputation as a model worker had been seriously damaged. The newspaper retained several top lawyers from Beijing, including Wang Weiguo, the law professor, who also advises President Jiang on legal reform. Wang agreed to take on the case to make a larger point. A strong advocate of law reform, he believes China must have a legal system that powerful individuals cannot interfere with. When I look at the evidence of this case, it is clear Wang Nongye should be a suspect—but he hasn't even been investigated, says Wang Weiguo. But the lawyer quickly realized that the legal system works differently in Shaanxi province. His first lesson came when the plaintiffs demanded $600,000 in damages. When the judge asked why they wanted this amount, the village mayor replied in court that since the article had appeared, the apple trees in the village no longer bore fruit and the chickens had stopped laying eggs. What kind of logic is that? asked the lawyer, incredulous. When the judge failed to immediately dismiss such a line of reasoning, Wang Weiguo saw his chances of winning the case in that court slipping away. His fears were confirmed when Wu Fang was approached by an intermediary of Wang Baojing, offering to pay her $12,000 in exchange for her refusing to testify in court. Wu Fang turned down the offer, but by then she concluded that Baojing was trying to manipulate the legal process. Finally in June of this year the judge found against China Youth Daily, and ordered it to pay $11,000 in damages to the plaintiffs. Wang Baojing declines to comment on Wu Fang's case or the associated libel suit he brought against China Youth Daily. Through a spokesman he said he has no time to answer Time's questions. Wang Nongye did not respond to Time's attempts to speak with him.It has been 12 years since the acid attack on Wu Fang. She has remarried—despite her outward appearance, a man in Hancheng proposed to her. In 1994 they had a daughter, who is now the center of Wu Fang's life. Wu Fang is a resilient, strong woman, but even now she cannot tell her story without breaking down and crying. Her eyesight has never fully recovered from the acid, and she still needs surgery on her corneas as well as corrective surgery to open an aperture for her right ear. In Fenghuo, a cheerless village of 2,000 inhabitants constantly coated with grime from the cement factory, people don't like to talk about Wu Fang. It is so complicated—it is a fight between officials says Wang Wanchun, an apple farmer. Nobody has—or dares to say—a bad word about Wang Baojing. Now 70 and officially retired, his influence still extends from Fenghuo all the way to the provincial capital. Following in his father's footsteps, Nongye was declared a model worker in 1992 and is also an influential party member in the province. Wu Fang has yet to find justice for what happened to her in the village guest house. But for Professor Wang Weiguo, who is still fighting the appeal, the case extends far beyond Fenghuo. If a nation has no feeling of justice, that nation is dead, he says. There are many reformers in China who would like to see their country free of abuse of power by officials who answer to no one. But the acid has bitten deep into the system at all levels, and China needs more than cosmetic surgery to recover.