Could a Hunan hawker be the one to ignite China's very own Arab Spring?

Can the death of a Chinese watermelon seller trigger the same tidal change that the death of a vegetable vendor in Tunisia did across the Middle East?

PUBLISHED : Friday, 19 July, 2013, 4:11pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 July, 2013, 8:27am

On Wednesday night in Linwu county, Hunan, riot police clashed with hundreds of unarmed protesters. Two days later, photos of men and women in blood-soaked clothes, some crying, some livid with anger, are still among those most shared on Chinese microblogs.

The clash, triggered by the arbitrary and brutal killing of 56-year-old watermelon seller Deng Zhengjia on Wednesday, has caused nationwide outrage that has yet to dissipate into the usual fatalism.

One netizen compared the Hunan watermelon seller’s fate to that of the Tunisian vegetable vendor Mohamed Bouazizi, whose vegetable cart was seized by police in Sidi Bouzid in 2010. In desperation, he set himself on fire. His death triggered the fall of Tunisia’s authoritarian regime of Ben Ali and those in three other countries, so far.

The Global Times in its editorial on Friday rushed to argue that “personal qualities” of several individual chengguan (members of the urban management force) were to be blamed for the deaths. It had “nothing to do with the chengguan system,” it said. “Their method was not mature.”

China’s online community, the closest thing the country has to civil society, hasn’t stopped talking about the watermelon seller. Many have blamed the system, far beyond the chengguan system, for Deng’s death, how the local government handled the situation and how it dealt with the protesters.

The ongoing debate has proven the Beijing-based daily wrong in a way that is deeply uncomfortable to the Communist Party mouthpiece.

The local government issued a statement saying that Deng had “suddenly fallen to the ground and died” not because of some rogue chengguan’s “personal qualities”, neither did these individual shortcomings make authorities seize the body to suppress evidence of the murder.

No single chengguan’s “personal qualities” could have convinced newspapermen in Beijing to write an apologetic editorial.

The death of a street peddler is no solitary incident, neither is the denial of a murder by thugs in uniforms or the disappearance of a victim’s body.

There is a “logic behind snatching corpses”, Sohu writes in a special page dedicated to the problem: authorities have previously tried to make sure these aren’t used by the victims’ relatives as “evidence and a bargaining chip”.

“Look here, chengguan just beat another one to death” is the eerie title of Sohu’s dedicated website. One incomplete list in a widely-shared infographic, which has since been censored from microblogs, documented eight such cases over the past four years.

What enraged many who commented was that farmer Deng, as far records show, had not engaged in politics or challenged local powers in any way, except for his wish to make a normal living.

Many accept that the way to ensure a normal life in China is to be politically silent. But the injustice of arbitrary attacks on citizens who just seek to make a living and the system’s failure to correct itself are provoking anger.

“This farmer called Deng Zhengjia lives on a mountain,” liberal writer Li Chengpeng wrote in a microblog post that was the most widely shared post on Sina Weibo on Thursday night.

“He wants his melons to be a little bit sweeter, just to make a little bit more, he tries to sell them fast, so that he can rush home for dinner. That is his Chinese Dream,” he wrote in the post that as of Friday has been shared more than 142,000 times.

Li referred to President Xi Jinping’s new slogan, the Chinese Dream, which Xi first used in November. Party intellectuals have rushed to define the slogan as a new social contract that binds China together in ways different from the American equivalent or mere “stability maintenance”.

“You better start protecting a watermelon farmer’s dream,” writes Li Chengpeng. “Then we can sit down and talk about what that Chinese Dream is.”