In December 2012, one homeless man froze to death under a bridge in Changsha, Hunan. On January 3, 2013, also in Changsha, another homeless man met a similar end.
These homeless people — liulangzhe, or “vagabonds,” as Chinese people call them — roam the streets in tattered clothes, scavenging for food. They have no job, no shelter, and no money.
After interviewing various “vagabonds” in Changsha, Dai Peng, a Chinese journalist at Sanxing Metropolis News, discovered that almost no one wished to seek help from jiuzhuzhan, literally “aid stations,” the Chinese equivalent of shelters. They would much rather spend their nights in caves, tunnels, subways, or construction sites, they told Dai.
Curious to see for himself what the dreaded “aid station” was like, Dai disguised himself as a “vagabond” and began his investigation. First, he tried calling an aid station in Changsha, the capital of Hunan province. Each time, the line was either busy or no one picked up. After ten times, he gave up. Then he dialled 110, the emergency number for the police, to seek help. Ten minutes later, two local police officers picked up Dai and drove him to a nearby aid station.
After the police officers left, Dai claims that three workers at the aid station tied him up, knocked him down, and pressed his head down onto the floor with their knees. Forty minutes later, after signing a document that stated he voluntarily relinquishes his right to seek aid, Dai says he was released.
The outcry begins
Upon Dai’s release, Sanxiang Metropolis News tweeted a report about the incident on its Sina Weibo microblogging account, along with a photo of an old man on a stretcher pleading for help as workers at the aid station looked on with indifference. Within twenty-four hours of its appearance, it had been retweeted over 26,000 times and gathered over 5,000 comments.
Some Web users expressed sympathy for the injured. “Before, I did not understand why these people would sleep on the streets, under bridges and in underground passageways, scavenge through trash for something to eat, risk freezing to death, and still refuse to go to an aid station…Now, I know why,” wrote @独木舟葛婉仪. Some lamented the great moral decline this incident seemed to epitomize. “Charity is swindling; offering aid is causing injury. What kind of a world is this,” @五岳散人 sighed in reproach.
Others saw this incident as yet another example of corruption at the local government level. “Is this the type of people local governments breed?! How many other places in the country are just like this?!” user @极品时刻表_李伟锋 exclaimed. “I wonder if the aid station was established in order to [create jobs] to solve employment issues,” another user, @镇猫宝宝, wrote bitterly.
Now wait just a minute…
However, other Web users approach this subject with caution, questioning the authenticity of the report. One user, @光阴的故事V, claimed: “The security video recording of today’s incident was released…The worker at the aid station states that the journalist disguised as a vagabond, stepping back in fear, reached into his pockets, which was bulging out. [The worker] was suspicious that [the journalist] might be hiding something dangerous, so he made him take his hands out. From beginning to end, [the worker] refused [to hurt the journalist]…I suspect the journalist is just fishing for a story.” In response, @马那谁 wrote: “Rumor-starters should all die. The aid station should use the law to severely punish this tabloid!” “You’re all so easily deceived by this shameless journalist,” @Lionel_后面是Lobo wrote.
In response to the Web users’ demand to see videos as proof — “Get the complete video out already,” demanded @宝蓝水蓝—the Weibo account for the Southern Metropolis newspaper (@南方都市报) uploaded a video supposedly showing a security camera’s recording of the incident.
The larger problem
Given that Chinese journalists have been called out for “rampant” fabrication of sensational stories to attract readership, so such skepticism and cynicism are natural. But regardless of whether or not Peng Dai’s particular story was fabricated, one fact remains undeniable: Many homeless wander China’s streets, with very little aid or support.
According to Xinhua News, Chinese leader Xi Jinping “urged local authorities to escalate poverty-alleviation work” in his recent December visit to impoverished villages in Fuping County. In order to cope with the record-low temperatures, civil affairs bureau in giant Guangzhou city established 1,347 shelters to protect its citizens against the biting wind.
Despite such moves, however, 200 million of China’s 1.4 billion people are homeless — and the situation of the Chinese “vagabonds” remains dire.