Chinese media are calling 22-year old Zhong Rujiu a heroine, and the real-life version of the 2008 action-crime movie “Connected.” After three members of her family set themselves on fire to stop local officials from evicting them from their home in China’s southeastern Jiangxi Province, Rujiu, a salesperson at a fashion store, and her 33-year old sister Rucui, a Yoga instructor, decided they had to do something.
Zhong Rujiu is the youngest daughter in a family of nine children. The Zhong’s three-story home is located in a suburb of Fenggang Township in Yihuang County, Fuzhou City. Their neighborhood was reallocated for the construction of a railway station in 2007. Since then the demolition of homes and eviction of residents have caused numerous disputes between residents and county officials.
Despite continuous harassment and threats by Yihuang County officials that the family would be evicted by force if they could not reach an agreement, the Zhongs resisted vacating their home even though electricity and water have been cut off since May of 2010.
A neighbor, Pan Junbin, another Yihuan resident whose house was also facing forced demolition told Century Weekly what he witnessed on the morning of Sept. 10 outside the Zhong family residence. He said county officials and a group of over 100 people, including police, and a demolition team, came to the Zhong’s home and tried to force them off their property. He also saw a bulldozer and a red fire engine parked near. In a desperate effort to resist eviction, three family members set themselves on fire, including mother Luo Zhifeng, daughter Zhong Ruqin, and 79-year uncle Ye Zhongcheng.
Ms. Luo, after having set herself on fire, then jumped off the roof of their house. A photo of her burning body falling down was widely circulated by Chinese media and on Internet blogs.
The witness, Mr. Pan, said after the three people set themselves on fire, instead of saving them, the forced demolition team and police simply stood by and watched. They even stopped the family members from helping them.
Subsequently, the three burn victims were taken to hospital and treated in intensive care. However, Mr. Ye died on Sept. 18.
Refuge in an Airport Restroom
On Sept. 16, the two Zhong sisters, Rujiu and Rucui, decided to go to Beijing and take their family’s case to the central government’s petition office. But they did not get far. The local Yihuang County Party Chief, Qiu Jianguo, with a group of more than 40 people, intercepted them at the Nanchang Changbei International Airport.
When the two young women found they were surrounded and about to be seized, they got on their knees and pleaded with airport security and passengers for help. The airport security suggested they go to a police station with the officials, but the sisters refused. Instead they requested to use the lady’s room.
Once locked inside the restroom, Ms. Rujiu used her cell phone to call a Southern Metropolis Daily’s journalist for help.
The story, “Ordeal in an airport lady’s room,” was posted live on microblog by a Phoenix Weekly’s journalist along with the phone numbers of several officials who tried to stop the sisters from going to Beijing.
Soon massive numbers of text messages and phone calls reached Yihuang County officials.
Forty minutes later the two sisters agreed to come out of the restroom after they were sure that reporters had arrived on the scene.
Restrained by the reporters’ presence, the Yihuang officials acted more politely, and the Deputy Mayor of Yihuang County explained to the Zhang sisters why they had to capture them:
“When National Day is approaching, all local governments have to monitor suspicious people and petitioners in their areas and stop them from going to Beijing to appeal,” he said.
“Intercepting petitioners is a required mission. I’m sure you are all aware of it. There’s nothing we can do about it anyway,” he added.
Accompanied by reporters, the two sisters were able to leave the airport unharmed.
The following day, Sept. 17, Rujiu posted a message on her microblog, thanking her growing number of Internet friends. “I am very grateful for your online support,” she said.
Fighting Over a Dead Body
More local government harassment followed the Zhong family, and Ms. Rujiu kept informing people about it in her microblogs.