Wang Guilan was a stall-holder in Enshi city's Wuyang Shopping Mall. When official plans were announced in the spring of 2001 for its demolition and conversion to other commercial uses, she signed a document agreeing to relinquish her stall for an agreed amount of compensation. When the terms of the agreement were not fulfilled, she decided to take the shopping mall management to court, paying a sum of 710 Yuan in court fees. However, the court failed to secure Wang's compensation, and intervention by the municipal government was suspected. When Wang went to the court to follow up on 22 November 2001, a group of court police officers crudely insulted and humiliated her outside the courthouse. Already emotionally fragile from her ordeal, this taunting led Wang to what can only be described as a nervous breakdown. She returned to the courthouse with a can of petrol and poured it over her head. The same officers, rather than stopping her, encouraged her to set herself on fire; unfortunately, she listened to them.
The fire not only disfigured her horribly, but destroyed the life of her family. Her husband divorced her, and her daughter (a graduate of the local police college), was forced to resign from the police force and take up employment in a distant city. Still, Wang would not give up. After receiving preliminary medical treatment and making an initial recovery, she traveled twice to Beijing to lodge complaints with the central government authorities. Both trips were in vain. At the same time, a local government controlled newspaper published several false and unfair reports designed to discredit Wang.
It was at this point that CLB became involved with Wang Guilan. We began by assisting her prepare a defamation suit against the newspaper, both through personal legal advice and by drafting a letter on her behalf to the newspaper; this extended the judicial deadline for actually filing the lawsuit by two years. Next, CLB contacted Lu Jinshi, the vice secretary of the Enshi Municipal Politics & Law Committee. Lu agreed to set up an investigation group for Wang Guilan's case and pledged that he would find a solution by 20 March 2004. He also urged CLB not to publicize the case in any way. In the interests of securing the local government's cooperation, we agreed to this negotiating condition; it was clear that the authorities' fear of seeing the true details of Wang's self-immolation appearing in the news media, especially the photographs of her injuries, was our strongest bargaining chip. We also persuaded Wang Guilan to be patient and await the government's response. CLB and Wang agreed that we would postpone any decisions on publicly reporting the case or proceeding with the lawsuit until after the government had made its next offer.
On 21 March, CLB learned that the municipal government had agreed to pay the full medical costs of the prolonged remedial and cosmetic surgery treatment that Wang would need to undergo in Beijing. Though an excellent first step, CLB felt that the government should go further still, as Wang Guilan had permanently lost her capacity to work. In addition, a large quantity of pharmaceutical goods from her stall at the shopping mall had been forfeited or damaged as a result of the protracted dispute with her former employer.
China Labour Bulletin's overall strategy in the case was to convince the Enshi government that it was in its best interests to be cooperative (thus avoiding negative publicity that might adversely affect foreign investment to the city). We continued to drive home CLB's good faith in conducting the negotiations on Wang Guilan's behalf, including our willingness to avoid publicity if satisfactory compensation could be secured. Our strategy proved effective. After protracted negotiations by CLB's in-house lawyer and the local authorities, including the local People's Congress and senior Communist Party officials, the Enshi government eventually agreed to both pay Wang's medical fees and offer her a basic livelihood and disability allowance for the rest of her life, including a salary for a personal caregiver for the period of her convalescence. Further, they agreed to partially compensate the loss of her pharmaceutical goods (a sum of 60,000 Yuan in compensation for her total loss of 110,000 Yuan.)
However, at this crucial stage in the negotiations, Wang Guilan began insisting on an "all-or-nothing" approach, demanding to be compensated for the full amount of her lost and damaged goods. Circumstances surrounding the remaining 50,000 Yuan worth of goods were dubious, as they had been left in the mall and later disappeared during the building's demolition. We felt that Wang was acting against her own best interests in demanding full compensation, and advised her that the entire compensation package might be placed in jeopardy.
CLB realized that Wang's thinking was likely clouded by her medical condition, and convinced both parties in the matter to avoid making any hasty decisions. After further negotiations with both parties, an agreement was reached. The Enshi government offered Wang the following terms: Full payment of all her medical bills, including for extensive skin-graft surgery and other cosmetic operations (estimated at around 200,000 Yuan), 60,000 Yuan in compensation for her lost goods, and enrollment in an early retirement scheme that would pay her a monthly pension every month for the rest of her life. Wang agreed to these conditions, and was shortly thereafter taken to a hospital in Beijing, where she began receiving medical treatment for her injuries. To date, the government has paid all of the medical bills on time, and it has also paid out the first installment of the 60,000 Yuan compensation package. In addition, Wang started receiving her disability retirement pension in May 2004. As Wang Guilan is still considering pursuing her defamation lawsuit against the newspaper, CLB will keep the case open and active for as long as she needs our assistance.