Why it is important to remember Sun Zhigang

17 April 2013

Ten years ago, a young migrant worker, Sun Zhigang, was brutally beaten to death whilst in police custody in Guangzhou. When the incident was reported by the Southern Metropolitan Daily at the end of April 2003, it caused a national outrage and mounting public pressure forced the newly installed government in Beijing to quickly dismantle regulations controlling the movement of migrant workers in an attempt to prevent a similar tragedy in the future.

The Sun Zhigang incident was perhaps the most important event of 2003 in terms of legal reform to protect the rights of migrant workers. But ask young migrant workers today about Sun Zhigang and most will probably draw a blank. Nor will you see anything in the Chinese media to mark the tenth anniversary of his death. Indeed the only commemorative event that I am aware of was a well-attended conference last Saturday at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

It could be argued that the lack of any commemoration in mainland China reflects the extent to which the lives of young migrant workers have improved over the last decade. Employment opportunities have multiplied, and young workers have much greater freedom to seek work without having to worry about police harassment.

Ten years ago it was a very different picture.  Sun Zhigang, a recent graduate who had just arrived in Guangzhou to take up a job as a designer in a garment company, did not have a temporary residence card as required by law. At that time, the police could detain and deport anyone who did not have a valid residence card back to their home town, and they frequently did so, rounding up suspects in shakedown operations across the city. Sun was beaten to death while awaiting deportation.

Today’s young migrant workers may not face the same threat or dangers as Sun Zhigang but they still have numerous rights issues that remain unresolved. And this perhaps is one of the reasons why the authorities are keen not to remind people of the Sun Zhigang incident. It was more than a personal tragedy; it was a powerful example of how investigative journalism combined with citizen and legal activism could bring about positive change.

Today, with the advent and remarkable spread of Weibo, the potential for citizen and social activism in China has increased substantially, even as the power and influence of traditional investigative journalists begins to wane. Indeed it was social media that came to the rescue of traditional media when journalists at Southern Weekly protested the heavy-handed intervention of local propaganda officials in the publication of the paper’s New Year’s special edition.

As media commentator Xiao Shu noted in the Chinese edition of the New York Times, the Southern Weekly incident and the mass support for freedom of speech it generated caught the authorities entirely off-guard, and they did not know how to respond.  Xiao Shu pointed out that the movement was too broad to suppress. Nor could the protestors be bought off because they had no specific financial or economic grievance to be placated.

It is understandable therefore that the authorities would want to prevent any commemoration of Sun Zhigang, an event that would inevitably highlight once again the courageous journalists of the Southern media group. And this is precisely why we should remember Sun Zhigang: Not only to honour his memory, but to remind today’s young migrant workers what can be achieved when ordinary citizens band together to demand change.

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