Workers’ hero hobbled by petty officials

13 December 2012

Three years ago, a young rural labourer from Henan named Zhang Haichao became a national celebrity after voluntarily undergoing open-chest surgery in order to prove to the authorities that he had the deadly occupational disease pneumoconiosis.

This remarkable act put enough pressure on the local government and his former employer, an abrasive materials factory near the provincial capital Zhengzhou, to compensate him for the terrible damage to his lungs caused by years of breathing in mineral dust. Zhang was awarded 615,000 yuan in compensation, and local officials promised him that he would receive the local minimum subsistence allowance (低保), which crucially also gave him access to basic medical insurance.

With this medical and welfare safety net in place, Zhang was able to focus on his new calling; helping as many other workers with pneumoconiosis as possible. Pneumoconiosis is by far the most prevalent occupational disease in China, affecting an estimated six million workers. Over the last three years, Zhang and many others, including the Love Save Pneumoconiosis Foundation (大爱清尘), have worked tirelessly to bring the plight of these workers to the attention of the public and get them the compensation and respect they deserve.

For example, Zhang has recently been assisting a worker in Zhejiang file a lawsuit against a hospital that refused to hand over his pneumoconiosis test results because, it said, the tests had been arranged and paid for by his employer.  Unscrupulous employers frequently use their relationship with hospitals to hide the results of x-rays from their employees and often fire those employees before they realize their condition is serious. Zhang hopes this case can expose this widespread collusion and force employers and hospitals to give employees full access to their own medical files.

Now it seems however that government officials in Zhang’s home town have had enough of his campaigning and have withdrawn his minimum subsistence allowance, thereby cutting off his medical insurance at the same time. For a seriously ill man, who has to take care of his six-year-old daughter and elderly parents, this was a massive blow.

The official reason for withdrawing the allowance was that Zhang had bought a car and an air-conditioning unit and therefore could clearly afford to do without government hand-outs. Zhang points out however that even if he is not entitled to welfare, he should still have health insurance, and by cancelling his allowance without first notifying him of the need to start paying into the insurance system, he has lost his health insurance too. And now, with winter setting in across northern China, Zhang and his family need as much help as they can possibly get.

On 5 December, Zhang alerted the Chinese media to the cancellation of his allowance and invited netizens to ask him about his current situation in a 90-minute chat on his Sina Weibo micro-blog. The following is a translation of that conversion.

Q: Haichao, besides raising your daughter, are there any other important things that you’d like to do in the next few years?
A: If I can sort out the issue of my daughter, I will die with no regrets. I will still make efforts to help other migrant workers defend their rights.

Q: If you could go back in time, would you undergo open-chest surgery again? Do you have any regrets?
A: If I could choose again, I would still have open-chest surgery without hesitation. I had no other way out if I was to stay alive.

Q: What do you think gets you this far when you are faced with so many blows?
A: My only concern now is my six-year-old daughter. Actually, I have long lost the belief that I can live on during these two years of torment caused by illness and all kinds of stress in my life.

Q: Will you marry again?
A: I haven’t dared to think about it, nor have I wished for it. I only hope that my child will be raised properly. I don’t want to think about anything else.

Q: What do you plan to do with your remaining property?
A: The remaining compensation will be used to pay for the cost of my whole family’s living, my medical bills and my daughter’s tuition.

Q: Hello, how are you doing now? Can you still handle light physical labour?
A: I’m not doing well. More than 20 people from my old workplace have already died. So I’m doing better compared to them. I can just scrape along, which is already good. I can’t do any physical labour; I get out of breath just walking fast.

Q: Haichao, life is so hard on you. I hope kind people will step up and help you. After enduring so much cruelty, what would you like to say to society? Could you reveal some of what you wrote to your daughter in the letter?
A: I would like to say that pneumoconiosis rips families apart. Most people with pneumoconiosis feel hatred towards society. It is so unfair that a worker is left forsaken when he has sacrificed his health and even his life for the construction of the country. I’ll gradually post what I write on my microblog. I intended to do so today, but I’ve been really busy today, so I’ll post in the evening.

Q: Honestly speaking, has your faith in society been shaken, do you feel resentment towards society?
A: Just like many other workers with pneumoconiosis, I do feel hatred towards officials and the rich, because we have sacrificed our health and even our life and family building this country and yet we get cast aside. The worse my condition gets, the stronger this mind-set becomes.

Q: Do you still hope to get your subsistence allowance back? Or is your action now a kind of protest against the government?
A: I have no reason to reapply for the subsistence allowance.  In the eyes of the officials I am very ‘happy.’ I cannot say that I’m fighting against the government. I can only say that the government does very well and I do not.

Q: Haichao, how are things going with your follow-up treatments? Is there any effective treatment for your condition in China?
A: Only palliative care is available for my condition. There’s no medicine and no treatment that can fully cure or remove pneumoconiosis, not in China or in any other country. One can only prolong one’s life by improving the quality of that life.

Q: Why did you undergo open-chest surgery?
A: The reason was very simple. I wanted to stay alive.

Q: What’s your plan for the future without your subsistence allowance?
A: I don’t have much of a plan. I'm just taking one day at a time now.

Q: What would you do if your persistence doesn’t pay off?
A: I haven’t thought that much. I just believe that some kind-hearted people will help me bring up my child.

Q: Since you are unable to take care of your daughter due to your poor physical condition, why not let her live with her mother?
A: Because in our agreement prior to our divorce, it is specified that her mother is exempt from child support payments whether I’m dead or alive, and that she eventually gives up our child’s custody. I will abide by this agreement.

Q: Why did the government cancel your social insurance? What did the government do after the media coverage?
A: Just now a reporter from Beijing Youth Daily called and asked why I wasn’t notified that I had to pay into my health insurance. Mr. Zhang, Chief of the Township Civil Affairs Office, said he had personally notified me. However, when I called him and asked when he had ever met me, he instantly changed his statement and claimed he told someone else to notify me. I have never ever met him, yet he made up this lie about notifying me in person.

Q: Are you happy?
A: All of my happiness was stripped away from me the moment I was stricken with pneumoconiosis. The disease has also destroyed my family’s happiness.

Q: Do you still trust society?
A: I still have faith in society but I will never trust those hypocritical officials ever again.

Q: Do you hate the government?
A: I don’t hate them anymore. All I feel towards them is disappointment.

Q: Bro, nice catching up with you again. How much did you get each month from your subsistence allowance before it was cancelled?
A: The subsistence allowance ranged from 80 to 100 yuan. It was a small amount of money but it was comforting. Most importantly, the subsistence allowance and health insurance are tied together. Without the subsistence allowance, I have lost my health insurance as well.

Q: Given your current living standard, do you feel that you are still qualified to apply for a subsistence allowance now that you have your own car and your daughter attends a private school?
A: I don’t question the government at all for cancelling my subsistence allowance. However, they should have notified me that I would need to pay into my health insurance, which is their responsibility. Up till now no one has given me any answer as to why it didn’t happen.

Q: Does it hurt?
A: My wound hurts, but my heart hurts even more.

Q: What’s your plan to raise your child?
A: My parents are already over sixty or seventy-years-old, and my physical condition has gone from bad to worse. Yet my daughter is only six now. I have come to accept that my family and I are no longer able to bring up my daughter. Pneumoconiosis has turned my life upside down and deprived my whole family of its happiness. All I hope now is that its impact on my daughter can be minimized, and that I can find a kind-hearted family to help bring up my daughter.

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