China’s Bizarre, Centuries-Old Tradition: Corpse-Snatching

Sometimes, even today, it's the only way to hold the bad guys accountable.

Villagers carry the coffin of a man killed after a magnitude 7.0 earthquake hit Lushan, Sichuan Province on April 22, 2013. Clogged roads, debris and landslides impeded rescuers as they battled to find survivors of a powerful earthquake in mountainous southwest China that has left at least 188 dead. AFP PHOTO/Mark RALSTON (Photo credit should read MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)

On the morning of March 16, 48-year-old Huang Shunfang went to her local hospital in Fanghu Township in the central Chinese province of Henan. Her doctor diagnosed her with gastritis, gave her a dose of antacids through an IV, and sent her on her way. Huang died suddenly that afternoon. In the hours after her death, Huang’s family went to the hospital for an explanation, where hospital leadership said, “The hospital is where people die,” according to a witness account of the incident. Incensed, Huang’s family visited the local public security bureau and the health bureau, both to no avail. Four days later, on March 20, after rejecting the hospital’s $800 compensation offer, the family placed Huang’s corpse outside the hospital gate in protest. Soon, over 100 policemen swooped in to take the body away, beating and detaining those of Huang’s relatives who tried to resist.

A week earlier, at noon on March 9, during a forced residential demolition operation orchestrated by the township government in Jiangkou Township, Anhui province, 37-year-old Zhang Guimao died when his chicken coop collapsed on him. That afternoon, Zhang’s relatives, along with more than 100 villagers, carried Zhang’s body into the township government office compound to demand an explanation. At midnight, all the streetlights suddenly went dark. About 200 riot police carrying shields appeared on the scene to take the body away to the crematorium, detaining at least six people in the process.

Taishi kangyi,” or “carrying the corpse to protest,” is a practice with deep roots in Chinese history. Since late imperial times, people have employed it when judicial systems failed to provide a reliable channel of redress. It continues today, when corpses are dragged into all manner of disputes involving medical malpractice, forced housing demolitions, vendor tussles with local law enforcement, and compensation for workplace accidents. When an accidental death occurs, citizens use the corpse to draw attention and invite sympathy from the wider public, all in an effort to pressure authorities to render a just outcome. This “highlights the distrust people feel about autopsies or investigations conducted by government organs and China’s justice system,” says Teng Biao, a civil-rights lawyer and visiting scholar at Harvard Law School. “Especially with the rise of social media in the past 10 years or so, families of the dead can post photos or videos online. The rapid spread of such information can turn up the heat on local governments.”

It’s that heat that perhaps has driven Chinese law enforcement to ever-more coordinated and deliberate attempts to curb corpse keeping. A common scene across China today pits families, friends, and local residents barricading a dead body in concentric circles against police, often numbering in the hundreds and armed with batons and shields. The police try to break through the crowds to reach the corpse and abscond with it. Local governments, following standard operating procedures developed in recent years, apply this practice known as qiangshi, or snatching the corpse, when a case of accidental death occurs.

The most dramatic “corpse snatching” clash in recent years — a knock-down, drag-out affair that paralyzed the medium-sized city of Shishou, in Hubei province, videos of which circulated widely thereafter — followed the death of 24-year-old Tu Yuangao. On June 17, 2009, Tu was found dead outside the hotel where he worked as a chef. Police quickly declared he had committed suicide, but the circumstances surrounding the death led Tu’s family to believe he had been murdered. His relatives moved Tu’s body into the hotel lounge. Over the next three days, tens of thousands of local residents joined with Tu’s family to guard his body. Video clips posted online show protestors beating back waves of armed police whose numbers swelled into the thousands. Protesters also vandalized and toppled fire trucks and police vehicles. Tu’s family members, armed with two buckets of gasoline and more than a dozen gas tanks, vowed to protect Tu’s body to the death. Eventually, the hotel was set on fire and Tu’s family was forced to flee. After about 80 hours of fierce fighting, the government finally persuaded the family to move Tu’s body to a funeral parlor. On June 21, medical experts performed an autopsy on Tu, concluding the cause of death was “a fall from a height.” Four days later, Tu’s body was cremated.

According to a professor who has worked with the Chinese government on “internal security maintenance” but who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak publicly on this issue, Chinese authorities believe that corpses themselves can cause unrest. “After the Shishou incident in 2009, the Central Politics and Law Commission,” the Chinese Communist Party organ that oversees the internal security forces and the court system, “had a training video made for its police forces. In the video, it was said that the reason that the Shishou incident had escalated was due to the corpse, ‘the source of excitement,’ not having been removed in a timely manner. Since then, in all mass incidents” – that is, protests, riots, and other forms of social disorder – “that involve death, removing the corpse became the No. 1 priority.”

Several local government reports, composed for internal use but later posted online, show the importance of quickly taking possession of corpses in controversial cases. A government official in Guang’an, a city of over 4 million in Sichuan province, writes, “The corpse is the most sensitive” because “people who have ulterior motives use the dead body to pressure the government.” Meanwhile, “onlookers, out of curiosity and sympathy, encircle the corpse, forming a large crowd.” A report written by traffic police officers in Yongzhou, a city of over 5 million in Hunan province, similarly notes, “Empirical evidence shows the majority of traffic-accident-induced mass incidents are due to the corpse’s not being removed from the scene.” Both pieces advise moving the corpse to a funeral parlor with haste.

But why is the dead body a “source of excitement” in the first place? One reason may have to do with tradition. In China, when someone dies of unnatural causes, his or her corpse is often tied to the idea of “yuan,” or “being wronged.” In the opening of the Song dynasty classic The Washing Away of Wrongs, published in 1247 and considered the world’s earliest documentation of forensic science, author and coroner Song Ci explains that the point of an accurate autopsy of an unnatural death is to “wash away wrongs and oblige others” who are responsible. Today, popular Chinese television dramas such as Witness to a Prosecution (which tells the story of Song Ci), Amazing Detective Di Renjie, and Young Justice Bao popularize these ideas. A typical narrative is as follows: A dead body is found. After a meticulous investigation, the protagonist solves the case. The story ends when the yuan is washed clean and justice is served.

The practice of using corpses to protest and seek retribution has been an object of official suspicion since the Ming dynasty (from the mid-14th century through the mid-17th century) and the Qing dynasty (from the mid-17th century to the early 20th century), when official parlance referred to it as “tulai,” or “conspiring to entrap.” Ming dynasty and Qing dynasty histories refer to how corpses were used to threaten or incriminate innocent people for financial or other gains. Both the Ming and the Qing dynasties had specific laws punishing such conduct. The Qing Code stipulates that those using the corpses of parents or grandparents for extortion should be flogged 100 times and serve three years in prison. Official narratives undoubtedly undermine the cases of those who had no choice but to employ the corpse as a way to have their grievances heard and addressed. But they also attest to the prevalence and even effectiveness of such a practice.

In modern times, while the availability of information about disputes has increased and resulted in the more accurate recounting of death cases, the old practice continues. In a well-known 1988 incident in Minquan County, Henan province, the local government detained and beat peasant Cai Fawang for refusing to hand over grain to tax collectors. Cai committed suicide by hanging himself in front of the police station. Cai’s wife and son first went to the township government office and put the dead body in the township party secretary’s office bed for 13 days. (Party secretaries sometimes have sleeping quarters at work for nights they cannot or do not return home.) After the corpse began to decay and smell, Cai’s family then placed the corpse in a coffin and parked the coffin in the yard of the government office building for nine months. Outnumbered government officials were prevented from getting rid of the body. A journalist who visited the village at that time wrote, “The township government was basically in exile. [They] tore a hole in the wall [of their office] to come and go by.” The powerful presence of the corpse, a constant reminder of injustice and suffering, clearly had an effect on the local government employees.

Nevertheless, times have changed. It is difficult to imagine police in modern China allowing a dead body to remain out in the open for months, even letting it “take over” a local government office. As China’s economy continues to grow, social tensions have also mounted, and what the government calls “mass incidents,” or incidents of unrest, continue throughout the country, although frequency statistics aren’t released. The Chinese government has responded with measures of its own, committing more money to internal stability maintenance than on the military in 2012 and 2013 (the 2014 public security budget was not publicized). Stymying these demonstrations to prevent escalation to major social unrest is now paramount.

Yet ironically, the Chinese government’s “obsession with social stability” fuels instability because discontented citizens, aware that local authorities want to avoid all instances of social unrest, are effectively incentivized to employ more disruptive measures to “game the system,” says Carl Minzner, professor of law at Fordham University Law School. “By threatening to create scenes of social unrest, like using dead bodies to protest, some people try to wring concessions from the authorities. Often, these are calculated decisions. And sometimes they produce results — such as higher monetary compensation — regardless of the underlying legal merit of the grievance.” The local authorities, Minzner adds, “simply are desperate to get protestors off the streets.”

AFP/Getty Images

Yaqiu Wang researches and writes about civil society and human rights in China.

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