China's Newest Unlikely Martyr: Xiamen's Bus Arsonist

The life story of Chen Shuizong, who killed 47 people when he set himself on fire, has attracted sympathy from Chinese similarly frustrated with a capricious system.


Chen Shuizong, who set himself on fire on this public bus in Xiamen, had tangled repeatedly with the local government. (Sina Weibo)

On June 7, during the rush hour in Xiamen -- a Southeastern Chinese city known for its artistic scene and beautiful seaside -- a sudden fire engulfed a commuter bus, leaving 47 dead and 34 injured. Soon afterwards, state media reported that the Police Department of the City of Xiamen had gathered sufficient evidence to determine the case to be a suicide. According to a brief report on Xinhua News, suspect Chen Shuizong was "unhappy, pessimistic, and depressed, and unleashed his anger and frustration" by setting the bus aflame.

The speedy, opaque process of identifying the suspect caught observers' attention. According to an article on Xinhua News, police in Xiamen gathered DNA samples and a note Chen left in his apartment. But according to a clip from Phoenix Television, Chen's family members never saw the note, and the Xiamen Police Department announced that no details of the investigation and the evidence would be publicly available.

While the disheartening news continues to roll in, netizens have grown more curious about Chen. In particular, they are asking: what prompted Chen Shuizong to carry out such a heinous crime?

Some information has surfaced to help fill in the blanks. Chen lived in a tiny apartment with his wife and daughter, at the end of a dark alleyway next to Xiamen's busiest shopping district. He held temporary jobs from time to time, but was mostly unemployed. Neighbors described Chen's family as quiet, even anti-social, and neighbors believed that none of them has ever set foot in the family's apartment. Some residents of the neighborhood say Chen was also known for his short temper and stubbornness. Neighbors say that once, when Chen was unhappy about fast food stalls that he said took up too much space on the street, he called the police to complain nine times in one day.

Without stable employment and income, Chen Shuizong relied on government-issued benefits for low-income families. But his sporadic employment caused him to lose eligibility, and Chen had tirelessly filed complaints and requests for approval of eligibility. Chen Shuizong's most recent struggle with bureaucratic complexities concerns his date of birth. He claimed that he was born in 1953, meaning that he already turned 60, which automatically would have qualified him for post-retirement social security benefits. However, on his residency document, known as a hukou, Chen's birth year was recorded as 1954. He requested to change his birth year time and again, to no avail.


Web user reactions to Chen's apparent suicide fall into two broad categories. While there was little controversy that Chen's actions were wrong, a significant portion of comments analyzed evinced a soft spot for individuals whose lives are worsened by mismanagement and negligence from government agencies. To these sympathetic Web users, Chen's life represents a tragic example of what someone born in 1950s China had to face. He suffered through the Cultural Revolution when, like many youth, he was forced to relocate to the countryside. Chen eventually returned to the city but struggled financially ever since. In order to claim post-retirement benefits, he faced endless tangles with bureaucrats, and Chen's helplessness turned into desperation.

A Sina Weibo post by user @观世音童, which blames bureaucracy for bringing out the demons in Chen, has been reposted more than 24,000 times since. The post, which includes a photograph of Chen wearing a guard uniform, reads,

In the past, Chen Shuizong not only followed the law, he enforced the law for the government as a guard. Although he was sent into the countryside [during the Cultural Revolution] ... and he nonetheless maintained his faith in government, running to the government for help many times. Who was it that continued to torment and ignore him? Who caused this honest person who asked for help everywhere to become evil? Chen surely deserves condemnation, but the government offices that left him helpless and desperate are the ones that truly deserve the blame. If they are not held accountable for their actions, there will be Zhang Shuizongs and Wang Suizongs [next]!

Other users posited that Chen could have been called a martyr, if only he had aimed at a different target. Weibo user @天边那抹残阳 wrote, "We ought to punish the system and bureaucracy that caused this tragedy. He should have targeted the people who caused his problems, and he would have become a hero!"

Anger toward government authorities also manifested in comparisons between the fates of Chen Shuizong and Liu Zhijun, the former Railway Minister who was recently put on trial for corruption. Prosecutors courted widespread ire in the blogosphere after recommending "leniency" despite the scope of Liu's admitted crimes. Another highly popular post explicitly describes the two men's lives: "Liu owns 374 real properties, while Chen had a tiny place in terrible condition ... Liu has a total of 900 million RMB, while Chen requested social security benefits 27 times, but still failed to qualify."


Another strain of online argument tilted in the other direction; netizens in this camp expressed sympathy for Chen's struggles but argued that criminal intent to end innocent life should not be tolerated or forgiven. A series of images from a Japanese drama, frequently posted in connection with this case, eloquently argues that as difficult as Chen's life had been, the mind of a criminal does not deserve sympathy. As a journalist for the Beijing News remarked after covering the news in Xiamen, "There is a significant difference between sympathizing with the citizen Chen Shuizong and sympathizing with the suspect Chen Shuizong."

Shen Yang, a professor at Wuhan University, probably wrote the most apt summary of this strain of thinking: "We cannot forgive Chen Shuizong, as he caused tremendous amount of pain and loss of many families. We also cannot forgive the bureaucratic system and certain public servants that did not provide sufficient support for underprivileged groups of citizens."

Despite differences in opinion, Chinese Web chatter about Chen Shuizong was unified in asking how to prevent such tragedies from happening again. Chen was one of millions in China who feel marginalized, and bus fires caused by disgruntled citizens have already taken place in various cities. According to a Reuters report, in 2009, an unhappy steel worker started a fire in a shuttle bus in Wuxi that killed 24 people. The same report notes that earlier in 2005, a 42-year-old farmer with terminal lung cancer carried out a suicide attack on a bus by setting off a crude bomb.

As social media brings grassroots debates in China to greater prominence, cases like Chen Shuizong's, however tragic, have helped to push the discussion of justice, equality, forgiveness, and public support for marginalized populations in China to a more profound, possibly even uncomfortable, place.

Authorities are already responding to the Chen Shuizong tragedy, but not yet with long-term solutions. According to a recent update on Xinhua News, starting June 14 -- one week after Chen Shuizong set the commuter bus ablaze using gasoline -- individual purchases of canned gasoline in the city of Xiamen have been banned, unless an application is approved and certified under a real-name policy.

This post also appears at Tea Leaf Nation, an Atlantic partner site.