A new “internet celebrity” has emerged on the Chinese internet — a floating bridge that was demolished several years ago in Jilin province’s Taonan (a county-level city under Baicheng’s administration). A villager named Huang Deyi was given a two-year prison sentence with a two-year probation for building this bridge.
Did he build the bridge to bring convenience to the people or to make profits? This case has got Chinese social media all riled up.
The public’s defence of Huang
In a village in Wafangzhen on one side of a river, its residents would need to make a detour of dozens of kilometres to cross the river. In 2014, Huang built a floating bridge across the river and charged tolls of 5 RMB (US$0.69) for cars and 10 RMB for larger vehicles to recover the cost of building the bridge.
While the act seemed like a good deed, Chinese law stipulates that individuals are not allowed to build bridges, let alone collect tolls, without authorisation.
The year after the floating bridge was built, Huang claimed that the local water resources authority started fining him on the grounds that the bridge had been built illegally. In 2018, relevant departments ordered him to demolish the structure. A year later, Huang was charged for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” and sentenced to two years in prison with a two-year probation.
Enraged netizens found it ridiculous that the very people who solved the villagers’ difficulty in getting around due to the local government’s inaction were in fact the ones charged with picking quarrels and provoking trouble.
Seventeen of Huang’s family members were also charged on the same grounds. According to him, apart from a five-year-old child and the children who are still studying, the rest of his family were sentenced to varying prison terms and probation periods.
The development of the floating bridge case immediately incited people’s sense of justice. Enraged netizens found it ridiculous that the very people who solved the villagers’ difficulty in getting around due to the local government’s inaction were in fact the ones charged with picking quarrels and provoking trouble.
But people had different opinions as to whether Huang had built the bridge to bring convenience to the villagers or to make profits. Huang argued that he had spent 130,000 RMB to build the bridge and collected tolls to recover costs. Besides, the tolls were not mandatory and the villagers had paid them “willingly”. He claimed that he had never prevented anyone from crossing the bridge because they did not pay.
Chinese media interviews with local villagers confirmed these claims. A villager who runs a supermarket said that in the past, he crossed Huang’s bridge to get to the city to replenish stock, only occasionally paying the 5 RMB toll. Without the bridge, the cost of his stock replenishment runs would increase, and he would have wasted more time getting around. Some media outlets also reported that a villager who paid the most toll had returned the money to Huang’s family after receiving a refund of 20,000 RMB from the court.
However, the court believes that Huang’s act of charging a toll amounts to coercion. According to the court’s verdict, Huang had collected 52,950 RMB in tolls. Local authorities also claimed that Huang half-heartedly obliged their demand to demolish the bridge.
... the phrases “rigid law enforcement” and “idle grassroots” surrounding the case hit right at the sore spot of Chinese society, enough to stir up public opinion and keep the topic current for days.
Charged on shaky grounds
This case is also related to China’s “sweep away black societies and eradicate evil forces” (扫黑除恶) campaign. Yangcheng Evening News (《羊城晚报》) reported that according to the court’s verdict, leads and complaint materials were found among the case’s evidence endorsed by the local office responsible for “sweep away black” work (扫黑办). This means that some residents were unhappy that Huang collected tolls and had reported him to the relevant authorities.
A netizen claiming to be from a nearby village feels that Huang might have more nefarious aims in building the bridge, given that he dug a pit in the riverbed where small cars could previously pass, forcing vehicles to use the bridge he built and imposing mandatory tolls. Some also said that someone who can build a bridge on their own and collect fees in the local area cannot be an ordinary person.
It remains unclear if Huang is a kind philanthropist or a villain profiting from building the bridge. The bullets will continue to fly for a while, but go where they will, the phrases “rigid law enforcement” and “idle grassroots” surrounding the case hit right at the sore spot of Chinese society, enough to stir up public opinion and keep the topic current for days.
When the case first came out, people did not agree with the punishment meted out on Huang and his family. Even without sound reason, netizens overwhelmingly questioned the rigid law enforcement by the relevant agencies, with some noting that the essence of the law lies in its practice. While it is not in line with regulations, in terms of humanity and common sense, defining the bridge and toll collection as “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” seems rather untenable. Furthermore, punishing the entire family of 18 people is excessively harsh.
... is Huang’s punishment a fig leaf to cover up the local government’s inaction and reliance on fines?
The bottom line is that there is too much injustice in Chinese society. While China has been pushing for the rule of law in recent years, the public still distrusts public authority and is still not completely confident in whose interests it represents and safeguards.
Complexity of grassroots governance
Many people are even more curious to know: is Huang’s punishment a fig leaf to cover up the local government’s inaction and reliance on fines?
The actions of the local government in the incident have been puzzling. If Huang’s bridge — which was built in 2014 — was indeed an illegal construction with safety concerns, why was he only fined for four years and not asked to demolish the bridge immediately? Considering that the locals needed a way to cross the river, and that Huang spent 130,000 RMB to build the bridge, it would not have cost much for the government to build a bridge in line with the law and regulations.
Why did the local government turn a blind eye to the people’s transportation difficulties for so many years? In fact, the fundamental reason for the building of the bridge was the lack of response from the local government to the demands of the people.
Huang appealed the verdict, and on 8 July, the Intermediate People’s Court of Baicheng City, Jilin province announced that it had accepted his appeal and is reviewing the case.
Public opinion should not be the judge on the matter — facts and evidence need to be considered. Whether Huang swings the verdict with the help of public opinion or his image as a “kind bridge builder” collapses entirely, the case is a classic one for local officials to study, as it once again reflects the complexity of grassroots governance in China.
This article was first published in Lianhe Zaobao as “一座浮桥为何搅动舆论？”.
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