An 83-year-old former engineer recounts to Bitter Winter his ordeal petitioning for rightful retirement benefits: brutally beaten and locked in a mental hospital.
by Han Sheng
Yan Chunxiang, an 83-year-old former assistant engineer from China’s central province of Hubei, has been fighting the government for the past 20 years, trying to defend his and his colleague’s rights to receive their hard-earned pensions. He has been unable to enjoy his retirement at all since he has been spending every waking minute to petition the government to get what he and his colleagues are rightfully entitled to. In the process, he has faced repeated persecutions, has been beaten by government-hired thugs, and detained twice in a mental hospital.
“Every day I remain alive, I will continue petitioning. As one of the elected representatives of these retired workers, I have to take responsibility for them, as well as for myself,” said Mr. Yan in an interview with Bitter Winter.
No pension benefits after 30 years of employment
Yan Chunxiang joined the workforce in 1958. A few years later, he started working for a state-run company, where he had led groups of workers to open four machinery factories. The company’s assets eventually grew to over 10 million RMB (about $ 1.4 million), and their products were sold both domestically and abroad.
In 1990, after more than 30 years of continuous service, Mr. Yan formally retired with a monthly pension of 166 RMB (about $ 25), which was regarded as decent compensation at the time. However, the amount remained unchanged for ten years, and the pensions became worthless, out of step with China’s rapid economic growth. Moreover, Mr. Yan and other retired employees who worked at the company for decades have never received the social security benefits to which they were legally entitled.
On August 28, 2000, Mr. Yan’s employer mandatorily required 44 retired workers to sign an agreement, according to which they each would receive a one-time 9,000 RMB (about $ 1,275) buyout of their pensions. The proposal elicited strong dissatisfaction among the retirees.
In Mr. Yan’s view, this constituted a violation of government regulations. A CCP-adopted document expressly stipulates that employers must provide monthly pension (or retirement) payments and disallows one-time settlement. The document further states that no employer shall forcibly buy out an employee’s accrued pension benefits or use other means to terminate their social security coverage.
Mr. Yan embarks on a long road to defend his rights
Hoping to get the retirement pension to which he is legally entitled, Mr. Yan continuously appealed to the town government, explaining that it was wrong to force the workers into accepting a one-time buyout. But the authorities continued to turn a deaf ear to Mr. Yan’s pleas.
Other retired workers elected Mr. Yan and two other retirees (both have already passed away) to serve as their representatives in the fight for their rights, and Mr. Yan embarked on a path of petitioning with the government.
By 2006, the local government still hadn’t paid any attention to or resolved the issues raised by Mr. Yan and the other representatives. Instead, the village committee assigned people to supervise them. With no other choice, the three men decided to go petitioning to Beijing. What they didn’t expect was that the entire state system – from local authorities all the way up to the top government in Beijing – has conspired against them. The three petitioners were arrested right after disembarking in Beijing. Mr. Yan was puzzled: how did the police know that they were coming to petition? At the police station, officers indiscriminately burned all the petitioning materials the three elderly petitioners had brought with them and forced them to leave Beijing.
According to Mr. Yan, since then, he has traveled to Beijing to petition more than 20 times. In most cases, the Ezhou government sent people to escort him back as soon as he arrived in Beijing. However, he remains undeterred and has never given up on his quest to defend the rights of all the retired workers.
Repeatedly and viciously beaten by hired thugs
On June 9, 2009, the then 73-year-old Mr. Yan went to the Ezhou city government office to petition by himself. To his surprise, as soon as he got off the bus, three young men he didn’t know intercepted and beat him. Several of his teeth were knocked out, and his ankle was fractured after the attackers kicked him. The scars on the ankle are still visible today.
He was beaten twice by government-hired thugs after that. On June 10, 2011, he and another representative, Mr. Liu, went to Beijing again. Ezhou city government officials hired some thugs in Beijing to drag Mr. Yan and his colleague to a remote location and viciously beat them. The two men were kept in a dark room for almost 72 hours, and their mobile phones were taken from them. They were then escorted back to Ezhou.
On his way home from Ezhou, Mr. Yan was beaten once again. Mr. Yan decided to call the police, but after officers arrived and learned the whole story, they only said that they would not have come had they known what the matter was about and left in haste.
These acts of brutality didn’t dissuade Mr. Yan. On the contrary, the beatings further strengthened his determination to obtain justice.
Locked up in a mental hospital
When he wasn’t going to Beijing, Mr. Yan continued petitioning government offices at the provincial, municipal, and district level, but bureaucrats kept passing the buck back and forth. Some even asked if he wasn’t afraid that somebody might kill him in the middle of the night.
Between 2015 and 2018, Mr. Yan hired several lawyers to appeal on his behalf, but the court rejected their appeals every time and refused to file a case for him. He also received a “notice of inadmissibility” from petition authorities at the provincial, municipal, and district levels.
On March 5, 2019, village officials forcibly took Mr. Yan, already 83 years old, to Ezhou City Mental Hospital. Mr. Yan remembered that that day, he was tied to a chair in a cold hallway and left overnight. Afterward, he was forced to take a total of 20 unknown drugs with his three daily meals. The attending doctor told Mr. Yan that he was not mentally ill, but he was locked up because of his petitioning. “The government asked me to do this. I don’t have any choice,” the doctor said. Mr. Yan was released only after about two weeks.
On July 18, Mr. Yan once again traveled alone to Beijing. But the personnel sent by the village committee soon forcibly escorted him home. This time, his ID card was confiscated, and the police locked Mr. Yan in the same mental hospital. When his relatives came to visit him, they saw the elderly man confined in a courtyard, along with more than 100 patients, getting some fresh air, hospital personnel guarding the gate. Mr. Yan was extremely distressed and asked his relatives to get him out of the hospital.
Fighting for the rights till death
Mr. Yan’s son is exasperated with the government’s actions, but there is nothing he can do. He believes that the government doesn’t dare to kill his father, so they are doing everything they can to drive him to insanity. He has repeatedly stated that his father is not mentally ill and demanded doctors at the hospital to stop forcibly feeding or injecting him with drugs.
“The government is so sinister. All government officials shield each other. The common people have no choice but to accept whatever punishment the government doles out. If authorities say they will kill you, then they will kill you,” a source close to Mr. Yan told Bitter Winter.
Despite all the hardships, Mr. Yan doesn’t plan to give up. “If I have a chance next year, I still want to go to Beijing to petition,” the man is determined. “Only death will stop me. The elderly must be provided for, their needs must be satisfied, and the ill must receive treatment. Everyone is just trying to live and survive. I’m doing this to fight for my legal rights and interests, even in my old age.”