AWOL Soldiers Shot Dead: Modern-Time Bandits or Tragic Heroes?

Posted on November 14, 2011


Four People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers deserted their base in Jilin Province with a stolen rifle and 795 rounds on October 9. A few hours later, three of them were shot dead and one was captured alive. The four AWOL soldiers have been identified as the 23-year old sergeant Yang Fan and three soldiers aged 18-19, Lin Penghan, Li Xinxin and Zhang Xiyan. According to China Morning Post, the four fled the base between 4:30 am and 6 am. Suspecting their intent being armed robbery, the police issued an warning in the morning and asked local banks and jewelers to be on alert. A few hours later, the four were trapped in Yingkou City, where the deadly shooting took place.

The news was first released in a Weibo post by Jilin City Traffic Police Department and soon was deleted. On October 9, China Radio International’s English website posted two articles about the incident, which have been deleted as well. However, some overseas Chinese and English media outlets such as, a UK-based forum for Chinese living overseas, BBC and The Guardian had picked up the news before it was apparently blocked in China.

AWOL is a serious offense in military punishable by death penalty in China. So why did they do it? The reason is unclear because no official report has been issued and no medium has access to the families of the AWOL soldiers since they have been taken away by the authority. However, many have speculated. For instance, according to The Guardian, the Hong Kong-based Information Centre for Human Rights and Democracy suspected that the soldiers were unhappy about the early discharge of two of them. However, most media and Chinese who read the news on social media now believe that the forced eviction of Yang Fan’s family by the local authority in Hongsheng Village close to Fushun City in Liaoning Province adjacent to Jilin Province triggered the soldiers’ deserting.

Many Chinese netizens expressed regret for these four soldiers. “It was turn for the soldiers to take up a gun and protect (their family who were) evicted by force, but regrettably the four of them were stopped on their way, not being able to go home and stop the barbaric eviction,” a Weibo user writes. Blog posts that repost the news from other have been widely circulated on Weibo. Although the main text is copied from, many bloggers added their own titles to comment on the incident. “The Wake of Chinese Soldiers Digs the Grave of Those Evict by Force,” on title reads. published the four soldiers’ personal profiles on a popular social networking site The 18-year old Lin Penghan’s latest update was posted more than a year ago. This post, titled “Transient Footsteps,” a short prose about unrequited love, now has 4,454 reads and 265 comments.

Some of these visitors expressed tender sadness in their comments. “Take care on the way,” one comment reads. “Goodbye,” another reads.

Some other visitors showed regret and discontent. “Cruel youth, a confused generation… The older generations have ruined all your resources. They are guilty,” one comment reads. Another reads, “You just left like this. How regrettable. This is China. I want to know why! Everything is understood in silence! Bless your family.”

Yet some others saw the young soldiers as heroes. “Proud sons of China,” one comment reads. “What is truth[?] Why shot dead three of them on the spot and then blocked the information[?] Cruel reality. China’s proud sons,” another reads.

The sympathy for the soldiers from Chinese netizens is obvious, although usually deserting and/or defecting soldiers are despised in China’s rather militant culture cultivated by the Communist Party, especially in the early years of the People’s Republic. To many Chinese netizens, the soldiers are not the perpetrators. Rather, they are seen as victims and, perhaps more so, as a sort of tragic heroes who tried and failed to change their and others’ fate. And this sentiment has come from Chinese public’s growing anger towards forced evictions and sympathy towards the victims.

Forced evictions by local authorities have plagued many villagers and towns people across China for many years. In China, the state owns the land and sells the right to use to business and individuals. The recent years’ skyrocketing real estate value in China has encouraged local governments to sell off (the use right of) land to developers to increase revenue. Corruption is often involved in these dealings as well.

However, very often, the existing residents or farmers who farm the land do not get the compensation they are entitled to. As a result, conflicts often happen when the two sides, the authority and the residents or farmers, cannot strike a deal. In many cases, local authorities and developers resort to force to evict the former dwellers or farmers of the property.

Powerless compared to local authorities and rich developers, residents and villagers often protest against forced evictions by refusing to move, self-immolating, and some with violence.

Those who refuse to move are called “dingzihu” or “nail households” and there have been constant struggles between them and local governments or developers in both urban and rural areas.

Faced with local authorities’ injustice, some residents and villagers expressed their anger and despair with self-immolation. Countless cases of villagers setting themselves on fire to protest against forced eviction have been reported in Fenggang, Jiangxi Province, Ezhou, Hubei Province, Zhuzhou, Hunan Province, Xinhua, Jiangzu Province, Ningbo, Zhejiang Province… There have been so many such tragedies that I cannot even give a complete list of those that happened this year, after “The State-Owned Land and Housing Acquisition and Compensation Regulations” (The Regulations) issued by The Central Government came into effect in January, which stipulates that administrative or violent forced evictions are illegal.

But the law does not seem to have stopped some local officials and developers from violently evicting residents. In September, hundreds of villagers were evicted by more than 300 thugs hired by the Haozhou City in Anhui Province and became homeless. Information was also suppressed. A villager said that the thugs threatened that they would beat him up when they saw that he was taking photos.

Some of these forced evictions resulted in injuries and even deaths. This September, 57 officials received administrative penalty and 31 were charged with criminal offense in Changchun Province for their involvement in 11 forced evictions that caused injuries and deaths. One of the worst cases happened in March, when 48-year old resident Liu Shuxiang, a dingzihu, was killed from suffocation when she was buried in rubbles after 18 excavators tore a few buildings down.

Angered and having so power to resist, some villagers resort to violence. In Wuhan, a young man named Zou Bing injured two of the 30 plus hired by a District in Wuhan City who assaulted and injured his mother in the process of evicting her. One of the injured died in the hospital and earlier this month, Zou was sentenced to death with a two-year reprieve.

Collective protests against forced evictions also have been seen more often across China. Al Jazeera English reported a villagers’ protest in a village named Liuxiazhuang in September. The scene is simply heart-wrenching. Another protest-turned-into-riot in late September also caught the attention of international media. The riot broke out in Lufeng, Guangdong Province, and lasted for four days. Netizens in China showed support for the protesters and anger towards the corrupted local authority and developers.

So, back to what happened in Jilin. Chinese public believe that the three slain young soldiers, seen by many as still “kids,” left the base to help their team leader protect his family against violence, with violence. In today’s China, it is seen as heroism more than anything else. Although Chinese public’s awakening is encouraging, the lurking thirst for violent justice is nevertheless quite worrying.

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