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Executions and fear in China

Daily I take a 45-minute bus trip to the school I teach at in Che Feng (pronounced something like chaw fa-ang). The place is an eye-opener in terms of poverty and beauty.

Where I get on is a relatively “posh” area by Chinese standards. Though there is still a lot of poverty there are plenty of flashy cars. As people get on and off the bus the class status of people completely changes. At first it is fairly smartly dressed office workers, but slowly but surely more people in old, disheveled clothes are climbing on. It’s winter and one leather-faced bloke is wearing thin tennis shoes hardened with dried cement from hours of work on building sites, I assume.

Another young man, almost permanently smiley-faced, has nearly half his body missing. His left arm and leg are gone. He is smartly dressed in a suit which clashes with his old, holed sneakers, his left trouser leg and right sleeve both neatly folded up. He asks the bus driver a question in a language I can tell is not Putonghua, Mandarin. It is one of the local dialects, incomprehensible, filled with Tibetan-sounding sing-song. If you have ever heard the Dalai Lama talk you will understand what I mean. The bus driver does not understand him. Ting bu dong. I don’t understand. The young man does not get frustrated; he laughs. His face widens in a grin. There he is, very disabled, unable to communicate with an official in his own country, and he is laughing it off. A fellow passenger understands him and clearly helps the half-man out. Both start nodding in understanding.

I have never received so many pertinent lessons as I have in China. China is like a loud, blustery uncle, often putting me on his knee and wagging a pudgy, soiled finger at me as I receive yet another lesson, or “wake-up call”.

The bus driver starts yelling at some burly farm labourers who are getting on with massive bags. He is speaking rapidly and they are replying rapidly in a mix of Mandarin and the local Suzhou dialect, or at least that is what it sounds like. The driver is definitely a bit pissed off for some reason — something to do with the massive bags the labourers, including tough-skinned women possibly in their sixties, are dragging onto the bus. The peasant folk are all grinning and appear to be both cajoling and soothing the bus driver in their clucky, squawky dialect. He does calm down a bit, though he is still shaking his head. Within a minute or two of the bus doors hissing closed it is clear what the argument is about. The bags are obviously filled with fertilizer. My God, the stench of manure laced with a touch of methane becomes nauseating on the packed bus. Everyone just calmly sits, some half-asleep, apparently unaware of the smell, though there is what sounds like a muttered curse or two coming from the direction of the bus driver. He doesn’t get to hop off the bus the whole day. One labourer calmly strokes the large chicken he is holding in his arm while he stands. I stick my nose into the lapel of my jacket. It doesn’t help much.

China is constantly jarring me out of the box of habitual thinking. The uncertainty of our lives (where will we end up and put down roots? New Zealand? England with our EU passports and the family there?) has had me thinking about fears and how they can gnaw at our lives. I know. I looked at the recent news on the execution of a SA woman, Janice Linden, for apparently smuggling drugs into China. The harrowing images of people waiting for execution at some parade ground, heads hung, handcuffed, eyes lifeless, the officer on duty adjusting the man to be executed’s head for… what? Maximum penetration of the bullet that was soon to come? I read Amanda Sevasti’s and William-Saunders-Meyer’s pieces on Janice Linden’s execution and the commentators, here on Thought Leader, and see both sides. That to execute Janice Linden was wrong. That to execute her was right. I once wrote about a previous execution  in China, arguing strongly in favour of China’s decision to execute the man. The nagging fear though is, though I think it is unlikely, what if they were both innocent and had the drugs planted in their suitcases? Janice Linden absolutely pleaded her innocence right up until she had her body adjusted for the lethal injection by the executor. And so the fear develops that someone might plant drugs in my home, in my suitcase. I would be shown no mercy even though I am innocent.

Fear is a horrible thing and is a cancer that has robbed many of us of the joy of life at times. Right now, living in a country that apparently has 55 offences that are punishable by execution is very sobering.

On the use of drugs some Westerners in China can be stupid, extremely rash. I don’t touch drugs at all but I know of several fellow foreigners who do marijuana and even cocaine. One bloke regularly used to smuggle small quantities of dope into Shanghai from Hong Kong in special pens made of some material which fooled the scanners (but surely would not fool a sniffer dog) before he quit smoking weed. These Westerners are not pushing the stuff, which would get them the death penalty, but some even carry their crack around in little snuff boxes on their persons. Why do they have no fear? Or are they so addicted they feel the fear and take the drugs anyway? We Westerners live with too much fear. I could be wrong but I don’t see it in most Chinese people.

Many Chinese, like the wonderful “peasants” I encounter on the buses, such as the young man missing nearly half his body, seem to just float serenely through life, grinning at nearly everything. Bumping busloads of people have become my teachers.


  • Rod MacKenzie

    CRACKING CHINA was previously the title of this blog. That title was used as the name for Rod MacKenzie's second book, Cracking China: a memoir of our first three years in China. From a review in the Johannesburg Star: " Mackenzie's writing is shot through with humour and there are many laugh-out-loud scenes". Cracking China is available as an eBook on Amazon Kindle or get a hard copy from His previous book is a collection of poetry,Gathering Light. A born and bred South African, Rod now lives in Auckland, New Zealand, after a number of years working in southern mainland China and a stint in England. Under the editorship of David Bullard and Michael Trapido he had a column called "The Mocking Truth" on NewsTime until the newszine folded. He has a Master's Degree in Creative Writing from the University of Auckland. if you are a big, BIG publisher you should ask to see one of his many manuscript novels. Follow Rod on Twitter @