The image shot around China’s mobile screens like a still of real-life horror movie. A stocky police officer standing over the body of a woman in a purple coat, a police van in the backdrop. Her lifeless face is framed by the officer’s shoes and the cold asphalt. According to witnesses, this was the price she paid for challenging her boss.
— China Xinhua News (@XHNews) December 30, 2014
The scene, now known in China as the “December 13” or 12/13 incident, is now an international news story because it was caught on video, but it represents in many ways business as usual for China’s migrant workforce. Moving in droves from rural areas into cities, they jump from one poverty-wage job to another, braving dangerous working conditions and rampant wage theft and exploitation. They often have virtually no legal recourse, because they lack an enforceable contract. Like undocumented immigrants, China’s live on the rough edge of the urban economy, barely able to secure housing and food, much less sue for back pay.
The woman was Zhou Xiuyun, a 47-year-old mother from Henan Province. She had reportedly approached the site of a construction company in Taiyuan City, Shanxi, in a group of more than ten workers who were owed back wages. A clash with police ensued, and at some point the woman was assaulted, her neck was twisted and she was left on the ground in the biting winter air, unresponsive. Her husband was reportedly also beaten, ending up with several broken ribs, and later complained that the officers ignored his pleas for help and “accused her of playing dead.”
The visual details of the video are in dispute, but authorities appear to be responding to widespread outrage. This week, state media reported that authorities have arrested three police officers in the ongoing investigation, charging one with directly causing her death and two others with “abusing their power.”
But the more profound abuse of power is built into the very edifice of the country’s modernization agenda. This week a coalition of scholars from mainland and Hong Kong universities issued an open letter citing the death of Zhou as emblematic of systemic hardships besetting migrants across China. “This event reflects not only unlawful police conduct,” they wrote, “but also the hardships facing as many as 40 million migrant construction workers.”