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Film About Disabled Man Provokes Criticism of Chinese Government

FILE - A man pushes an elderly woman in a wheelchair in Beijing, July 5, 2022.
FILE - A man pushes an elderly woman in a wheelchair in Beijing, July 5, 2022.

Chinese state media has stopped promoting a short film that depicted the everyday struggles of a disabled man in rural China and drew tens of millions of views before prompting widespread online criticism of Beijing's poor disability rights record.

Following the online criticism from Chinese people with and without disabilities, top Chinese video streaming website BiliBili removed the film from its recommended list as official promotion ceased.

The 11-and-a-half-minute film, titled How Erjiu Cured My Mental Friction after Being Back in the Village for Three Days, centers on a man identified as "Erjiu," or second-eldest uncle. Erjiu's relative, Tang Hao, shot the film after he visited his home at an undisclosed location in rural China. Tang said he would not release Erjiu's name or location for privacy reasons. Erjiu himself does not speak in the film.

Released near the end of July, the film follows the 66-year-old man, who has a disability in his left leg. Institutional barriers prevented him from all but a limited education, so he turned to carpentry.

After years working as a skilled carpenter, Erjiu now takes care of his 88-year-old mother and works as a handyman for their village. The film emphasizes that Erjiu doesn't complain or feel sorry for himself.

The narrative seems inspiring — but that's part of the problem, according to Shixin Huang, a scholar who focuses on disability studies in China. In her field, disability is viewed as a social and political construction, which is far from how it is often considered in China, she said.

"This film perpetuates the stigma attached to disability as a form of personal tragedy instead of a societal problem," Huang told VOA Mandarin in an interview. "It's a form of personal tragedy that lies on the individual himself. This kind of perception of disability actually then justifies all the suffering and barriers that Erjiu encounters in his life."

This view of disability essentially absolves the government of any responsibility to do more to help people with disabilities, according to Huang, who said that was one of the main critiques online. She pointed to Erjiu's limited education and limited career opportunities as examples of real barriers that people with disabilities face in China.

In 2006, the China National Sample Survey on Disability found the country's disabled population stood at just under 83 million, or 6.34% of the total 1.3 billion. The World Health Organization says 15% of the world's population is disabled.

Zhang Jianping, an independent legal worker in Jiangsu province who has paraplegia, or paralysis in lower parts of the body, agrees with Huang. After state media outlets including the People's Daily and Xinhua began promoting the film as a positive depiction of one man triumphing over adversity, viewers started to think more critically about what they were watching, he said.

Viewers grew frustrated that the government "seemed to have no responsibility for people with disabilities," Zhang told VOA Mandarin in an interview. "State media originally wanted to promote it as positive, but then the film lost its value. It seemed like public opinion was changing, so they quickly removed it."

FILE - A disabled worker makes handicrafts at the Sweet Home factory in Shanghai Dec. 4, 2008.
FILE - A disabled worker makes handicrafts at the Sweet Home factory in Shanghai Dec. 4, 2008.

This film is an example of a "supercrip" narrative, according to University of California, Santa Barbara professor Hangping Xu, referring to stereotypical stories about people who miraculously overcome their disability and succeed. These narratives are often intended to inspire able-bodied people, he added.

"In this film, suffering is fetishized and justified," Xu told VOA Mandarin in an interview. "The story seems to suggest that with enough stamina and fortitude, suffering can lead to greater wisdom."

China's disability rights record parallels its broader human rights record — both of which are poor. In a July submission to the U.N. Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, Human Rights Watch (HRW) expressed concern about the Chinese government's noncompliance with its obligations under the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which China ratified in 2008. Progress has been slow since.

The Chinese government still shackles people with psychosocial disabilities, according to HRW, and people with disabilities continue to face barriers to education. Over 40% of people with disabilities in China are illiterate, according to a 2013 HRW report.

"China attaches great importance to ensuring the basic livelihood of persons with disabilities, improving their quality of life and promoting their all-round development," Liu Pengyu, the spokesperson for China's embassy in Washington, told VOA Mandarin in an email.

"A special welfare system has been established at the national level, covering tens of millions of disabled people, including living allowances, nursing subsidies, and rehabilitation assistance for children," he continued.

Pengyu also told VOA that the enrollment rate of disabled children and adolescents in compulsory education exceeded 95%. In 2013, HRW reported that about 28% of children with disabilities were not receiving compulsory basic education. The report is the most recently available research.

About 15 million people with disabilities live on less than $1 per day in the Chinese countryside, according to HRW.

In China, "it's difficult for people with disabilities to survive," said Zhang, who has paraplegia due to a traffic accident many years ago. To the government, "people with disabilities are nothing at all."

Huang wasn't surprised that the film prompted so much backlash online.

Central to the film is the concept of self-reliance, something Beijing values. The depiction of that theme appears to have struck a chord among Chinese viewers, Huang said.

"There's a lot of social dissatisfaction," Huang said, pointing to China's economic downturn, rising unemployment rate and extreme COVID-19 restrictions as some recent factors. "So this film might be triggering people's dissatisfaction about those social problems."

Zhang, the legal worker, told VOA Mandarin that he thought state media initially hyped the film in an attempt to distract people from the country's current economic troubles. Lockdowns to prevent the spread of COVID-19 as part of the official "Zero COVID" policy hobbled factories and exports and reduced consumer spending.

"State media had to use this seemingly positive story to make people feel hopeful. But state media did not expect people to reflect further," Zhang said.

"It is normal for people from all walks of life to have their own comments and opinions on videos," Pengyu of the Chinese embassy told VOA.

Despite the weight the Chinese government places on self-reliance, Huang said, Beijing also benefits from presenting itself as the protector of China's people. Since this film threatens that narrative, Huang wasn't surprised that state media worked to suppress it.

"The life story of Erjiu definitely does not fit into that state narrative of how well it protects the vulnerable portion of its population," Huang said. "It damages the moral legitimacy of the paternalistic state."