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Fighting the Dragon

by Remko Tanis

Lu Jianfu spends his free time battling abuse of power by the Chinese government. Without hesitation, the cameraman records police officers and officials disregarding the rules they enforce for others. Lu wants the government to look at itself in the mirror he holds up. Last summer, he booked his first major victory.

Fighting the Dragon It's dark in Zhengzhou. Four men look into the camera, anger written all over their faces. One of them wears a gold necklace and a tight, white t-shirt that emphasises his wide chest. Then he strikes. The camera shakes, the image freezes for a second. A little later, all four men are seen hitting the camera. It falls to the ground. “That's when I ran'', Lu says, looking back at the footage on his laptop computer.
“Some Chinese officials overestimate their own powers'', Lu continues. “The first thing most will do when trying to make me stop filming, is to offer me a favour. When that fails, they come up with money. It's when they realise that doesn't work either, that the threats and the real violence start.''

The man in the tight, white t-shirt was responsible for all major construction work in Zhengzhou, the capital of China's Henan province and Lu’s home. Thanks to his high rank, the man drove around in a black Audi with special government license plates. Lu,  “He parked his car where it was not allowed, so I filmed his traffic violation. By now, all four men have been fired because I filmed them hitting me.''
Lu Jianfu (46) has a day job as cameraman for the regional TV network of Henan province. In his spare time, he films government vehicles violating traffic regulations. “Some jump out of the car and start hitting as soon as I switch on the camera.’’ They also used to pull his hair - reason enough for Lu to shave his head bald. “So they don't have anything to hold on to.'' For many years now, government corruption tops the list of grievances held by Chinese. Despite repeated promises by the central government in Beijing to get tough on the issue, corruption grows every year. The abuse of government cars is one of the most public examples.
'I'm sure I can help you out with something'
Lu's instinct tells him something is off. He studies the license plate of a highway patrol vehicle: AA3396. “The double A indicates a special status, reserved for high officials'', explains Lu, “This double A looks suspicious.'' The car is parked on the square in front of the main train station of Zhengzhou. “Only cars with a special license plate issued by the local government are allowed to do that. There's no reason why a highway patrol car should have a plate like that.'' Lu grabs his camera and zooms in on the double A. Up close, it's clear the second A is glued on top of what is the actual second letter of the license plate: N.
The driver of the police car, not wearing a uniform, gets out of his vehicle. He pats Lu on the shoulder. “Man, you know how things go, right?'' he says in a friendly tone. “Come on; let's not make a big deal out of this. I apologise, this thing is my fault. Let's be friends. Give me your number. I'm responsible for car dealers in this area, so I'm sure I can help you out with something one day.''
Thanks, but no thanks, Lu answers politely as he continues filming. “Hey'', the driver says, a bit less friendly now, “ Stop that. How much do you need? I'll give you what you want, let's just forget about this.'' Lu turns him down a second time.  The scene has attracted quite a few spectators, among them an officer of the Zhengzhou city police. The pressure formed by the crowd and Lu's rolling camera, leaves the local policeman little choice. He pulls out his notebook and starts writing up the violation of his highway patrol colleague.
Hitting the wall
It's weird, seeing one cop fining another in public. Especially in China, where all layers of government usually form a tightly knit unit. “The government is like a big family'', Lu explains, “A father will never punish his son too severely. In the same way, the top Party officials in Beijing will never really crack down on the lower levels. The corruption and the arrogance of the authorities encompass all. The size of it has reached insane levels. Three years ago, I hit the wall. I witnessed so many examples of government misbehaviour, it was just too much.''
Since then, Lu has been hunting almost daily for official vehicles with drivers who show the utmost contempt for any rules. They ignore traffic lights, park wherever they want and use their government cars mainly for private business. The central government is aware of the problem. According to its statistics, there are five million government cars in China costing the taxpayers three to four hundred billion Yuan (33 – 44 billion euros) in purchasing, maintenance and fuel. 'The abuse of government cars has now become so widespread, many officials just choose to ignore the problem', state newspaper Global Times wrote bluntly.
Guard for civility
Lu is not discouraged in the face of such news stories. Every violation he films ends up on his blog, which is read by tens of millions of people. “ All my spare time is spent on this'', he says. “Sometimes I nearly drown in it. I barely see my wife anymore; she calls me a stubborn monkey. My friends think I'm a psycho.''
Lu has become well know in Zhengzhou, to both the general public and the authorities. His fame protects him to a certain extent. Two months ago the local government even gave him a special pass identifying Lu as 'official guard for civility'.
Lu: “This title makes it possible for me to show every violation I film directly to the under-Secretary General of the Communist Party in Zhenghzou.'' Some of his supporters lament that Lu has been drawn into the system. “Nonsense'', he insists, “When they gave me this card, I told them straight to their faces that they should not expect me to start saying nice things about them. How could you say anything positive about something that creates so many problems?''
All of a sudden, Lu starts walking fast. He throws his camera up onto his shoulder and points the lens at a police car. “Hey, you!'', he shouts at the driver. “You're not allowed to park your car here!'' The angry man behind the wheel of the police car, also in civilian clothes, tries to roll up the window. Lu pushes it back down with his hand and keeps asking the man why he parked here. Then the driver smacks his hand across the lens and drives off, with Lu zooming in on the license plate.
“It's not even these individual police officers or officials who are at the root of the problem'', says Lu. ‘It's this attitude that has permeated the entire system. All the government is concerned with is which privileges it can bestow upon itself. There is no one who checks on anyone anymore. Formally, there is a Bureau for Discipline Inspection at each level of the Communist Party, which should act against cases of abuse of power. But none of these Bureaus is functioning properly.''
Not too long ago, Lu spotted a traffic ticket on a parked government vehicle. “I took it from under the wiper and wrote on the back: 'To whoever will try to delete this ticket from the systems – I hope you die!' A policeman showed me once what happens if he tries to enter a traffic ticket into the computer system for a car with a special license plate that starts with O or AAA. The system blocks it immediately. 'License plate unknown', a pop up said as soon as he typed these first letters.''
'It doesn't pay, so to many Chinese it's useless'
While Lu keeps talking, he keeps an eye on the streets as well. All of a sudden, he gets up and runs out of the restaurant where we are having a quick lunch. His aim: another black Audi with shaded windows – the officials' car of choice. A similar Audi on the other side of the street speeds off, seeing Lu. The driver of the first Audi tries to block Lu's camera lens with his hand and then speeds off as well.
Lu: “Traffic violations by government cars are only one way in which the government shows disrespect for the rights of the Chinese people. This fight is endless and exhausting. The system cannot be changed by one or two persons, but it is difficult to mobilise more people who are willing to help the country move forward. It doesn't pay, so to many Chinese it's useless.''
Lu has achieved at least one major victory with his lone campaign. Having been confronted with his footage of official cars ignoring traffic rules for two and a half years, the government of Zhengzhou last summer decided to cancel all privileges for cars with AAA or O license plates. Lu: “That's when it became clear there were four hundred cars driving around with AAA plates, while those were designed for use by the twenty top officials of the city only. The other 380 AAA plates had been given away as 'presents'.''
Lu has saved a local newspaper from July 29, 2010 as a trophy. On the front page, the cancellation of the special privileges is announced with a big headline. Looking at it, Lu's expression turns dark. He sighs. ‘Actually, I feel like crying. I spend a lot of time online, reading news from Hong Kong and Taiwan. I know how affairs are managed outside Mainland China. I know the amount of government corruption going on in this country is not normal.''
Cynicism rules
Netizens use Chinese websites frequently to complain about government corruption. “But that's all'', Lu says. “Chinese have allowed themselves to be ruled by cynicism. All too easy, we think of the privileged communists as too strong, as a group that will never let go of anything they have acquired. But here, in Henan, we have proven that it is possible to make them give things up after all. The cancellation of privileges for special license plates is a real step in the right direction. You just have to be willing to fight a long fight.''
He sighs again, thinking of the many other fights that still have to be fought. “There is still no system of checks and balances on the authorities. And to most Chinese, the risks and the costs of fighting this fight for change are simply too high.''  Yet Lu does not feel like giving up. He is even considering directing his camera to other forms of corruption and abuse of power by the government. “This is about much more than just officials violating traffic regulations. Therefore, I cannot stop here.''


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Remko Tanis

Remko Tanis

Remko Tanis has worked as a correspondent in China since 2008 for various Dutch newspapers and broadcasters.


"From my office on the 23rd floor I look out on one of Shanghai’s central districts. Seven new skyscrapers have appeared in the past 3 years and number eight and nine are under construction. They’re a daily reminder of the speed and determination with which China is positioning itself as a global power.

What’s happening in this neighbourhood is happening throughout the country. And as dramatically as the landscape is being changed by asphalt and concrete, 1.3 billion flesh and blood Chinese are struggling with turbulent social changes. The transformation of their country offers new chances but also brings new problems.

The people I have pictured for One11 refuse to stand on the sidelines. They have the courage to challenge a still old-style authoritarian government. The courage to offer, sometimes literally, a helping hand to those who are in danger of going under in this brave new world. In an increasingly dog-eat-dog society they act for others. They undertake work that – in a healthy nation – would be the responsibility of government and civil society but which in China too often goes undone.”