Friday, November 07, 2014


Jails and Cops Friday is back with a look at the past and a guy who is trying to dig it up.  We'll be talking about medical experimentation on prisoners (which by the way, when I did a little research on this turns out to be something that is seriously being debated again as a fine idea).  What we aren't talking about is simple neglect, bad as that is, we are going for the real thing here.  The sort of stuff that was brought up at the Nuremberg Trials of Nazi war criminals and led to a code of medical conduct which outlawed the types of horrors that went on in the Camps.  Many U.S. doctors essentially ignored the  Nuremberg Code, arguing that they applied to Nazi atrocities - not to American medicine.

Officially, most of the medical experiments in US prisons occurred forty to eighty years ago.  They included among other things according to a 2011 AP report by Mike Stobbe: hepatitis to mental patients in Connecticut, squirting a pandemic flu virus up the noses of prisoners in Maryland, and injecting cancer cells into chronically ill people at a New York hospital.

Stobbe found that these experiments weren't just about "lifesaving" treatments.  They included, "...curiosity-satisfying experiments that hurt people but provided no useful results.”

Stobbe, by the way, confined his studies to medical experiments conducted by the federal government.  

The AP review of past research found (hang on this will be lengthy but in case you missed it back in 2011, I want you to see it now):

-A federally funded study begun in 1942 injected experimental flu vaccine in male patients at a state insane asylum in Ypsilanti, Mich., then exposed them to flu several months later. It was co-authored by Dr. Jonas Salk, who a decade later would become famous as inventor of the polio vaccine.   One newspaper account mentioned the test subjects were "senile and debilitated." Then it quickly moved on to the promising results.

 -In federally funded studies in the 1940s, noted researcher Dr. W. Paul Havens Jr. exposed men to hepatitis in a series of experiments, including one using patients from mental institutions in Middletown and Norwich, Conn. Havens, a World Health Organization expert on viral diseases, was one of the first scientists to differentiate types of hepatitis and their causes. A search of various news archives found no mention of the mental patients study, which made eight healthy men ill but broke no new ground in understanding the disease.

-Researchers in the mid-1940s studied the transmission of a deadly stomach bug by having young men swallow unfiltered stool suspension. The study was conducted at the New York State Vocational Institution, a reformatory prison in West Coxsackie. The point was to see how well the disease spread that way as compared to spraying the germs and having test subjects breathe it. Swallowing it was a more effective way to spread the disease, the researchers concluded. The study doesn't explain if the men were rewarded for this awful task.

-A University of Minnesota study in the late 1940s injected 11 public service employee volunteers with malaria, then starved them for five days. Some were also subjected to hard labor, and those men lost an average of 14 pounds. They were treated for malarial fevers with quinine sulfate. One of the authors was Ancel Keys, a noted dietary scientist who developed K-rations for the military and the Mediterranean diet for the public. But a search of various news archives found no mention of the study.
-For a study in 1957, when the Asian flu pandemic was spreading, federal researchers sprayed the virus in the noses of 23 inmates at Patuxent prison in Jessup, Md., to compare their reactions to those of 32 virus-exposed inmates who had been given a new vaccine.

-Government researchers in the 1950s tried to infect about two dozen volunteering prison inmates with gonorrhea using two different methods in an experiment at a federal penitentiary in Atlanta. The bacteria was pumped directly into the urinary tract through the penis, according to their paper. The men quickly developed the disease, but the researchers noted this method wasn't comparable to how men normally got infected - by having sex with an infected partner. The men were later treated with antibiotics. The study was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

There is one more that I want to pass along,   

 Holmesburg Prison in Philadelphia made extensive use of inmates for medical experiments. Some of the victims are still around to talk about it. Edward "Yusef" Anthony, featured in a book about the studies, says he agreed to have a layer of skin peeled off his back, which was coated with searing chemicals to test a drug. He did that for money to buy cigarettes in prison.

"I said 'Oh my God, my back is on fire! Take this ... off me!'" Anthony said in an interview with The Associated Press, as he recalled the beginning of weeks of intense itching and agonizing pain.

Asked in an interview with NPR whether or not the prisoners provided consent, Stobbe replies:

 It’s an interesting question. If you go back and read the journals, the articles in the old medical publications, they generally refer to the test subjects as volunteers. But, some of the studies make clear that test subjects at times had trouble describing symptoms. We know from some press coverage of a few of the studies that test subjects were incapacitated.

In one study in Brooklyn in the early 1960s, they were volunteers but they didn’t know they were being injected with cancer cells. No one ever told them that. What seems to have happened, in a lot of studies, they were told, you know — would you like to participate in this study? We’re looking for at a treatment, sometimes they’d say what they were looking at, a vaccine or a treatment against “X.” But they wouldn’t necessarily tell them, here’s what we’re going to do to you. And these are the risks that you’re facing.

I interviewed one prisoner who’d been at a prison in Philadelphia in the 1960s. He went through some terrible studies, that were initially described to him — one of them was described to him as a test for a new type of bubble bath. He went through excruciating pain. They removed a layer of skin from his back and put on very painful chemicals. Not what you’d expect for a test for bubble bath. They didn’t always understand what they were getting into.

Another interesting tid bit of history is that during World War II, malaria research was conducted in prisons. A notable example was the experiments at Stateville Penitentiary in Illinois, in which prisoner-subjects were infected with malaria for the purpose of testing the safety and efficacy of novel anti-malaria drugs.  Uh hello, human beings were infected with malaria.

"When you give somebody a disease - even by the standards of their time - you really cross the key ethical norm of the profession," said Arthur Caplan, director of the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Bioethics.

It goes on, In These Times reported:

 In the name of science, doctors have dosed prisoners with LSD, placed them in extreme isolation to develop “mind control” techniques, and, in Washington State between 1963 and 1973, radiated their testicles and then sliced them open. (This last case brought about one of the few successful lawsuits by prisoners against medical experimentation.)

In These Times again,

A 1978 federal regulation stated that prisoners can participate in federally-funded research only if the “experiment poses no more than ‘minimal’ risk,” which it defined as a “risk of physical or psychological harm that is no greater in probability and severity than that ordinarily encountered in the daily lives, or in the routine medical, dental or psychological examinations of healthy persons.” While that would seem to make a certain amount of sense, federal oversight and monitoring of medical experimentation has been incredibly sloppy and disorganized, even according to those who have been responsible for that oversight. “What we’ve got from the regulatory standpoint is a mess,” said Dr. Thomas Puglisi, the former director of compliance for the Office of Protection from Research Risks–now the Office of Human Research Protections (OHRP)–at a medical research summit in March 2001. “I couldn’t say that when I worked for the federal government, but I can say that now.”

And it’s worth noting that the only national oversight is of clinical trials in prisons that receive federal funds. Pharmaceutical companies that want to fund their own studies have no oversight body outside of what a prison or state might deem minimally necessary. A national database of medical experimentation on prisoners does not exist. Research studies don’t even always end up being published–particularly when they fail, sometimes causing serious injury or death to their human subjects.

Surely this has all been relegated to the past.  

 Well, not exactly.  In 2006,  the  Institute of Medicine (IOM), presented a report, “Ethical Considerations for Research Involving Prisoners,” to federal officials that recommended increasing research on prison populations. Such research, the report said, provided a way of “improving the health of prisoners and the conditions in which they live.” 

You got to see this from a Scientific American article this year:

But is the time ripe to reconsider how prison populations could or should be incorporated into studies? Consider the lack of diversity in current clinical trials in the U.S. Whereas African-Americans represent 12 percent of the U.S. population they amount to only 5 percent of clinical trial participants, according to data from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Hispanics, meanwhile, make up 16 percent of the population but only 1 percent of clinical trial participants. And because prison populations are disproportionately from minority groups and may have a greater burden of certain maladies, should they be included in larger studies...

It is suggested, of course, that this would really benefit African Americans, Latinos, and others.  The powers that be have only their best interests at heart.   Others suggest that prisoners are being denied the "opportunity" to be test subjects for medical research.  

Heather Draper, a biomedical ethicist at the University of Birmingham in England says participating in research “can be regarded as a public good,” and prisoners should be afforded the opportunity to contribute.  A paper she wrote on the subject fails to suggest any proposals for how "concerns" about coercion could be overcome.  In the Scientific American article she has this answer though:

 “We do accept that additional safeguards may be necessary; but researchers have managed to strike a balance between inclusion and protection in the case of other potentially vulnerable participants,” Draper says. One possible protective mechanism offered by the IOM report in the U.S. was to create a national registry of prisoner research to provide greater accountability. Another was that when prisoners are included in larger phase III clinical trials, the prisoner to nonprisoner ratio should not exceed 50 percent, ensuring a fairer distribution of research burdens.

Paul Wright, editor of Prison Legal News, has a little different view.  He points out,

Every day prisoners around the country are dying of medical neglect because they are not provided with simple, known and available medical care. It is laughable to think that somehow cutting-edge medical treatment is suddenly going to be made available to prisoners. The people carrying out the drug testing have a fiduciary duty to enrich their shareholders and employers, not provide the best medical care for prisoners.

So that brings us to today's guest post.  This is about a man, a former convict, who wants to find out more about just what was going on at the prison that incarcerated him.   I take this from the Santa Fe New Mexican.

Ex-inmate alleges prisoners were used as lab rats at Old Main

By Phaedra Haywood

A former inmate of the state Department of Corrections’ “Old Main” prison south of Santa Fe — the site of the 1980 prison riot — has asked a district judge to allow him to dig in and around the old pen to search for proof of his claim that the state experimented on and tortured prisoners, and even sold their organs and blood.
The plaintiff in the case is Samuel P. Chavez, who was sentenced to 47 years in prison and served 23 — some of them in Old Main — on a second-degree murder conviction for shooting to death his friend Roy Mintz in 1988.

In a motion filed in First District Court on Oct. 23, Chavez asks for permission to search the premises of the prison for evidence in a case he filed in 2007, alleging his civil rights were violated by the treatment he received as a prisoner — treatment he claims led to his loss of vision.
“Plaintiff will need to physically dig into loose soil surfaces under one of the PNM [Penitentiary of New Mexico] buildings at various locations in order to obtain documentation buried by the plaintiff showing evidence of medical experimentation and torture,” according to the motion.
The motion says Chavez worked as a safety and sanitation clerk, a maintenance assistant and a meat cutter while incarcerated at Old Main and that while he was there, he buried air-tight containers filled with documents and substances that were added to prisoners’ food.
“The documentation consists of memoranda, handwritten directives and makeshift ledgers showing revenues from sales of prisoners’ body organs and blood,” according to the motion, which asks for permission to inspect the basement, boiler rooms, crawl spaces, cell blocks, medical wings, holding cells and other areas around the facility.
Attorneys for both sides in the case could not be reached for comment Thursday. Contact information for Chavez, reportedly from Mesilla, could not be located Thursday.
But a spokeswoman for the Corrections Department denied Chavez’s allegations Thursday.
“As far as the department stands, there is nothing to indicate anything is true about this,” Alex Tomlin said.
She said the department has done extensive work at the Old Main facility in recent years as part of a restoration project, and the building is now used for filming and tours.
“In that process, we’ve checked to make sure there is no mold, no asbestos, no lead,” she said. “There is no indication that the foundation of that prison has been compromised in any way or that there is a chamber that we don’t know about that’s not in the drawings. There is no indication that there is some sort of hidden place. There is no indication that there is any sort of burial site down there. It is a solid concrete slab.”
Tomlin said the department provides almost no medical care beyond basic first aid (prisoners are sent to the hospital for more serious procedures) and does not conduct autopsies.
“We are accountable for those inmates,” Tomlin said. “It’s not like people just come to us and disappear.”
Chavez was a known “jailhouse lawyer” who helped other prisoners with legal filings and was a prisoner representative during the implementation of the Duran Decree, put in place to govern prison conditions after the riot in 1980.
He claims in his 2007 complaint that he suffered years of abuse, torture and retaliation from prison staff because of this role. He says he was kept in solitary confinement for years at a time.
In 2004, after Chavez filed a complaint about his solitary confinement, then District Judge Michael Vigil ordered the Corrections Department to reclassify him and stop holding him in segregation.
“Chavez has continually been in administrative custody for over 7 years,” the order said. ” … The Court has never seen an inmate similarly situated with a clean disciplinary record and perfect conduct kept in administrative segregation for as long as Petitioner.”
According to the order, not a single Corrections Department official was able to explain why Chavez continued to be held in segregation.
Tomlin said Thursday that the Corrections Department “has been very open in the past years in saying we fell into a culture after the riot of overuse of segregation. Because we were so worried about having another riot, we just locked people down,” she said. “We way too often segregated people that did not need to be segregated and kept them there longer than they needed to be.”
Tomlin said that practice has been discontinued and replaced with a system that calls for inmates’ security status to be automatically reviewed every six months and allows inmates to work toward lower security ratings.
Attorney Mark Donatelli — who represented the plaintiffs in the class-action suit that led to the Duran Decree and later was appointed to work with prison representatives during the implementation and monitoring of the decree — said he had never heard any stories from inmates about blood or organ sales or the food being poisoned.
He did hear stories about missing bodies, he said, but no family members ever came looking for any missing people.
But Donatelli said he did work with Chavez during that time, and he found him to be “reliable and credible.”
Contact Phaedra Haywood at 986-3068 or

Thursday, November 06, 2014


I have zero time to write anything, but I just bumped into this on my way out.  Check it out from TamilNet.

‘Solidarity of oppressed nations needed to defeat global system of oppression’

[TamilNet, Tuesday, 04 November 2014, 20:47 GMT]
“The system that oppresses us is global. The system that oppresses us is united and in solidarity with each other. So we need to be in solidarity with each other against the same system that oppresses us. The Tamil national liberation struggle is a case in point. Your enemies are our enemies”, said Kurdish activist Memed Aksoy, urging for greater solidarity among oppressed nations. In an exclusive interview to TamilNet on Sunday, Mr. Aksoy, who is also a filmmaker and writer, talking about the current situation in Kobane, the nature of the ISIS and its supporters, the duplicity of Turkey, the PKK’s commitment to the peace process, and the changing policies of the West towards the Kurds, gave a concise picture of the Kurdish resistance and the local and global challenges it faces. 

Global Day for Kobane observed at Trafalgar Square in London
Global Day for Kobane observed at Trafalgar Square in London
Global Day for Kobane observed at Trafalgar Square in London
Global Day for Kobane observed at Trafalgar Square in London
Global Day for Kobane observed at Trafalgar Square in London
Terming the ISIS as “the international hitmen of finance capital”, Mr. Aksoy said that states like Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE were backing that organization.

“Turkey has played a negative role, almost a terroristic role on an international and historical scale in providing logistic support, military support, financial support and political support for ISIS and the mentality and ideology that ISIS is trying to spread across the region,” he said.

Explaining that Turkey hosted most reactionary elements of the ‘Free Syrian Army’ in Ankara for the past three years, he said Turkey was one of the key allies in the attempts to topple the Assad regime and they did not differentiate between any of the components of the FSA. 

ISIS has been attacking the Rojava revolution for the past two years. But since certain international powers have no use for them anymore, they have changed their tactics towards the ISIS.

Mr. Aksoy noted how world powers ignored the Kurdish struggle against ISIS for over two years but started taking notice only after the fall of Mosul, Iraq in 2014. When the ISIS began its assault on Kobane, the world turned a blind eye for the first 35 days. 

“It is only when Kobane did not fall and Kurds around the world started uprising, in UK, in Europe, all over the world, that America had to intervene.”

Talking about how America after much dilly-dallying finally began to support the Kurds, he also said that the biggest obstacle to this support came from Turkey. 

Commenting on the ban on the PKK, he said that the removal of the ban would greatly assist the peace process in Turkey.

“The terrorist ban will only lead to more criminalization and more fighting between Turkey and the Kurdish people and the PKK.”

He added that while the PKK has taken several steps to support the peace process, Turkey was unwilling to resolve the issue in a just manner.

Responding to a question on the prospects of solidarity among nations-without-states, he said “The system that oppresses us is global. The system that oppresses us is united and in solidarity with each other. So we need to be in solidarity with each other against the same system that oppresses us. The Tamil national liberation struggle is a case in point. Your enemies are our enemies.”

He concluded that now was the time for a greater solidarity between Kurds and Tamils. 

* * *

Global Day for Kobane observed in Bergen, Norway
Global Day for Kobane observed in Bergen, Norway
Global Day for Kobane observed in Bergen, Norway
Global Day for Kobane observed in Bergen, Norway
Thousands of protestors in major cities across the Western world took out rallies on 1 November, which was marked as a Global Day for Kobane, to convey their support to the Kurdish resistance in Rojava, and to condemn ISIS brutalities.

Despite explicit repression, thousands of protestors took to the streets in Istanbul and Diyarbakir in Turkey to convey their solidarity with the Kurds fighting the Islamists in Kobane. 

The protests in London were held at Trafalgar Square, which was packed with activists upholding Kurdish flags and flags of the imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan.

Several of the speakers at the London event called for a lifting of the ban on the PKK and for the immediate release of Abdullah Ocalan who has been in solitary confinement in a Turkish prison for the past 15 years. 

Tamil, Indian leftist, Baloch, Turkish and Iranian leftists, and British activists conveyed their solidarity with the struggle of the Kurds at Trafalgar Square.

Speaking at the event, Karthick RM, research scholar in Political Theory at the University of Essex, emphasised on the importance of the success of the Kurdish struggle for peace and justice in the middle-east. Stating that Kobane is “the most important revolution of this century”, he said that Tamils in Tamil Nadu and across the world stood in solidarity with the Kurds. 

Appealing for solidarity among oppressed nations, he said that “A genocide is not possible by just one actor. A genocide is made possible by several actors working together.” Giving the example of Sri Lanka, he argued that just as how international complicity allowed the Sinhala state to execute the genocide in Tamil Eelam, the complicity of certain local and global powers gives ISIS its strength. 

Tamil, Bengali and Norwegian activists also participated in the Kurdish protests in Bergen. Despite the heavy rain, the activists gathered in Bergen centrum to stand in solidarity with the YPG/YPJ fighting against the ISIS in Kobane.

Speaking at the event in Bergen, Athithan Jayapalan, Eezham Tamil social anthropology academic, spoke on the significance of the Kurdish spirit of resistance throughout history and the current historical importance of the struggle in Rojava and Kobane. He conveyed the solidarity of the oppressed Eezham Tamil nation to the resistance of the Kurds, and mentioned that the LTTE and PKK had a relation of mutual respect and solidarity.

“When we were subjected to the darkest chapter in our national history, in 2009 May, when over 146,000 Tamils were slaughtered by the Sri Lankan state, we did also stand alone. But the Kurdish people felt our pains; Many Kurdish comrades expressed deep sorrow yet encouraged us to keep the struggle alive.”

“The Rojava revolution has given us faith that sovereign people movements and national liberation struggles will triumph eventually despite the oppressors’ superior power,” he said.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014



Friends of Xu Lizhi, a Foxconn worker who committed suicide in September at the age of 24, are honoring their friend by publishing translations of his poems into English. Xu Lizhi’s poems reflect on his experiences working in the factory.  Before he took his life Xu Lizhi regularly contributed poetry to Foxconn People, which was the internal newsletter at the huge factory complex where he worked.

Like millions of other young Chinese, Xu left his home in rural Guangdong province in 2010 to find work in the big city; he had been working intermittently on Foxconn’s electronics assembly line for four years.

You remember Foxconn. Foxconn is a firm responsible for assembling as much as 40% of global consumer electronics products (producing electronics for such major brand names as HP, Dell, and Apple, to name just a few), and has received international infamy for the inferior labor conditions at some of their China-based plants.  It's the Taiwanese corporation which in response to worker suicides at its Shenzhen plant put up nets for prevent workers from jumping off dormitory roofs.

Capitalism is so sweet.

Xi is everywhere.

Business Week with audacity and of all places writes:

Xu’s poetry gives voice to the alienation he and many others of his generation feel on the assembly line: “I swallowed a moon made of iron/ They refer to it as a nail/ I swallowed this industrial sewage, these unemployment documents/ Youth stooped at machines die before their time/ I swallowed the hustle and the destitution/ Swallowed pedestrian bridges, life covered in rust / I can’t swallow any more/ All that I’ve swallowed is now gushing out of my throat/ Unfurling on the land of my ancestors/ Into a disgraceful poem.”

A frequent theme is how he felt the monotony of factory life sapping away “the last graveyard of our youth.” In one poem, Xu wrote: “With no time for expression, emotion crumbles into dust/ They have stomachs forged of iron/ Full of thick acid, sulfuric and nitric/ Industry captures their tears before they have the chance to fall.”

Xu also described the desolate conditions of his rented room: “A space of ten square meters/ Cramped and damp, no sunlight all year/ Here I eat, sleep, sh–, and think/ Cough, get headaches, grow old, get sick but still fail to die/ Under the dull yellow light again I stare blankly, chuckling like an idiot.”

One poem alludes to worker suicides at the Shenzhen plant: “A screw fell to the ground/ In this dark night of overtime/ Plunging vertically, lightly clinking/ It won’t attract anyone’s attention/ Just like last time/ On a night like this/ When someone plunged to the ground.”

After his death on Sept. 30, a factory worker and friend, Zhou Qizao, wrote a poem in Xu’s memory: “The loss of every life/ Is the passing of another me/ Another screw comes loose/ Another migrant worker brother jumps/ You die in place of me/ And I keep writing in place of you.”

The following is from the Black Orchid Collective.

Alienation and Death: The poetry and brief

 life of Foxconn worker Xu Lizhi

This was the weekend of Dia De Los Muertos and of All Souls Day. I missed the events at the Northwest Detention Center commemorating the deaths of millions of displaced immigrants who risk, and sometimes lose their lives crossing the US-Mexico border. I was stuck at work, where as a nurse, I try to care (within the limitations of this role) for patients encountering death and illness. “Trauma season” is over, we say at work, and it is the period for different kinds of mishaps to be dominant — Tuberculosis, pneumonia, flu and the like. Even illnesses claim their monopolies.
And in the cold, bland Foxconn factories in Shenzhen, China, suicide claims its territory over this subcontractor of Apple products. In 2010 alone, 18 workers — migrant and youthful — attempted suicide. 14 people died. In subsequent years, Foxconn’s attempt to reduce these shameful statistics was to install nets on the dormitory buildings, literally thwarting suicides mid stream.
24 year old Xu Lizhi is only the latest casualty of Foxconn’s working conditions. It is clear through his writings and the obituary that his death was caused by the alienation, drudgery and meaninglessness of factory life. Time structured by pay slips, overtime, exhaustion erase meaning and passion from a much desired youthfulness. His death is timed with the new release of the iPhone 6. We can only speculate on the coincidence.
These translations of Xu Lizhi’s poetry are a commemoration to the lives, struggles and resistance of Foxconn workers.  Those of us who have translated his poems are honored to have this opportunity, as tragic as the circumstances are.
Thanks to Nao project for initially putting up our translations here
The Poetry and Brief Life of Xu Lizhi


Translators’ note: Below are translations by friends of the Nao project, starting with Xu’s departing poem and an obituary, followed by other poems from 2011 to 2014. By translating these poems, we aim to memorialize Xu, share some of his excellent literary work, and spread awareness that the harsh conditions, struggles and aspirations of Chinese migrant workers (including but not limited to Foxconn) have not diminished since the more widely-publicized spate of 18 attempted Foxconn suicides in 2010, resulting in 14 deaths. Insiders report that thereafter, although the frequency of suicides decreased (mainly due to Foxconn’s installation of nets making it more difficult for workers to jump from their dormitories, along with the development of workers’ collective resistance), such suicides have continued to the present. Including Xu Lizhi, at least 8 cases have been reported in the media since 2010, but insiders say that many other cases go unreported. We hope that in the future, workers in Foxconn and elsewhere manage to find ways around such companies’ military-style discipline and surveillance, come together, and forge collective paths out of this capitalist world of death, into a world worth living in. Don’t give up!
Feel free to repost these translations on not-for-profit websites, but please acknowledge that these were first translated and published here on the Nao blog.
Several of these poems were included in the Shenzhen Evening News article linked and translated below; the others are widely available on the web, such as this post on Douban.
Obituary + “On My Deathbed” (2014)
“Conflict” (2013)
“I Fall Asleep, Just Standing Like That” (2011)
“A Screw Fell to the Ground (2014)
“A Kind of Prophecy” (2013)
“The Last Graveyard” (2011)
“My Life’s Journey is Far From Complete” (2014)
“I Swallowed a Moon Made of Iron” (2013)
“Rented Room” (2013)
“Upon Hearing the News of Xu Lizhi’s Suicide” by Zhou Qizao, a fellow worker at Foxconn (2014)
Obituary from Shenzhen Evening News, including Xu’s departing poem
by Li Fei and Zhang Xiaoqi
10 October, 2014
“On My Deathbed”
I want to take another look at the ocean, behold the vastness of tears from half a lifetime
I want to climb another mountain, try to call back the soul that I’ve lost
I want to touch the sky, feel that blueness so light
But I can’t do any of this, so I’m leaving this world
Everyone who’s heard of me
Shouldn’t be surprised at my leaving
Even less should you sigh or grieve
I was fine when I came, and fine when I left.
– Xu Lizhi, 30 September 2014
Shy, quiet, introverted, solitary
In 2010, Xu Lizhi went [from his home in rural Jieyang, Guangdong] to work at [a] Foxconn [electronics factory in Shenzhen], beginning life on the assembly line. From 2012 until February of this year [2014], over 30 of his writings were published in Foxconn’s internal newspaper Foxconn People (富士康人), including poems, essays, film reviews, and news commentaries {…} Xu posted the titles of these writings on his blog in a post called “The Maturation Given to Me by a Newspaper,” indicating his gratitude for this platform for his literary aspirations. The first time his friend Zheng (pseudonym) read Xu’s poetry, he was astonished to discover that this young man could be so talented. Henceforth, Zheng always looked for Xu’s writings in the newspaper.
Zheng’s impression was that Xu was a shy boy, “of few words, but not silent.” “Xu asserted his convictions, but he seemed quite solitary – very much the air of a poet.” When Zheng heard of Xu’s suicide, his entire [week-long] break for [China’s] National Day was shrouded in grief. He could not go outside for days.
Turning feelings into poems; fearing they be read by family
Most of Xu’s early poems were descriptions of life on the assembly line. In “Workshop, My Youth Was Stranded Here,” he described his conditions at the time: “Beside the assembly line, tens of thousands of workers [dagongzhe]1 line up like words on a page/ ‘Faster, hurry up!’/ Standing among them, I hear the supervisor bark.” He felt that “Once you’ve entered the workshop/ The only choice is submission,” and that his youth was coldly slipping away, so he could only “Watch it being ground away day and night/ Pressed, polished, molded/ Into a few measly bills, so-called wages.”
At first Xu Lizhi found it difficult to adapt to the constant switching between dayshifts and nightshifts. In another poem, he described himself by the assembly line “standing straight like iron, hands like flight,” “How many days, how many nights/ Did I – just like that – standing, fall asleep?” He described his working life as exhausting, “Flowing through my veins, finally reaching the tip of my pen/ Taking root in the paper/ These words can be read only by the hearts of migrant workers.”
Xu once said that he never showed his poetry to his parents or other relatives, “because it’s something painful; I don’t want them to see that.”
Failed efforts to get a job related to books
Although Xu lived in Shenzhen for only a few years, he identified deeply with the city. “Everyone wishes they could put down roots in the city,” he explained, but most migrant-worker [dagong] poets write for a few years and then return to the countryside, get married and have children; Xu hoped to avoid that fate. He tried setting up a street stall with a friend, but failed. He also tried transferring from the assembly line to a logistics position, where he would have more freedom. He understood that very few such poets could get out [走出来]: “[we] have to constantly fight for our lives [为生活奔波]; it’s hard to go any further than that.”
In February of this year, Xu quit his job at Foxconn and moved to Suzhou, Jiangsu. His friend explained that Xu’s girlfriend worked there, but apparently things did not go well for Xu in Jiangsu. He told Zheng that he had trouble finding a job, but he did not go into detail about what happened there.
Half a year later, he moved back to Shenzhen. In an earlier interview, Xu had said that he loved this city, that he derived great pleasure from its Central Book Mall and public libraries. If he were to return home [to rural Jieyang], there were only a few small bookstores, and “even if I tried to order books online, they couldn’t be delivered” [to his remote address].
Due to his love of books, the first job application he submitted upon his return to Shenzhen in early September was to the Central Book Mall. Zheng recalled that Xu had told him, while working at Foxconn, that his dream was to become a librarian. Unfortunately, he did not get the job, and Zheng thinks this was a major disappointment. Two years earlier, Xu had applied for a position as librarian at Foxconn’s internal library for employees, in response to a call for applications, and Xu had been turned down then as well. {…}
Returning to the workshop for one day prior to the incident
Xu was running out of money, so after these disappointments, he returned to Foxconn, beginning work on September 29, in the same workshop where he had worked before. This should have been a new beginning, but it was not. That evening he mentioned to Zheng via online chat that someone had found him another job, so he might leave Foxconn again, but Zheng did not consider this anything special, figuring that Xu would not leave very soon, having just resumed work at Foxconn.
The next Zheng heard of Xu was two days later, when people forwarded the news of Xu’s suicide on WeChat. Zheng could not believe it: “Hadn’t we just chatted two nights ago?” Later Zheng learned that Xu had committed suicide only the morning after they had chatted, not two days later as the media had reported.
Refuting online rumors that Xu was an orphan
[Although it has been 10 days since Xu's death,] when it is mentioned, Zheng still cannot bear the grief. He thinks that Xu’s suicide resulted from both internal and external factors: not only the disappointments he had undergone, but even more so the solitary poetic spirit in his bones.2
After Xu’s passing, some online obituaries claimed that as a young child he had been orphaned, neglected and insulted until a poor old women adopted and raised him, and that this foster-grandmother had died a few years ago, leaving Xu alone in the world.
Zheng [refuted these rumors, pointing out that] Xu’s writings often mentioned his mother and homesickness. His second poem published in Foxconn People [for example], was called “Summertime Homesickness.”
Xu’s poetry is cold and pensive, directly facing a life of misery. His poems trace a trajectory in which the scent of death becomes more and more pronounced. He had already rehearsed death hundreds of times in his writing, so the final act was merely a small step over the edge.
Selected Poems by Xu Lizhi
They all say
I’m a child of few words
This I don’t deny
But actually
Whether I speak or not
With this society I’ll still
– 7 June 2013
“I Fall Asleep, Just Standing Like That”
The paper before my eyes fades yellow
With a steel pen I chisel on it uneven black
Full of working words
Workshop, assembly line, machine, work card, overtime, wages…
They’ve trained me to become docile
Don’t know how to shout or rebel
How to complain or denounce
Only how to silently suffer exhaustion
When I first set foot in this place
I hoped only for that grey pay slip on the tenth of each month
To grant me some belated solace
For this I had to grind away my corners, grind away my words
Refuse to skip work, refuse sick leave, refuse leave for private reasons
Refuse to be late, refuse to leave early
By the assembly line I stood straight like iron, hands like flight,
How many days, how many nights
Did I – just like that – standing fall asleep?
– 20 August 2011
“A Screw Fell to the Ground”
A screw fell to the ground
In this dark night of overtime
Plunging vertically, lightly clinking
It won’t attract anyone’s attention
Just like last time
On a night like this
When someone plunged to the ground
– 9 January 2014
“A Kind of Prophecy”
Village elders say
I resemble my grandfather in his youth
I didn’t recognize it
But listening to them time and again
Won me over
My grandfather and I share
Facial expressions
Temperaments, hobbies
Almost as if we came from the same womb
They nicknamed him “bamboo pole”
And me, “clothes hanger”
He often swallowed his feelings
I’m often obsequious
He liked guessing riddles
I like premonitions
In the autumn of 1943, the Japanese devils invaded
and burned my grandfather alive
at the age of 23.
This year i turn 23.
– 18 June 2013
“The Last Graveyard”
Even the machine is nodding off
Sealed workshops store diseased iron
Wages concealed behind curtains
Like the love that young workers bury at the bottom of their hearts
With no time for expression, emotion crumbles into dust
They have stomachs forged of iron
Full of thick acid, sulfuric and nitric
Industry captures their tears before they have the chance to fall
Time flows by, their heads lost in fog
Output weighs down their age, pain works overtime day and night
In their lives, dizziness before their time is latent
The jig forces the skin to peel
And while it’s at it, plates on a layer of aluminum alloy
Some still endure, while others are taken by illness
I am dozing between them, guarding
The last graveyard of our youth.
– 21 December 2011
“My Life’s Journey is Still Far from Complete”
This is something no one expected
My life’s journey
Is far from over
But now it’s stalled at the halfway mark
It’s not as if similar difficulties
Didn’t exist before
But they didn’t come
As suddenly
As ferociously
Repeatedly struggle
But all is futile
I want to stand up more than anyone else
But my legs won’t cooperate
My stomach won’t cooperate
All the bones of my body won’t cooperate
I can only lie flat
In this darkness, sending out
A silent distress signal, again and again
Only to hear, again and again
The echo of desperation.
– 13 July 2014
“I Swallowed a Moon Made of Iron”
I swallowed a moon made of iron
They refer to it as a nail
I swallowed this industrial sewage, these unemployment documents
Youth stooped at machines die before their time
I swallowed the hustle and the destitution
Swallowed pedestrian bridges, life covered in rust
I can’t swallow any more
All that I’ve swallowed is now gushing out of my throat
Unfurling on the land of my ancestors
Into a disgraceful poem.
– 19 December 2013
“Rented Room”
A space of ten square meters
Cramped and damp, no sunlight all year
Here I eat, sleep, shit, and think
Cough, get headaches, grow old, get sick but still fail to die
Under the dull yellow light again I stare blankly, chuckling like an idiot
I pace back and forth, singing softly, reading, writing poems
Every time I open the window or the wicker gate
I seem like a dead man
Slowly pushing open the lid of a coffin.
– 2 December 2013
Translators’ notes:
1. From the 1990s through the 2000s, dagongzhe referred mainly to migrant wage-laborers from rural areas, often working in precarious employment positions, as opposed to urbanites working in stable positions (usually in state-owned enterprises), who were called gongren, the socialist-era term for urban “workers” with permanent positions in state-owned and collective enterprises. In the past few years, however, these two terms have become somewhat interchangeable (perhaps reflecting the convergence of conditions among different types of workers), so here we translate dagongzhe simply as “workers.” (Below we add “migrant” in a few cases where it seems necessary for clarification; in general, the term reflects the ambiguity of migrant workers’ status in China today – as workers differentiated from other workers, as neither urbanites nor peasants – somewhat like the ambiguous status of international migrant workers in other countries, such as people from rural Mexico working in the US.) For discussions of these two terms as used in the 2000s, see “China’s Migrant Workers” by Prol-position, and the introduction to Made in China by Pun Ngai (Duke University Press, 2005).
2. We at Nao would like to point out that this explanation neglects the profound hatred of life on the assembly line reflected so clearly in many of Xu’s poems quoted above and translated below, coupled with his desperation after repeatedly failing to find a more satisfactory way out of that life, including the possibility of returning home to the empty, poor village where he would be cut off from access to books – his main source of pleasure and meaning in life (along with – presumably – the possibility of being together with his girlfriend or getting married, which would require more money than Xu would have been able to make in the countryside). This account also fails to explain why so many other workers – at Foxconn and elsewhere – have chosen to commit suicide – even those who were not poets.