NEAR CHANGPO VILLAGE, China — From his perch on an overhang above the Yellow River, Wei Jinpeng pointed to a fisherman's cove below and began counting his latest catch. He stopped after six, and guessed that perhaps a dozen human corpses were bobbing in the murky waters.
The bodies were floating facedown and tethered by ropes to the shore, their mud-covered limbs and rumps protruding from the water.
Wei is a fisher of dead people. He scans the river for cadavers, drags them to shore with a small boat and then charges grieving families to recover their relatives' corpses. Wei said he kept the faces submerged to preserve their features. Any dispute about identity makes it harder to collect his bounty.
Wei doesn't worry about how they got here, but he's heard tales over the years from relatives who've come to claim the bodies, haunting portraits of average people crushed in the extraordinary stress of China's economic boom.
While some of the 80 to 100 bodies Wei gathers each year are victims of accidents and floods, he thinks that the majority end up in the river after suicide or murder. There's no overt sign of a crime spree, though there's evidence of many people taking their own lives. Indeed, suicide is the leading cause of death for women in rural China, and 26 percent of all suicides in the world take place in the nation, according to the World Health Organization
Most of the bodies apparently are swept downriver from Lanzhou, the provincial capital of Gansu in the country's northwest. The city boasts rows of new skyscrapers, built by a rush of poor laborers with few rights, and businessmen notorious for operating above the law.
The work of "body fishers" has received increased attention in Chinese media lately, including the release of a documentary about a clan of them who work near Wei. One English-language state newspaper described the profession as "living on the dead"; it noted that the filmmaker saw the family retrieving bodies almost daily.
Wei's fishing spot is about 18 miles from Lanzhou. A bend in the river and a hydroelectric dam slow the currents and give the bodies a place to float to the surface.
The family members who come to claim them whisper about a father who, unable to make ends meet with low pay, killed himself by jumping off a bridge. Wei also has retrieved bodies with gagged mouths and bound hands, the hallmark of criminal gangs and corrupt police. Finally, there are the remains of young women whom no one recognizes, which Wei eventually cuts loose back into the river, he said.
"Most of the bodies that are not claimed by relatives are female migrant workers who had moved to Lanzhou," said Wei, who drives a red motorcycle and wears large circle-rimmed sunglasses. "Most of them have been murdered. ... Their families don't know; they think they're still working in Lanzhou."
The families who are left to search for the deceased often do so without much help from the police and, instead, have to haggle with men such as Wei over the price of the dead.
A Lanzhou business journal wrote in 2006 about a local firm that got a call from a body fisher who'd found a corpse floating in the river with employee identification. When a company representative, identified only by the surname Wang, went to collect the body, he was told that it would cost 200 yuan (about $30) to view the face and 6,000 yuan ($895) to take the dead man away. Wang and the body fisher argued, finally settling on 4,000 yuan ($597). The news article expressed outrage at the situation and quoted police as saying there'd be a crackdown, something that almost four years later has yet to happen.
Body fishing is by all accounts a thriving business in Gansu province; practitioners advertise their names and phone numbers by painting them on the sides of buildings near the river. Chinese newspapers and news websites have run stories recently about body fishers working from the southwest mega-city of Chonqing to the eastern coastal province of Shandong.
Wei and others said they called the police when they'd found murder victims, though it isn't clear that's always the case.
"They're not only making a business from this, but they're cheating people," said Zhu Wenhuan, a Lanzhou man who's visited Wei twice looking for his mother after she vanished June 3.
Police in the area refused interview requests for this story.
However, Lanzhou residents and news accounts confirmed much of what Wei and his colleagues said.
For example, the wife of Lanzhou resident Zhang Daqiang went missing on May 22. On the suspicion that his wife had flung herself into the river because of problems at work, Zhang has posted fliers and made the rounds of local body fishers. In a telephone interview, he told McClatchy that his wife was facing increased pressure at work after management withheld pay and canceled holidays. She's one of three workers who've disappeared since employees at the company staged a strike in March to protest the conditions, Zhang said.
Lanzhou is a dusty outpost compared with the glitter of a Shanghai, but it anchors a province whose economic output more than doubled from 2004 to 2009. There are BMW and Audi dealerships near towering office buildings in what once was a part of the old Silk Road.
Dong Xiangrong, a Lanzhou university student, said that everyone knew the other side of that new wealth: Workers in the city of some 2 million people, especially migrants, are at times treated like cattle.
"Sometimes their bosses don't pay them, and when they go to argue, the bosses beat them and dump them in the river," Dong, 21, said with a matter-of-fact tone.
Sitting at a nearby park, the Ma brothers paused to consider the issue.
"Some employers don't pay the staff, so their employees commit suicide," said Ma Yinglong, a 55-year-old retired factory worker.
Ma Yingbao, a 44-year-old who's out of work, added: "There could be many reasons for a body to be in the river. ... Some people are under too much pressure."
Before Wei got into the business in 2003, he ran a pear orchard and made some 4,000 yuan a year. He now charges 500 yuan when a farmer comes to gather a body, 2,000 yuan if the customer has a job and 3,000 yuan when a company is covering the bill.
Wei acknowledged that some in the community criticize the work as profiting from tragedy. He pointed out that it's a job that few others are willing to do. Several people in Lanzhou agreed that without Wei and others scooping up bodies, there'd be no way to collect the dead.
Just down the road, Wei Yingquan and his two sons, who were profiled in the documentary, have diversified from sheep farming to body fishing. They charge people 300 yuan (about $45) just to turn over corpses to see whether they recognize them.
"Some people say that I am a swindler, that I am kidnapping bodies," said Wei Yingquan, a 64-year-old with tobacco-stained teeth and a grimy white sweater. Nevertheless, he said, "people come every day to look at the bodies."
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McClatchy Newspapers 2010