FUZHOU, China — Someone who was terrified of his or her name being made public had a piece of advice: If you want to know the story of Qian Mingqi, the man who set off three bombs here late last month, go see Xiong Xiaolan.
At a small path near her home, Xiong welcomed a reporter and then, as she turned to keep walking, froze in place. A beefy man in gray slacks and a striped blue shirt was barreling toward her.
"You should not talk with foreigners," the man called out, as about half a dozen district officials, Communist Party propaganda representatives and security officers appeared behind him. In a few minutes, six more showed up and began to corral Xiong and a growing crowd of locals to the other side of a semicircle of men with crossed arms. During the melee that ensued, Xiong and two men were marched off by plainclothes security.
That night, Xiong sent a text message apologizing for not being able to talk about Qian Mingqi. "I'm under the control of the government right now," she explained.
Two weeks after Qian detonated bombs at government buildings in this south China city, killing four people, including himself, the Chinese government is keeping a tight grip on what's said publicly about his life and death.
The police closely monitor people who knew the 52-year-old Qian, threatening them with repercussions if they give unauthorized interviews. Official Chinese-language news coverage is circumscribed, leaving out any examination of the simmering frustrations with the Fuzhou government that echo national concerns about corruption and a lack of rule of law. Official coverage in English has been more expansive, but wouldn't be widely read here.
Concern applies even to Qian's corpse. His family said this week that the government had yet to release his body.
"They don't want us to do a funeral because we'd have a traditional ceremony in public with his body," said Qian Hanmei, Qian's daughter and a 28-year-old housewife. "They suspect we would use this funeral to start a public disturbance."
The reason for the heavy-handed tactics seems clear: China's Communist Party, well acquainted with the power of propaganda, doesn't want the names of men such as Qian to become rallying cries for further discontent.
Qian's attacks on a prosecutor's office and a district government building came after years of the sort of land dispute that's become increasingly common in China's provinces.
The government tore down buildings that belonged to Qian first in 1995 and then in 2002. After the second time, Qian accused an area leader of withholding money that was meant to compensate him.
Qian's Internet postings revealed that he was aware of others with similar complaints. Among those he commented on were Wang Jiazheng, a farmer who set himself on fire in April to stop the leveling of his house for a vocational university complex, and Qian Yunhui, a village leader who was found crushed beneath a construction truck's tire last December after opposing a power station project.
Fuzhou city spokesman Li Wei acknowledged that China's laws governing the seizure of property for public use are inadequate and corruption is rife in some local governments. Coupled with an increase of ordinary Chinese learning about the legal system, Li said, there are bound to be conflicts.
"The system in China has contradictions with the improvement of people's understanding of the law," said Li, who was waiting for a McClatchy reporter after the reporter was escorted away from the scene of Xiong Xiaolan's detention.
Li continued: "People have learned a lot about the Western world; they know how to use law to defend their interests. But the system here, or some people in the system, won't allow them to do that."
Last week, both the government and Communist Party leaders of the district where Qian lived in Jiangxi province were removed from office with no public explanation. Qian had accused one of those men of misappropriating money meant to pay him for his house.
Sitting in State Guest Room No. 351 of the Grand Honor Hotel's seafood restaurant, an establishment not lacking in gold paint or chandeliers, Li openly discussed the challenges facing the Chinese government. None of the officials sitting at the table, though, mentioned Xiong being taken away screaming just a few minutes earlier.
Asked about Qian and the bombings, Li was dismissive.
"There's no need for deep reporting on this person, because he's only one man and he doesn't represent many people," said Li, a former judge.
Interviews with those who knew Qian suggest otherwise.
"He's a hero. He's the same as me: He did everything possible but still found no solution," said Wang Julan, 60, who with her family owns a small car dealership in Fuzhou. "The government is not administering the country in a legal way. The Chinese people have no human rights; they are not getting what they deserve."
As with Qian, Wang and her husband spent years fighting court cases after the government razed their prior residence and shop to make way for the widening of Fuzhou Avenue. She was given 105 yuan, about $16.20, per square meter for her property, according to court documents she provided. But to rebuild along the same road, the government charged her 360 yuan per square meter in "construction administration fees" to buy land, according to a separate set of government papers.
Allegations of unscrupulous practices employed to scoop up more land for development deals aren't hard to come by in Fuzhou.
"If you bribe government officials you can get anything done, even if what you want to do is illegal," said Zhu Guoying, 48, who said a local Communist Party official had suggested that some cash under the table would help resolve difficulties when her restaurant and adjoining home were flattened for a hospital expansion. "But if you don't bribe them, you can't even get legal things done."
The government knocked down Qian Mingqi's house and his late wife's grocery store in 1995 and another house in 2002. In both instances, the projects cited as the reason for the demolitions didn't use the land where Qian's property stood; it's reportedly still vacant today.
Although state media initially cast Qian as a jobless farmer, he was in fact a businessman. He started off humbly, making and selling bamboo handicrafts. From there, he opened a dumpling restaurant, and then ran a small bottle-recycling business.
Having saved some money, Qian started a funeral parlor and saw an opportunity in renting out refrigerated coffins used to preserve the dead. Once he learned how to make the devices himself, his family said, Qian opened a local distributorship.
After all that effort to make something of himself, "he was very angry that the government was doing nothing to help" in his time of need, said his daughter, Qian Hanmei.
Qian Mingqi bought a three-story home near downtown Fuzhou and began a series of lawsuits to recoup what he claimed was more than 2 million yuan — about $308,000 — owed to him.
Looking for help, Qian also joined the ranks of petitioners, people who submit complaints to local offices and then, usually getting little response, travel to Beijing to plead with the State Bureau for Letters and Calls. It's a practice with roots in imperial China and the belief that when all else fails, commoners can always throw themselves at the mercy of the emperor's court to seek justice.
That process often ends in disappointment, at times punctuated by being dragged away by police or thugs hired by local governments who don't want such accusations aired in the capital.
"Qian Mingqi was detained many times. They would go to his house and take him off to jail because he went to Beijing to petition," said Fu Xianglian, a thin wisp of a 56-year-old farmer.
Fu said she saw Qian in Beijing two years ago, hiding in the same hotel that she was in to avoid a group of Fuzhou police who were hunting for them.
"He said he'd been petitioning for all these years and he had spent all of his money," said Fu, who's been jailed twice on public disturbance charges linked to her petitioning. "He was very sad. He'd lost all hope."
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McClatchy Newspapers 2011