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2017-01-13 12:04:46

The father of a 12-year-old who drowned in May 2000 while trying to save his friend saw his lawsuit denied this week, and for now at least, the boy will not be granted the official posthumous title of “Underage Hero.”

The Zhenjiang Intermediate People’s Court in eastern China’s Jiangsu province released the decision on Wednesday afternoon. Jiang Zhigen, the father, lost his case against the Jurong municipal government.

In China, certificates of heroism are awarded to those who save lives or perform other acts of bravery. But the court deferred its judgment based on more recent policies that discourage awarding such titles to young people, as doing so might encourage unsafe or reckless behavior. Jiang, 62, told Sixth Tone he would appeal the decision and continue his 16-year fight to receive “Underage Hero” recognition for his son.

According to copies of court documents Jiang shared with Sixth Tone, 12-year-old Jiang Weihua was playing with three friends at a flooded excavation site near a factory when one of the boys drifted into deeper water and began to panic. The other boys, including Weihua, a poor swimmer, dove in to try to save him. Weihua drowned, while the other boy was saved.

In 2001, a local court ordered the rescued boy’s parents and the factory, which owned the land, to pay Jiang’s family a one-time compensation. That’s when the elder Jiang began to contact the local government and the media in hopes of procuring a certificate of heroism for his son. In 2002, the Jurong City Foundation for Justice and Courage gave Jiang a cash award, but no certificate.

In response to Jiang’s repeated efforts, several local governments called a meeting in Jurong in 2011. Jiang said he was presented with another one-off sum of money on the condition that he sign a document promising to stop appealing, which he said he was forced to do. Added together with previous payments from the county government, Jiang has received a total of around 180,000 yuan ($26,000) since his son’s death.

Jiang no longer works. Instead, he spends his time visiting any and every possible authority whom he feels might sway the decision in his favor, making regular visits to officials in nearby cities and even Beijing. His wife still works to supplement the travel costs incurred by his myriad appeals. Jiang keeps every bit of information related to his son — who would be 28 this year — including notes from his primary school teachers.

When Sixth Tone visited Jiang’s hometown in May 2016, neighbors distanced themselves from Jiang and maligned the attention he’s garnered from the loss of his son. They say that his family is not so poor, and that he did not lose his only child, as they accuse him of claiming. Several media reports refer to Jiang as childless, but in fact he has a daughter who is married and living in Jurong.

Wu Delu was one of the children playing with Weihua that day in May 2000. “Ma Zengping and I saved Wu Defei,” said Wu, now in his 30s. “I don’t remember what Jiang Weihua was doing at that moment.”

Wu Delu’s father, Wu Zulin, said of Jiang: “He’s had a negative impact on our village, and people don’t like to talk to him. If it had been another family’s child who died, there wouldn’t be so much trouble about it.” Wu told Sixth Tone that he, too, received a one-time payment of 500 yuan for his son’s valor — thanks to Jiang’s appeals.

Jiang admitted that he is not popular among his neighbors, and indeed this spurs him on further to achieve irrefutable proof of the circumstances behind his son’s death. “Some villagers think my son saved people, and others say he died playing in the pond by himself,” he said. “Getting an official certificate would prove that my son died trying to save someone.”

In the 1990s, propaganda about underage heroes encouraged the young generation to be bold, protect their families, and save people from all kinds of danger. Lai Ning, a boy who died in a forest fire, became a household name. His story was printed in textbooks, and children were taught about the “spirit of Lai Ning.”

But people today dispute the merits of such fanfare. In 2014, 8-year-old Li Weiwei died while saving her drowning friend. She was never granted the title of “hero.”

Han Xiao, a lawyer at Beijing’s Kangda Law Firm, told Sixth Tone he agreed with the verdict of Jiang’s case. “Underage heroes should be praised,” Han said, “[but at the same time,] it is better not to encourage or advocate this kind of heroic behavior.”

When Jiang received word of the court’s decision on his appeal, he was disappointed yet again. “They are wrong, they are wrong,” he repeated into his phone. “I will appeal.”

(Header image: Jiang Zhigen holds the official judicial verdict while standing in front of the Zhenjiang Intermediate People’s Court, Jiangsu province, Jan. 11, 2017. Wan Lingyun/VCG)