An Ayi for an Eye: The Tragic Story of Our Maid, Now in Jail

As I contemplate the blessings of freedom on this Fourth of July here in China, there is quite a different feeling this year as we struggle with the uncertainties and pains of a dear friend being held in detention here in China. She may be there for months before the trial and then could face up to five years in prison. We have been trying to help her and her family in this process but feel quite helpless.

A couple weeks ago we had to move from one apartment to another, and were sorely disappointed to have no help from our ayi (a word pronounced somewhat like “eye-ee” or more accurately “ah-yee,” meaning maid or aunt or older woman) during that intense week. We have a diligent, honest, and intelligent woman named Zhiping (that’s her first name, pronounced sort of like Jurr-ping) who has been working for us part-time for nearly all of our six years here in China. She has proven to be completely trustworthy and honest. But when we needed her most for a difficult and unwanted move, she wasn’t there. It took two weeks to find out what had happened: our ayi is in jail.

I will carefully report what I have learned, seeking not to spread any inaccurate rumors, which would be contrary to Chinese law.

A few weeks ago she was at a mahjong (majiang) parlor where people gather to play one of China’s most popular games, superficially related to dominos and often but not necessarily associated with gambling. According to the story she has conveyed to us and her family, reported in the presence of the lawyer we helped find for her with the kind aid of my boss, she and three relatives were playing mahjong when one of them, a woman, went into a side room to play a slot machine.   As I recall, that other woman spent 20 RMB and was delighted when the machine reported that she had suddenly won 160 RMB.

This machine does not spew out coins the way Las Vegas slot machines do, but requires the customer to go to the parlor boss to receive payment. But the boss refused, and a loud argument followed. At this point, the lone man at our ayi’s mahjong table went into the side room to join in the argument. It sounded like a brawl was taking place, so our ayi opened the door to see what was happening and could tell that a serious fight was underway. She called for help, seeking to stop the fight. But when she opened the door again, it was too late. The man from her table was holding a plate, perhaps a fragment of a broken plate I am guessing, and the manager had blood all over his face and one of his eyes had been injured. His eye was apparently destroyed and he is demanding 1.2 million RMB compensation, which I understand is much higher than normal.  (Since this is a criminal case, it will go to trial even if the demand is paid, but paying up may lead to a reduced sentence.)

When the police got statements, the man who had apparently been fighting the boss and the boss both claimed that all three of the women at the table had joined in the attack. This could be true, but I understand it contradicts what our ayi says and what one or two recently found witnesses say. One could imagine incentives for both men to enlarge the net here: the victim can get a larger settlement and the man with the plate might hope to soften his burden. But both could be reporting the facts accurately. I was not there so cannot say for sure, but do not think our friend could gouge out an eye.

The police of Huangpu District in Shanghai, where we used to live, have been kind and helpful to me in the past and I know they have a difficult job. They also have a legal system much different than in the States, one that still confuses me and adds to the uncertainty for us.  With the help of my boss, we found a good lawyer for the woman, but lawyers play a relatively minor role here and evidence they may wish to present might not be considered. Further, I understand that gambling is illegal in China, so one might wonder if there are complicating factors involving the operator, though I won’t speculate

 on that issue.

Please do not interpret this post as being anti-China or a critique of the Chinese legal system. China is a land with remarkable safety and a great deal of freedom, with much the West can learn from. There are also challenges and puzzles.  As a foreigner living in China, I have no right to tell China how they should run their system or how to best preserve social order and state stability. These are important and complex issues for the people of China and their officials to manage. I just mourn for the tragedy that has befallen our ayi and the risk that others have falsely accused her. If she is being blamed for a crime she tried to prevent, this would truly be tragic.

I pray that the police and judicial system will be able to separate the guilty from the bystanders in this case, which for now has been classified as a group crime. I also pray that they will be able to consider the new evidence from witnesses and also that they might allow bail for this case. Most of all, I pray that our ayi can have her freedom and that her husband can have his wife back.

Our next step is preparing the family for the hopeful possibility of bail to secure the release of their mom and wife during the months before the trial. Bail may not be granted and if it is, it can be very expensive and typically the money given won’t be returned, so I have read and been told.

Maids are often impoverished outsiders who migrate from the countryside to big cities looking for work. They can feel completely helpless and lost when caught up in legal trouble in the rather foreign big city.

I welcome any advice. Donations to this blog (PayPal button on the right) will be used to help her and her family with the costs they are facing. I would welcome your prayers for our dear friend and, of course, for the welfare of China, a nation we respect with incredible people we admire and love.


Author: Jeff Lindsay

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