In China, Going Home After 23 Years Of Wrongful Imprisonment

Chen Man's release from prison has historical significance, writes Liang Yingfei.

Inside a prison in Macau, China
Inside a prison in Macau, China
Liang Yingfei

MIANZHU â€" As Chen Man returns home from prison, freedom is no longer a mirage, it's more like a soft mist, invisible but real. At seven in the morning, he will go to the local market to do his food shopping. On the way home, he will buy a fresh bunch of gardenias. When it feels a bit chilly, he can stretch out in the sun. All these thoughts remind Man that, after 23 years behind bars, he is finally free.

In 1988, Man gave up a steady job working for the local government in his hometown Mianzhu, a small city in China’s southwestern Sichuan province, to seek his fortune with some friends in booming Hainan, China’s southernmost island.

Man's parents are intellectuals. His father is a scientific researcher and his mother worked for a hospital. As honest and meticulous as he was, with an upbeat demeanor, Man was not the sort of person anyone could ever imagine being wrongfully imprisoned.

In the exasperated words of his mother, "He couldn’t even kill a chicken, let alone a person!"

Yet in 1992, police accused Man of murder and arson after those crimes were committed in the apartment he had rented in Hainan. In 1994, in spite of a lack of evidence, Man's repeated insistence that his confessions were obtained under torture, and proof of his alibi on the night in question, he was sentenced to death with reprieve. In China, this form of punishment commutes death row inmates' sentences to imprisonment if they commit no further crimes in two years after their day in court.

Man’s parents fought long and hard to appeal for their son. Convinced of his innocence, they tried to help him in all sorts of ways: by making inquiries and researching the facts of the case, searching for expert advice, hiring lawyers, and by sending letters to various courts, the Procurator-General of the Supreme People's Procuratorate, and all relevant political and legal committees every month. These appeal letters were all fruitless. At every level, the Chinese legal system rejected their pleas.

It was only in 2004 that Cheng Shirong, a former colleague of Man's father, researched Man's case and became convinced that there had been a miscarriage of justice. He decided to take over Man's elderly parents' heavy burden with the courts.

It took many more years of twists and turns before in 2013, the case finally reached a turning point as the story came to the attention of the "Grievance Relief Network," a volunteer group composed of lawyers, forensic investigators and journalists. They convened with other legal experts and organized an investigative seminar in Beijing, in addition to launching letters of appeal to the relevant judicial authorities on Man's behalf.

At last, in 2015, the Procurator-General finally lodged a complaint with the Supreme Court, and on February 1, 2016, the Zhejiang High People's Court finally pronounced Man’s innocence.

Over the past three months, Mianzhu, a small town at the edge of Chengdu, has suddenly been flooded with journalists from all over the country. This is the first time since the founding of the People’s Republic of China that the Procurator-General's demand for a retrial led to the accused's release from prison. Thus, the "Chen Man case" has important historical significance.

In Hong Kong, China â€" Photo: Sarah Joy

Meanwhile, Man is seeking peace of mind amidst all the hustle and bustle. There are so many things he must learn. He bought a laptop computer, but still can't manage a simple operation such as cutting and pasting text. He had to re-learn his way walking home: After 23 years, the fields around his parent's house had turned into blocks of buildings. Man is also trying to fix the tape recorder his parents have kept for him all these years, so he can play his collection of dozens of cassettes, since no technician is capable of or interested in repairing this museum piece anymore.

The array of new things dazzles Man, who is nevertheless motivated to learn. His bedside is stacked with books about Chinese culture and how to succeed.

In the last few days, news that Man has received state reparations totaling 2.75 million yuan (about $41,811,135 at current exchange) has once again propelled him into the media spotlight. As he walks down the street, passers-by whisper, recognizing him as "the guy who got 2.75 million."

This new label has also attracted a lot of strangers to Man. Some offer him investment opportunities. A woman also called him up to say she'd "like to be his friend." When Man declined her proposal, expressing interest in a more natural meeting with someone he could get to know over time, the woman shouted at him over the phone, telling him to go to hell.

At this stage, Man has only an inkling of what his future might hold. His priority is to keep his parents company and to restore his health. He is now 53 years old, and his long and painful years in prison gave him chronic gastritis, gallstones, colitis, hemorrhoids, and numbness in his legs and feet.

His parents are both over 80 and belong to the older generation of intellectuals known for their tenacity. But after decades of fighting injustice, they suddenly felt physically and mentally exhausted when their son finally came home. Even a glimpse of a news report about their son reminds them of the agony they experienced for years. Man's mother, who used to be so patient in answering journalists' questions, collapsed in a recent interview, saying that she no longer wishes to remember this unbearable ordeal.

That justice arrived so late is the family's greatest regret.

Contrary to what has appeared in some press reports, Man is not seeking to receive higher compensation or punish those responsible for his wrongful imprisonment. These are more other people's wishes than his own, he says. All he wants is to look ahead and start a second life. There is no time to waste.

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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