China’s Corpse Salvagers Profit From Misfortune

China’s Corpse Salvagers Profit From Misfortune
救援人員拉起試圖跳水自殺的男子(右邊第4位)及其女兒(中間)。該名王姓男子在家庭爭吵後,帶著2個女兒走在河邊。當地媒體報導,無人受傷。攝於2014年5月24日。Photo Credit:Reuters/ 達志影像

What you need to know

When disaster strikes, scavengers scour rivers for opportunity.

Hundreds of people went missing as a result of China’s summer of heavy rains, floods, mudslides, and dike breaches, according to the latest figures, and most of the missing have since been found dead. Around the country, opportunistic scavengers make money when they find these lost bodies.

According to an article in newspaper Chinese Business View, a man known only by his surname Wang was asked to pay 100,000 yuan (US$15,000) to a corpse salvager who had found the body of his sister.

She had gone missing when a storm struck their village in Shaanxi province in northwestern China on Aug. 15. Wang posted a notice that she was missing on his WeChat Moments, a popular Facebook-like timeline. He then received a call the next day from a county 200 kilometers to the east, in neighboring Shanxi Province. The caller was a corpse salvager who told Wang he had found his sister’s body floating in a river.

Corpse salvagers make a living off both animals and human bodies they find in rivers. They can reportedly find between 100 and 200 bodies per year. Some accept voluntary payments; others, like the man who called Wang, ask for exorbitant amounts.

In recent years, more and more cases of salvagers asking for large sums have been making the news. In 2009, Chinese Business View published a photo of a corpse salvager standing on a boat while bargaining with a group of students who were kneeling down on the bank of the river, begging him to find their friends’ bodies. The report said the salvager finally agreed on a price of 360,000 yuan.

The job comes with a social stigma: It is seen as immoral to make money off other people’s misery, and in traditional Chinese views, dealing with dead people brings bad fortune.

In Wang’s case, the local government helped negotiate the price down to 60,000 yuan, but after consulting their lawyer, Wang’s family refused the settlement.

Fu Jian, a lawyer at Yulong Law Firm based in Henan Province, central China, told Sixth Tone that “It’s alright to pay a reasonable amount of money to the people who salvage bodies, but excessive prices are not acceptable.”

Fu said that if the corpse salvager insisted on holding the body before getting paid, it would constitute a crime of extortion. “I think the government’s civil affairs department should take the responsibility of offering social services like this,” he said, referring to finding the bodies of missing persons.

For now, Wang is still searching for a solution to recovering his sister’s body.

(The News Lens has been authorized to repost this article. The piece was first published on Sixth Tone here. Sixth Tone covers trending topics, in-depth features, and illuminating commentary from the perspectives of those most intimately involved in the issues affecting China today. It belongs to the state-funded Shanghai United Media Group.)

First Editor: Olivia Yang
Second Editor: J. Michael Cole