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Crying Foul

Why do consumers throw tantrums to defend their rights?

It’s not unusual to buy a car, only to find some defect afterwards. Yet a Mercedes-Benz customer surnamed Wang won the public’s sympathy and the state’s support when she staged a tearful sit-in on the hood of the defective car she’d just purchased, and was asked to pay 15,000 RMB (2,235 USD) in “service fees” before the vehicle even left the showroom.

The dealership has since issued an apology to Wang, and a compensation package that included a 10,000 RMB rebate, a 10-year VIP service, a birthday party, and a trip to the Benz plant in Germany. The incident has been hailed as a landmark consumer rights victory—but is making a scene really a good way of protecting one’s interests in China?

The short answer is yes, and it’s not usually considered a good thing. Wang’s triumph, and the actions of several copycats after her, have been criticized by several media from People’s Daily to the Beijing Daily as an unfortunate example of annao fenpei (按闹分配, “distribution by fuss”)—the principle that, under China’s weak law enforcement structure, the party with the biggest histrionics typically gets their way in a dispute.

The practice is related to pengci (碰瓷, “bump porcelain”), an old ploy to extract damages by staging an accident—traditionally by breaking a priceless vase, nowadays usually a traffic incident—in order to deceive or guilt another party into paying damages.

Examples of rabble-rousing for rights (or “rights”) vary: A common type is yinao (医闹, “hospital disturbance”), in which families dissatisfied with medical treatment block hospital entrances and assault staff, usually getting the hospital to agree to pay simply to be left alone. In 2018, a woman blocked the door of a high-speed train and browbeat the attendants—and got them to delay the departure for a few minutes, until her husband could make it onboard.

Crying for attention even got international exposure later that year, when a family of Chinese tourists dropped to the ground screaming when Swedish police tried to eject them from a hotel lobby.

As Beijing Daily columnist Chao Xing acknowledges in a recent essay, throwing a fit is sometimes the only option when there are few legal channels for settling a dispute, or in situations of great power disparities between the parties—say, in the case of a farmer fighting a demolition order from the government, or a customer protesting mistreatment by a multinational auto giant. Social media has made it increasingly easy for an injured party to gain widespread sympathy and fan outrage for their plight.

However, Chao ultimately criticizes the practice, and the Mercedes case in particular, for being oriented toward private interests rather than the public good. “Why was previous communication [between Wang and the dealership] ineffective? Was the service charge justified? The customer had her car changed…but none of the issues revealed by this incident were fixed.”

Crying Foul is a story from our issue, “Funny Business.” To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine.


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