By Javier C. Hernandez
New York Times
BEIJING >> She was a face that people passed on the sidewalk without noticing, a sickly young woman with red lipstick and a pile of clothes. She hawked skirts for $15 and scarves for $10, joking with passers-by about the tedium of life.
But to those who stopped to listen, the woman, Liu Lingli, offered an extraordinary tale. She had once been a university teacher of English in Lanzhou, a city in northwest China, but she was fired for absenteeism after being treated for ovarian cancer. She decided to sue the school for wrongful termination, and in the meantime, to sell clothes on the street to pay her medical bills.
For much of the past two years, Liu grappled with her medical and legal battles in private. But on Monday, her story exploded into the public sphere, after Lanzhou Jiaotong University said it was “deeply sorry” and agreed to pay the wages it had denied her.
There was only one problem: After months of legal wrangling, Liu, 32, died Aug. 14 from complications of cancer.
For many Chinese, the case was a poignant reminder of the shortcomings of the nation’s legal system and the persistent stigma of illness and disability.
On Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter, commenters attacked the university and expressed concern about what they described as a callous attitude toward employees with illnesses in China.
“The death of humanity,” a user named WangFuping8583 wrote.
Others said the case revealed a lack of respect for workers’ rights and called for the firing of the university’s president.
“The lack of humanity at institutions of higher learning is sending chills through all of society,” LiYinan—704 wrote.
Liu became ill in summer 2014, after two years of teaching English at Lanzhou Jiaotong University’s Bowen College, according to interviews with her friends and news media reports. She took sick leave that fall, but in early 2015, when her mother requested more time for Liu to recover and asked the school to continue paying her medical insurance, the university fired her, citing her poor attendance record.
Chinese law prohibits employers from firing workers while they are receiving medical treatment. But the law is often ignored, legal experts said, especially in industries like mining and construction, where workers often fall ill or are injured on the job.
Lu Jiefeng, a law professor at the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing who has studied employment discrimination, said the university’s handling of the case was a clear violation of labor law.
“Not only did the school fail to show much concern,” Lu said, “it kind of stabbed her in the back at a time when she needed the most help.”
Officials at Lanzhou Jiaotong University did not respond to requests for comment.
Shortly after she was let go, Liu filed a lawsuit against the university, arguing that she had been wrongfully dismissed. In response, the university said its action was justified because Liu had not reported to class after a 59-day medical leave, according to Chinese news reports.
The court sided with Liu, ordering Lanzhou Jiaotong to restore her employment, but the school did not comply, choosing instead to appeal the decision. In June, the school lost the appeal.
Liu’s medical bills for chemotherapy and other treatments quickly piled up, totaling more than $60,000, far out of reach for her mother and father, who earned only about $500 per month, according to news reports. Her father also has cancer.
Even as her health deteriorated, Liu was determined to pay her bills and decided to begin selling clothes. Outside a shopping mall in Lanzhou last autumn, she met Nie Ting, 29, an employee at a tour agency, and the two became friends.
Nie said in a telephone interview Monday that she was struck by Liu’s willpower: She continued selling clothes even after she began using a wheelchair.
“She was a strong woman,” Nie said. “I had no idea she had cancer the first time I met her.”
Liu did not speak often about her dismissal, but when she did, she told friends that she felt humiliated.
“I used to be a teacher who stood at the podium,” Liu once said, according to Nie, “and now I’ve ended up selling clothes on the street.”
On Monday, the Chinese news site The Paper reported that Lanzhou Jiaotong University said it would pay Liu’s family nearly $11,000, including about $2,200 to cover the cost of her funeral. It also suspended the human resources director at the college where Liu was working, The Paper reported.
Her mother, Liu Shuqin, declined to comment when reached by telephone Monday, saying only, “I haven’t slept for days.”
In the final months of Liu’s life, the financial burden of her disease seemed to become overwhelming, and her optimism faded.
In her last post on WeChat, she wrote, “With business as it is, I might as well die.”