Source: Xinhua News Agency – Top Brands Author: Lin Fenghua, Xun Rong, Liu Ye, Chen Fan Time: July 7, 2011
On 16 June 2011, International Business Machines Corp (IBM) announced that it would commemorate its centennial with a focus on giving back to the community. However, while 400,000 employees of IBM were celebrating, a former IBM employee Yuan Yipeng who is known as “the first person who fought discrimination against people with depression”, decided to take his own life on this day by jumping into Huangpu River at 7 o’clock in the evening.
Before he set off for the river, he posted a message on his microblog, “I’m on my way. I’m a nobody. I can not understand the feeling that the (IBM) Chief Executive may have had when he walked past my mother who was kneeling on the ground, got into his car and sped off. Do please pass on this message to him: I love my mother, as much as you do!”
Mother “Was Made to Disappear”
As IBM was busy presenting a caring image to the world and attracting media’s attention to its 100 years’ glorious history, Yuan Yipeng chose to put an end to his five year dispute with IBM by committing suicide. On the same day, his elderly parents were also involved in a nerve-racking incident at Huan Yu Building (where IBM’s research center is) in a town called Dong Bei Wang in Beijing.
Seeking justice for son
“I somehow lost my wife.” Yuan Qinghuai’s distressed and somewhat ashamed voice came from the other end of the phone. It was on the day of 16 June 2011. His voice was in sharp contrast to what the reporter of Xinhua News Agency – Top Brands remembered when seeing him a month ago protesting in front of Beijing Pangu Plaza where IBM China headquarter is. The voice then was powerful and energetic.
At that time I saw two haggard looking elderly people in ragged clothes shouting at the top of their voices over and over again, “IBM — Guilty!” They are Yuan Qinghuai and Zhao Lingye, the parents of Yuan Yipeng.
The surface of the ground was very hot under the scorching sun. But the two elderly people were unrelentingly guarding a few yellowish pieces of cardboard covered with dense handwritings. Although the writings were a bit messy, one can sense the anger and frustration they carried. In those writings the characters of “IBM” were particularly striking.
Though lots of IBM employees went in and out of the high-rise, most were in a rush. Two Westerners with suitcases came out of the building, stopped briefly to look at the writings. Another middle-aged man pointed to the notes and said “IBM” to them. They whispered with each other for a while, shook their heads, then got on a taxi and left.
Yuan Qinghuai told the reporter with a strong Wuhan accent, “My son was unfairly dismissed by IBM due to his depression…All my wife and I can do now is to seek justice openly outside the IBM buildings.” While talking he took out a pile of “evidence documents” from a stained old bag and showed them to the reporter, and thanked the reporter repeatedly for her interest.
Around 3:00 pm on June 16, Yuan Qinghuai phoned the reporter and said he was in a police station. Since he could not find his wife and her phone was not answered, he decided to protest openly in front of the IBM R&D centre in Dongbeiwang, Beijing. Just as Medias on the spot were gathering around him, the cardboard notes on the ground were robbed.
“What happened was that when IBM security guards came to break up the crowd, a few vicious looking people quickly approached and raided my cardboard notes on the ground. I called the police immediately. A police officer named Cao took me and the guards to a local police station. There I reported to the police that my wife was missing.” Yuan Qinghuai said that he lost contact with his wife since 11 am that day.
Fig. 1 Yuan Qinghuai let the reporters to have a look at his identity card. On the photo he looked radiant, even a bit scholar like, which is in stark contrast to the way he looks now. He said that he and his wife used to be engineers working for Wuhan Iron and Steel Corporation. They are now retired with company pensions to live on and have a comfortable home in Wuhan. However, their lives have been thrown into turmoil since 2007. They are up against a single enemy — IBM. It is hard to believe that the exhausted and gaunt looking couple was only in their early sixties.
“Missing” for 7 hours
At 6 pm on 16 June, Yuan Qinghuai found his wife with the help of the police. Still shaken, Zhao Lingye told reporters, “Around 11am, I went to sit outside the IBM R&D Centre as usual, with a banner hanging from my neck. I could see that there were more people around and the security guards were all wearing armbands. I sensed that there might be important activities going on today. After a while, one woman and three men came to me saying that they wanted to have a chat with me. I refused. They then forced me to get into a van which has been parked there for some time.”
Zhao Lingye said that after 10 minutes drive, the van stopped just outside an Internet café. The woman got off. At that moment Zhao Lingye remembered that she saw the woman two days ago when this women and “Xiao” Lei — an employee of IBM Pangu Plaza Security Department— were checking the security arrangement around IBM Software Park. When Zhao was taken to the van, “Xiao” Lei was standing nearby. He witnessed the whole incident but did nothing.
“I was in the van for over 7 hours. They offered me food and drink, but I didn’t take any. They told me later, ‘Sometimes things can’t be resolved by legal means. It’d be better if you just go home.’ Soon after, a lawyer who claimed to be entrusted by IBM got into the car. I said to him, ‘What a coincidence that we should meet here.’ He replied, ‘If we don’t talk about it today, we may never have the opportunity to talk again.’”
“I told him, ‘I want the June 2008 arbitration ruling to be implemented.’ He said, ‘That is not possible. A possible solution is to pay you a sum of money.’ I replied, ‘What do we want the money for when we get no way of surviving?’ In the end, he left.” said Zhao.
Initially, the guards wouldn’t let her answer the phone at all during those hours. It was only after the lawyer intervened that Zhao managed to speak to her husband on the phone. At 6 pm Zhao Lingye was driven to another location and was told she was free to go.
The reporters managed to find a few witnesses following information provided by Zhao Lingye. One witness who doesn’t want to be named was keen to tell us what had happened, “It was 10 o’clock in the morning when the van and a few people arrived. They stood by the entrance chatting with each other. Apart from the woman among them, the others were total strangers to me. The elderly lady had a banner hanging on her neck at the time. These individuals walked up to her and pulled the banner off her neck forcefully. Then she was almost carried to the van by three men. She even lost a shoe during struggle. It was really sad to watch.” The witness said that he worked here for many years and knew Yuan Qinghuai and his wife quite well. “It happened on the day of IBM’s centennial celebration. Maybe they feared that the elderly lady would embarrass them.”
“The elderly lady told us that her son was dismissed by IBM simply because he was ill. The couple usually sat outside quietly. They are not allowed to get into the building. From time to time people showed their sympathy by offering them food and drink, or a stool to sit on. But they declined.” A cleaner told us, “I’m sympathetic, too. I can see that the lady is in poor health. She seems to be a persistent lady.”
Engineers Living in a “Kennel”
On 17 June, the reporters met Yuan Qinghuai again in a restaurant near Beijing West Train Station. He looked thinner and his skin tone darker. He was so sweaty that his shirt was totally wet and was tightly wrapped around his body. He seemed to be extremely distressed. He said he had been to the train station to see his wife off. She had bought the earliest ticket to go back to Shanghai to be with their son because he committed suicide last night by jumping into a river. Fortunately he was rescued by the police in time. At this point, Yuan Qinghuai was sobbing, hiding his face with his hands.
When talking about the reason why he took such “extreme” actions as openly putting the case to public, Yuan Qinghuai produced his identity card. On the photo he looked radiant, even a bit scholar like, which is in stark contrast to the way he looks now. He said that he and his wife used to be engineers working for Wuhan Iron and Steel Corporation. They are now retired with company pensions to live on and have a comfortable home in Wuhan. However, their lives have been thrown into turmoil since 2007. They are up against a single enemy — IBM.
“Some officials from IBM had visited us in our home in Wuhan. They told our neighborhood committee and some of our neighbors that our son could be a threat to their personal safety. When we were protesting outside IBM buildings we had a lot of help and support from IBM employees. However, none of their managers showed up. In a number of occasions I was so fed up that I walked into their office area. Every time the security people would call the police, and every time when the police came they asked to see the management. But no one came out. Initially, we didn’t shout, we didn’t use banners and written notes. We simply waited patiently. But it got us nowhere. It wasn’t our intention to cause trouble. But we were left with no choices.” Yuan Qinghuai sighed.
“The place we live at the moment is like a kennel. Sometimes we sleep at the train station. At the same time we have to be careful not to be followed by IBM security staff.” He said. The reporter followed him to his so called “kennel”: it was a dirty and crowded storage room with several bunker beds squeezed in it. The smell in the air was revolting. “It costs 25 Yuan a day per person. If my wife and I shared a single bed then the rent would be 30 Yuan a day.” Yuan Qinghuai told the reporters that they were usually out at the IBM buildings all day, therefore they don’t normally have lunch. They compensated this by having two packs of instant noodles in the morning along with some beer to wash the noodles down.
It demands the greatest courage of a person to go down the route of taking one’s own life, whether one is fully conscious and rational or is in total despair. Yuan Yipeng graduated from Wuhan University in 2006 with excellent marks and a master’s degree, and was employed straight away by IBM China. Since 2008, he has made suicide attempts. What has driven this young man to such despair?
“Unable to return” to IBM
On 16 June 2011, the news report about Yuan Yipeng’s suicide was all over the Internet. Another time within four years that he chose to end his life.
Initially the reporter from Xinhua News Agency – Top Brands was tempted to contact him straight away but decided to wait, as he realized that Yuan had only just been rescued and may need time to recover from the ordeal before being interviewed.
At 8 pm on 21 June, the reporter phoned Yuan Yipeng up. He seemed to be in immense fear and distress, sobbing at times during the conversation.
“Right, let me try to describe myself. I’m probably the most stupid R&D engineer in the IBM’s entire history. I used to be a cheerful and confident person. I even gave myself an English name ‘Forsure Yuan’. During my student years my dream was to become one of the best electronic engineers. I had only one year work experience, during which I immersed myself in my work 24/7. However, all my memories, my understandings to the world, my connections to other people were ended abruptly on a day four years ago. My life in the past few years can be summed up as one that was filled with fears and loneliness.”
Yuan Yipeng told the reporter that from June 2007 to mid-August 2007 he took a break from work because he was diagnosed as having depression. On 17 August, Shanghai Mental Health Center had advised him to “return to work while receiving further treatments as an outpatient.” Yuan Yipeng then asked the director of his department if he could go back to work. He was told that he must not, instead he must “resign” because the company had decided that he should leave.
“I was not allowed to go back to my office. The city was still a new and strange place to me at the time. The only creature I can talk to was a small dog. My salary was cut but I was not informed why. Even though I raised my grievance following the procedures set out by the company, no one bothered to deal with it. A department manager and two HR directors even threatened me, ‘Even if you do not resign, even if you do come back to work, we could start the PIP assessment process and make sure that you can’t pass. Then we could write in you departure notes that you are ill and are a trouble maker, not suitable for work.’ ‘This is the company’s decision. As you are suffering from this illness, you must leave. This is common sense…’”At this point, Yuan Yipeng’s voice faltered as he tried to fight back tears.
“Feeling extremely isolated and under all sorts of pressure, I sensed that I was beginning to have a relapse.” he said, “On the one hand my salary was cut, on the other I couldn’t get reimbursement from the company for my medical expenses as I was not allowed to get into the office. Out of total despair, I talked tearfully to the medical director of the company, hoping to get some help.” Yuan Yipeng recalled. “On 25 December 2007, I was told that for the purpose of my reinstatement, I must go to a designated hospital for assessment. I obeyed. Strangely, most of the time when I was there, the doctor did not ask me how I was. Instead, he was constantly on the phone and was told by someone on the other end of the phone to ‘produce an appraisal of normal cognitive ability’.”
“On 11 January 2008, a few senior managers of the company told me to sign a voluntary termination of contract agreement, claiming that if I didn’t, I’d be dismissed unilaterally within two days on the grounds that I ‘over used sick leave, and spam the staff members with email messages’.” That night, Yuan Yipeng swallowed a bottle of sleeping pills beside a Christmas tree in an IBM office building at Huaihai Road,Shanghai. Lying unconscious on the ground, he was found by passing by police officers, and was rushed to a hospital where doctors revived him and said he was having a relapse of depression.
China’s first lawsuit tackling issue of discrimination against people with depression
On 27 February 2008, IBM China’s human resources director signed off a letter of dismissal on the grounds that “Yuan violated the company’s rules in many occasions and was relentless despite his manager did everything in his power to help”. This is what triggered the employment dispute between the two parties, which has now become China’s first case tackling the issue of discrimination against people with depression.
On 18 June 2008, Shanghai Pudong Employment Dispute Arbitration Committee made its ruling: IBM “must continue its original contract (with Yuan Yipeng) under the same job specification and the same terms and conditions.”
Yuan Qinghuai showed the reporter a letter that IBM sent out after the ruling. It reads, “We (IBM) are willing to accept the ruling and are willing to resume our contract with Yuan Yipeng. However, there has been a major change in the company since last year. The department you used to work for no longer exists due to an internal restructure carried out between the second half of 2007 and the beginning of 2008. Therefore, we propose that the contract be modified as appropriate. In addition, to help you to manage work your place of work is to be set in Wuhan, which means you will be working from home. ” “At the time a lot of people believed that this was a good arrangement. However, people who have some knowledge of depression would understand that loneliness can be fatal to someone like me. The chairman of Guangdong Psychological Association said in an article published on the Southern Metropolis Daily, ‘For someone who had once suffered from depression, even counting cars in the street can do much better than working from home … Working alone from home does more harm than good for those who had depression before.’” Yuan Yipeng said that he posted this article and many other articles written by experts to IBM China, but no one responded.
“My only contact to IBM would be the director of my original department (if accepted the proposal). During our telephone conference, he did not explain explicitly why his department no longer existed, nor did he answer my questions about how an electronic engineer could possibly work from home without hardware and collaboration of his colleagues. What he did say was that if I did not accept this arrangement, they would terminate my contract.”
On 31 October 2008 IBM formally terminated Yuan Yipeng’s contract on the grounds that he “refused the company’s proposal for his work arrangement. The two parties can not reach an agreement on how the job contract should be altered despite the efforts of both sides.”
Yuan Yipeng’s hope and efforts for resolving the issue through legal routes failed.
Fig 2 Documents and correspondence Zhao Lingye showed to the reporters, from which IBM’s attitude on the issue is all too clear.
“Loneliness is tearing me into pieces”
Yuan Yipeng said, “Before being reinstated as the arbitration ruling demanded, I was dismissed again and swallowed by the depression. Night after night I couldn’t stop crying. Night after night I sent out emails to different managers in the company begging for help. Like before, no one responded. I was so lonely that I wanted to chew myself into pieces. Loneliness was all that I had in the past few years. There was nothing else. I kept myself alive only for the sake of my mother.”
Yuan told the reporter that there were IBMers who still held dignity and honesty had tried to save him in the past 4 years. Among them are former IBM Greater China Group HRD Ling and Sukkyu Kim. In January 2010, Sukkyu arranged for Yuan to work in a third-party company for 3 months on a probationary basis, and signed a five party contract with Yuan, in which it stated that IBM will offer a post based on the outcome of the assessment at the end of the probationary period taking into account Yuan’s “real difficulties and actual situations”. Yuan said, “Despite being isolated from the society for 3 years, I passed IBM’s strict assessment administered by the third party company. At that time, I was almost half way out of the shadow of my depression, and had even made some new friends.”
“Eight months after my trial period, not a single IBM official interviewed me. Having challenged the excuses my former director came up with, I was eventually given a 20 minutes telephone interview by someone from my original department. Ironically, the reason for not to recruit me as explained in an official letter was ‘Yuan does not have enough work experience as others’.”
Yuan Yipeng sounded emotional, “It was a written clause in the agreement made for the trial that ‘during the process of recruitment, allowance should be made to take into account Yuan’s current situation and real difficulties’. But no one paid any attention to it. As a result, my situation went back to where it was a year ago, only worse.”
“My parents are in their senior years. They could have stayed in Wuhan enjoying a peaceful and happy life together. But over the past years they travelled intensively between Shanghai, Wuhan, and Beijing, fighting for justice. My mother used to kneel on the ground outside IBM’s headquarter in freezing cold condition. Who on earth will make his mother kneel on the ground just so that he can go back to work for a company called IBM? I may be a fool or a failure, but it wasn’t my idea that my mother did so.” Yuan Yipeng could not help but burst into tears again.
This dispute has been going on for almost five years. Have Yuan Yipeng’s suicide bids made IBM paid more attention to the case? Is there a way to end this tragedy?
IBM refused to respond
Fig 3 on 22 June 2011, Zhao Lingye returned to Beijing from Shanghai. She showed the reporters some documents and correspondence, from which IBM’s attitude with regard to the issue is all too clear.
IBM phoned Yuan’s parents on 10 August 2009, telling them that “we are willing to help Yuan Yipeng with the treatment or rehabilitation of his depression. At the same time we would be grateful if you could stop your unusual activities in front of our office buildings.”
Soon after, the chairman and chief executive of IBM Greater China DC. Chien also wrote to Zhao Lingye. He said he can “understand Zhao Lingye’s maternal love to her son, and would like to provide some help and support for Yuan Yipeng’s treatment and rehabilitation. Details can be determined through further discussions.”
But Yuan Qinghuai is skeptical. “These are empty promises. All these years IBM has pushed the idea of resolving the issue in terms of financial ways. But what my son really need is to have a recover platform, which also allows him to catch up with what he missed out. What the money can do for us after what IBM has done?”
Previously on 17 June, a Xinhua News Agency – Top Brands reporter followed several clues and finally found a contact person from a PR company commissioned by IBM. However, his response to the reporter’s query was “I don’t know much about it, and no one here is available to comment.” Following the information provided by Yuan Yipeng, the reporter managed to get through to Hu Jessie who is the head of Human Resources, IBM China. When she was told what the interview was about, she said she did not accept interviews directly, and that the PR department should be contacted first. The reporter left his own contact details at Ms. Hu’s request. But she never rang back.
On 20 June, the reporter went to the Pangu Plaza where IBM’s headquarter is, and waited in the hall. For three hours the reporter kept on dialing Hu Jessie’s mobile, but no one answered. He texted her. No response. In the end, the reporter sent the following text message, “All we want is facts. We do not take sides. We would like to hear your side of the story. But you have been dodging it right from the beginning. Is keeping silence the only card you can play?”
An hour later, a representative from the PR firm contacted the reporter. He told the reporter that “All the PR staff members working for IBM are out on business trips.” After that, no more responses.
“This is a tragedy.”
When researching for information, the reporter found that the renowned anti-discrimination NGO in China, Beijing Yirenping Center was also involved in this case. Lu Jun, the principal of the Centre who was involved in the case personally, said, “In 2008, Beijing Yirenping Center had helped Yuan Yipeng to fight discrimination. I myself had participated in a negotiation with IBM China HRD at the IBM Headquarter in Beijing on behalf of Yuan.”
Lu Jun said that this is indeed a tragedy. “In my opinion, IBM has made mistakes. For example, from the start it was inpatient and had repeatedly pressurized and threatened the employee with depression, which has certainly caused him a great deal of distress and suffering. This has then led to deterioration of his condition. This approach is inhumane. On the other hand, employee rights are not properly addressed by law in this country. For example, disputes regarding employment discrimination can only be handled through employment arbitration rather than through court.”
Yuan told the reporter on the phone that many people have shown their care and support after his attempts to commit suicide. There was a lady called Ms. Xu who made Yuan Yipeng feel better. “I went out to look for Yuan after his suicide attempt on 16th June and I found him. At the time his mood was highly unstable, even crying at times, covering his face with his hands. I understood the feelings so well, as I suffered from depression myself. Yuan used to be a happy, cheerful, and confident young man. He used to love photography. He showed me many photos, most were taken when he was in IBM, and some were close-up shots of his colleagues and managers. He said it was a time he would never forget, even though some of those people had already abandoned him. He did not mention his hatred to IBM according to my memory. He hoped to get back to work.” Ms. Xu told the reporter.
Yuan Yipeng handed two articles to the reporter. One of them is “This man did nothing with his life, apart from leading IBM to success”. One paragraph was highlighted by Yuan Yipeng. It reads: there was once an American man called Watson Junior. From the age of 13 he suffered from depression, and it stayed with him for 60 years. He also had dyslexia. Some people would say that “people like him can’t achieve anything in life.” But he had turned IBM into a blue giant in computer industry. The other article was “Ren Zhengfei (the founder and executive of Huawei Company) was once a sufferer of severe depression and anxiety disorders”. Quoting from that article, “As the competition becomes more and more intense, Huawei employees are increasingly under pressure at work. Now and then people hear about cases of self harm or suicide in the company. The number of employees with depression or anxiety disorders are on the increase. It is very worrying. A while ago Ren Zhengfei wrote an open letter to employees. It was entitled ‘We must live happily to face life’s many challenges.’ In the letter he confessed, ‘I used to suffer from depression and anxiety disorder. But I am now fully recovered thanks to the help of my doctors and my optimistic view of life.’”
The two articles may be irrelevant to Yuan family’s current situation. However, from Yuan Yipeng’s point of view, the idea of financial compensation makes him feel cold. What he is really yearning for is being treated with respect and in a loving and caring way.