According to IMDb (Internet Movie Database), “Dying to Survive” is “a story about how a small drug store owner became the exclusive selling agent of a cheap Indian generic drug against chronic granulocytic leukemia in China.” The film is based on the real-life story of Lu Yong, a Chinese leukemia patient who smuggled cheap but unproven cancer medicine from India for 1,000 Chinese cancer sufferers in 2004.
On its opening day on July 5, 2018, the film topped the Chinese box office and grossed $49.71 million, including preview screenings. By the end of its opening weekend, the film had grossed $199.58 million, the fourth biggest opening weekend ever in China.
I heard that the authorities are trying to “cool down” the heated discussion about this film because its popularity draws attention to some very sensitive topics in China, such as the unreasonably high price of drugs and problems in the health care system.
I have not had a chance to watch this movie yet, but hearing about it triggered a memory of a true story in the mid-1990s.
On a gloomy day in Beijing, I was taking a taxi and having a chat with the driver. He’d worked for a state-owned factory from some 20 or 30 years, and was recently “dismissed” from the factory with a compensation of only some 30K RMB, or yuan, (about $4,500). After that, the factory wouldn’t pay him any pension or cover his medical bills. This is called “mai duan” in Chinese, which means his entitlement to a pension and medical care were “bought over” by the factory with the 30K yuan.
This was a very typical story for people of his generation. They were sent to the countryside to receive “re-education” from the peasants during the Great Culture Revolution, suffered a lot of hardships there, had a lot of trouble finding their way back to the cities, and then worked at some state-owned factories. Their wages were extremely low, as they were told that the government would look after them. They would be given free housing, free medical care, and could have a pension after they retired, so low wages were not too much of a problem at the time.
But after some 20 or 30 years, the dominant voice in the society became “reforming and opening up to the outside world.” Many big state-owned factories went bankrupt or were “transformed” into other types of businesses. As a result, a lot of workers were laid off with little compensation. Decades of hard work were “bought over” with just 30K yuan.
I asked the taxi driver, “Now that you have nowhere to find reimbursement for your medical bills, what will do if you get sick?”
He said, “If I catch some minor ailments such as a cold, I’ll just go to the drugstore to buy some drugs myself. However, if I am unfortunate enough to have a severe illness like cancer, I will just save the trouble of getting treatment and wait to die. As with those major illnesses, usually you’ll die all the same after you spend all your money. So I’d rather leave my savings for my family.”
My heart sank with hearing this. He spoke about “waiting to die” with such a calm and normal tone of voice, as if it were just part of his daily routine. And there are tens of millions of people like him in China: silently suffering and contributing everything to the Communist Party before they are told to “wait to die.” And yet they quietly accept it.
So it’s no wonder that a film like “Dying to Survive” is attracting so much attention and resonates with Chinese audiences. Under the communist rule, life has become so hard and is considered so cheap, with people becoming indifferent to their own fates, that a film discussing the lives of the “inferior” people is indeed much needed.
Jennifer Zeng is an author, blogger, and reporter based in New York.