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       Thursday, September 28, 2006

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An American Teacher in China: The Unquiet Death of Darren Russell

For the past year and a half, Maxine Russell has been knocking on official doors in China and the United States, seeking justice for her late son Darren. Mrs. Russell is a former schoolteacher living in Calabasas, California. Darren Russell was also a teacher. Up until a few days before his death on April 14th, 2005, he taught English to children at a school in Guangzhou, China. Darren's Chinese name was "White Rabbit". His students called him either White Rabbit or "Mister Rabbit". Though Darren's death was officially declared an accident, Maxine Russell believes her son was murdered. She also believes that the U.S. Consulate in Guangzhou did not live up to the duty of consulates as defined by the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Consular Affairs: "to provide assistance to and protect the welfare of American citizens who live abroad."

In 2004, Darren Russell contracted with the Decai Language School, aka the Decai English Training School, to teach English in the city of Guangzhou. Once called "Canton" in the West, Guangzhou is the capital city of the enormous southern province of Guangdong. The Decai Language School provides teachers to government owned schools. Decai made many promises to Darren about teaching and living conditions. Including limited hours, small classes of upper grade students, and a comfortable private apartment. But in Guangzhou, Darren found himself teaching grades 1 through 12, for 70 to 80 hours of a 7 day week. The private apartment was shared and had no heat or hot water. Promised tutoring in Chinese never materialized, nor did the all-important work permit visa. Meanwhile, Darren's passport was held by the director of the Decai Language School.

In the Spring of 2005, Darren Russell asked to have his hours reduced. An argument ensued and his relationship with Decai was severed. Allegedly, Darren's passport wasn't surrendered until he threatened to lodge a police complaint. He was given an hour to pack and leave his living quarters. The director of Decai instructed several employees to take Darren to the Cathay Hotel. A low budget establishment affiliated with the China North Industries Group (NORINCO) a state-owned enterprise formerly controlled by the People's Liberation Army. The Cathay is in a rough neighborhood-- even by Guangzhou standards.

Guangzhou is a high crime city. Close to 80% of the city's population are dissatisfied re public safety. Ordinary citizens have started forming "action groups" to take up the slack of inadequate police protection. Guangzhou also has rampant public and corporate corruption. The two are interwoven due to the dominance of state-owned enterprises; local Communist Party officials and corporate executives often being one and the same. (Though some government officials still prefer their market activities black. For instance, in 2004 the director of Guangzhou's Office for Eliminating Pornography and Illegal Publications, was found to be selling the materials his office seized.) Official anti corruption campaigns are periodically launched but often smack of factional warfare rather than genuine reform.

Soon after checking into the Cathay Hotel, Darren Russell was robbed. Possibly by a masseuse or prostitute, working with a male companion. Darren's money and identification were stolen. After being robbed, Darren made a number of calls from the hotel to his parents, sometimes reaching their answering machine or cell phone. One recorded message ran "Please help me get home. I am so scared. I have never been so scared in my life."

Without identification Darren couldn't access funds wired by his parents. He and his parents called the U.S. Consulate in Guangzhou asking for assistance. His parents called and emailed repeatedly, asking that someone please pick up their son and drive him to the consulate or the airport, saying they (Darren's parents) would arrange an airline ticket. But their messages were apparently either disregarded or mishandled. As example, a Chinese employee of the consulate called the Cathay and told the hotel manager to "comfort" Darren.

A few days later Darren Russell was dead.

According to Guangzhou public safety officials, on April 14th Darren Russell was killed by a truck in a hit and run accident while crossing a street near the Cathay Hotel. Eyewitnesses were cited. Yet accounts of the circumstances of Darren's death and the nature of his injuries kept changing from official to official. Including those representing the U.S. Consulate. After Darren's body was shipped home, the mortician (a former coroner) hired by the Russells declared Darren's injuries inconsistent with those of a pedestrian killed in a traffic accident; his body had no impact abrasions or broken bones. He did however, have a split skull and bruised face.

The Russells had refused a police autopsy on Darren in Guangzhou. For one thing, an official from the consulate told them the procedure would mean Darren's body wouldn't be sent home for months. For another, their distrust of the overall situation was growing by leaps and bounds.

For Darren's parents the shock of their son's death was compounded by the troubling circumstances under which it occurred. And by the treatment he-- and they-- received at the hands of the U.S. Consulate in Guangzhou. The agency which was supposed to "provide assistance to and protect the welfare of American citizens who live abroad" seemed out to lunch. An impression confirmed more strongly as time passed. An example: Maxine Russell requested the consulate mail her the hospital records of Darren's death and paid for a translation. Instead, she received the untranslated records of a young woman who'd suffered from depression.

In May, 2005, Maxine Russell visited Guangzhou in an attempt to get to the bottom of her son's death. Allegedly, officials at the U.S. Consulate gave her grudging, inadequate assistance, saying their time and resources were stretched thin, due in part to a visit from two VIPs from America. (Former U.S. Senators Harris Wofford and Larry Pressler.) Even sans visiting VIPs, the Guangzhou Consulate is a busy place. The 4th busiest U.S. Consulate in the world, it handles all American adoptions of Chinese children, most of whom are girls abandoned in state orphanages. Sixty American families a day, sometimes at the rate of four days per week, are shepherded through the adoption process by the consulate. The process involves reams of paperwork and costs each family roughly $17,000.

According to the U.S. Department of State, at the time of Maxine Russell's visit the U.S. Consulate in Guangzhou employed 213 staff members, 170 of whom were Chinese nationals. Chinese employees of the consulate are contracted from the Chinese government's Diplomatic Services Bureau (DSB). U.S. diplomatic missions in China are prohibited by the Chinese government from contracting directly for personnel services.

In May, 2006, the Department of State replied to a series of questions about how the Guangzhou Consulate responded to Darren Russell's emergency situation and ultimate death, and to the resulting visit from Maxine Russell. The questions were part of a Congressional inquiry into Darren Russell's death and were posed by Congressman Henry J. Hyde, Chairman of the Committee on International Relations. A number of answers provided by the State Department seem evasive and defensive. Some contradict Maxine Russell's accounts of conversations and events. Yet Maxine Russell, an ex-teacher, took careful notes of meetings and conversations she had with relevant officials in both China and the United States.

Those who refute Maxine Russell tend to paint her as a grieving mother on a hysterical crusade. But whether Mrs. Russell is right or wrong in her suspicions that Darren was murdered and the murder officially smoothed over or ignored, those suspicions are reasonable. Given the circumstances of Darren's employment by the Decai Language School and his stay at the Hotel Cathay, Guangzhou's record of violent crime and public corruption, and the actions and attitude of various officials. As well as the fact that Darren was the victim of 2 crimes, one of them fatal, within a very short period of time.

Those who believe Darren Russell was murdered, tend to suspect his murder was in some way connected to his employment situation. A suspicion fanned by the dodginess of various officials. An alternate theory is that Darren Russell was the victim of common thuggery, with the official dodginess a symptom of ineptitude and/or an interest, corrupt or otherwise, in protecting local, state-affiliated businesses. Whatever the case, one thing is clear. If the U.S. Consulate in Guangzhou had sent someone to pick up Darren at the Cathay Hotel (a 30 minute drive from the consulate) as the Russells requested, their son would be alive today.

Like all human beings, Darren Russell was imperfect. He made errors in judgement. He wasn't sufficiently careful when contracting for employment with the Decai Language School. And if he let a prostitute into his room at the Cathay Hotel, it was a bad decision indeed. But numerous people who knew Darren well, both professionally and socially, describe him as a talented and dedicated teacher. He was inspired by being in China, a country he loved. Darren's young students were attached to him and after he left, wrote affectionate, touching letters to "Mister Rabbit". Darren loved the nickname. His mother Maxine has a website ( about Darren's life and the circumstances of his death. She also has a website where she shares safety tips with those thinking of teaching in China (

Though there are many excellent educational institutions in China, which provide decent working conditions for foreign teachers, Darren Russell's negative experience was not unique. Other teachers, particularly those teaching English, have had similar experiences. The push to learn English in China is intense, driven by globalization and the upcoming 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Complaints to U.S. and British authorities from English teachers in China are on the rise. Quoting the U.S. House of Representatives International Relations Committee "A number of substandard English language teaching mills have sprung up...these institutes have become virtual sweatshops where young, often naive Americans are held as virtual indentured servants."

Ultimately, the report issued by Congress on the death of Darren Russell found his fate unfortunate, but did not recommend any further action. To date, neither the circumstances of Darren's employment or death, nor the related performance of the U.S. Consulate in Guangzhou, or its overall ability to "protect the welfare of American citizens" have received any further investigation by any agency of the United States government.

On September 20th the United States Congressional-Executive Commission (CECC) on China held a hearing on "Human Rights and Rule of Law in China". The focus was human rights violations against Chinese citizens. A commendable event and an important subject. Though Maxine Russell can't help but wish that human rights violations against Americans working and living in China had also been on the agenda.

Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff
Mondo QT

"Be lucky you have his body back. Put this behind you and move on."

Kim Braich, first-tour officer at the U.S. Consulate in Guangzhou, to Maxine Russell, May, 2005.

"I happy to make friend with you in my life. You give us so much happiness and let me know about affirmative philosophy. Although you live in heaven now. But you always on my mind. Missing you..."

Letter from one of Darren Russell's students, Spring 2005

Sources include but are not limited to:

"Revisiting the murder of Darren "White Rabbit" Russell an Ex-Pat Teacher in Guangzhou," 08/29/06

"Western Teachers: Some Chinese schools are like sweatshops," Audra Ang, Associated Press/Chicago Sun Times, 08/06/06

"Guangzhou Targets Corrupt Officials, Businessmen," China Daily, 07/16/06

Committee on International Relations: State Department Responses to Chairman Hyde's Letter, 05/21/06

"Guangzhou vigilantes a step ahead of police," Kevin Huang, South China Morning Post, 01/06/06

"A Child from China," Tony Thornton, The Oklahoman, Spring, 2006

Guangzhou Social Situation Public Opinion Center, referenced by News Guangdong, 07/17/05

"English-language school boom proves a bust for naive foreigners," Leu Siew Ying, South China Morning Post, 06/03/05

Statement by Jerry Marek, Former County Coroner, Las Animas County, Colorado, General Manager Groman Eden Mortuary, Mission Hills, California, 05/22/05

"Guangzhou Fights Corruption," China Daily, 07/05/04

Correspondence with officials in China & U.S., courtesy of Maxine Russell

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posted by Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff at 6:45 AM  


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