|September 28, 2006: 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. Decai's director
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
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
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
(whiterabbitsmom.org) 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 (teachinginchina.net).
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
"Be lucky you have his body back. Put this behind you and
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
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," onemanbandwidth.com 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,
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
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