Activist gave his life for democracy

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 June, 2012, 12:00am


Li Wangyang was not the best-known democracy activist from the turbulent summer of 1989.

But the unionist, 62, from Shaoyang, Hunan province may well be the one who served the most time in jail for the cause - 21 years - before he was found dead in hospital amid suspicious circumstances on Wednesday.

To his friends, Li was an iron-willed fighter who was unafraid to die for a cause. But they say it was 'unbelievable' that he would commit suicide, as local police claimed.

Several friends recalled that Li refused to go into hiding after he was warned by a friend on the day of his arrest in June 1989.

'If I run, I'll be betraying the workers of Shaoyang,' Li said.

Police arrested Li after he staged protests in Shaoyang condemning the bloody suppression of the student movement in Beijing.

Li was detained on charges of counter-revolutionary propaganda and incitement and was sentenced to 13 years in jail.

He was later subjected to so much torture and abuse that by the time he was released on medical parole in June 2000, he was half-deaf, half-blind and could barely walk.

Li subsequently demanded compensation from the local government for his suffering, and to pay his medical bills.

In February 2001, he staged a 22-day hunger strike that drew global attention. But Shaoyang authorities were unfazed. Li was again detained in May that year for inciting subversion, and was jailed for 11 years.

For helping him broadcast his message, Li Wangling, his younger sister, was also sentenced to three years of 're-education through labour'.

Li was released in May last year. In his last interview - given to Hong Kong's Cable Television ahead of this year's June 4 anniversary - Li was completely blind and deaf. His hands were shaking, and he needed assistance to walk.

During the interview, a friend wrote the questions on his palm or his leg. Despite his disabilities, Li was coherent, feisty and unapologetic.

'The students were rallying and protesting [for the country]. As an ordinary citizen I felt I had an undeniable duty to support them,' Li said. 'I hoped, through my efforts, to help speed up [the mainland's] progress towards democracy.'

Li said he was inspired in 1979 by a visit to the Xidan Democracy Wall in Beijing - considered by many as the starting point of the mainland's democracy movement in the 1980's - and he started discussing democracy and the nation's future with his friends after he returned home.

In 1983 he formed his first union with friends, and started a newspaper to spread their ideas.

In 1989, when the student movement gained strength in Beijing, he formed another union in Shaoyang to support them.

'When I heard of the ruthless military suppression of the students, I was furious,' Li said.

'They were patriotic and passionate and cared about the future of the country. But in the end they faced bloody suppression.'

Li then organised protests by Shaoyang students and workers, and a vigil which was attended by thousands. Within days he was thrown into jail.

During the first jail term, he was subjected to torture and constant solitary confinement in a space so small that he could not sit straight.

Li said his jailers tortured him by hurting him with pliers until he passed out from the pain. When he regained consciousness, the pliers would be reapplied. And when he tried to stage a hunger strike in jail, his teeth were removed.

When Li entered jail he was a well-built man of 182cm in height, but when he emerged, he had shrank to 173cm, friends recalled.

Fellow democracy activist Yin Zhengan, who started the union with Li in 1983, was one of the few who arrived at the hospital on Wednesday morning in time to see Li's body before police took it away.

Yin told the South China Morning Post on Friday that Li had expressed concerns that his poor physical condition might be a burden to his family. But for Li to hang himself would be inconsistent with his character, Yin said.

Li was found dead with a noose of white bandages around his neck.

When Cable Television asked if he had any regrets about how his life had turned out, Li was resolute: 'I only went to jail; I haven't lost my head,' he said. 'Even if I have to lose my head, I will have no regrets.'

Li never married. He was survived by his sister Li Wangling and brother-in-law Zhao Baozhu.