Activist's death warrants inquiry

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 11 June, 2012, 12:00am


Those who knew Li Wangyang cannot accept that he killed himself. To the long-jailed labour activist's supporters, he was an iron-willed fighter always prepared to rally against injustice. The suspicious circumstances of his death, the cremation of his body before an investigation was carried out, and the unconvincing explanations of provincial police and authorities give cause to believe that foul play has been committed. Beijing should clear the air by ordering a full, independent inquiry.

Li was unafraid to stand up to authorities and speak his mind. His protests in the Hunan city of Shaoyang against the killings in Tiananmen Square in June 1989 landed him in jail for 13 years for counter-revolutionary propaganda and incitement. But the abuse he endured was not enough to silence him, even after his early release on medical parole after serving 11 years. Within eight months he was demonstrating again, this time by staging a hunger strike to demand compensation. Again he was arrested for incitement and locked away, this time for 11 years.

That Li was a broken man cannot be denied. The torture and maltreatment of two decades in jail had made him blind, deaf and barely able to walk. Given his weakened physical condition, friends and family were justly right to wonder if he was capable of stringing a cotton bandage around his neck and tying it to a window grille in the hospital room that had become his home. They contend he had difficulty holding a spoon, let alone make such exertions. Doubts were fuelled by a photograph circulated on the internet supposedly showing Li's feet touching the ground as he hung from the window, although it is unclear who took it and it does not show the rest of his body.

Shaoyang authorities ordered his cremation on Saturday, following an autopsy on Friday, in both cases apparently without his family's consent. Shortly before his death, Li defied official cautions by giving interviews to Hong Kong and French media. Police are said to have put him under watch in the lead-up to the June 4 anniversary, although it is not clear how long that continued. Much remains to be explained before reaching any conclusions. But it is safe to assume that wide coverage of this story is not good for China's international image.

Some Hong Kong deputies and delegates to the National People's Congress and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference have promised to press Beijing to investigate Li's death. Activists staged a protest march in the city yesterday. Any investigation should not be left in the hands of local officials who are already under fire over their handling of the case. Central authorities have to step in promptly, ensuring that a thorough and transparent inquiry is held and if official wrongdoing is found, to hold those involved accountable.