Hu Jintao

Fresh probe takes heat off Hu's visit

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 16 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 16 June, 2012, 12:00am


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Thursday's pledge by the Hunan government to order a fresh inquiry into the suspicious death of Tiananmen dissident Li Wangyang was largely prompted by an urgent need to cool down the public outcry in Hong Kong only weeks before President Hu Jintao visits the city, say analysts and activists.

Li's sudden death in hospital on June 6 could not have been more ill-timed as it sparked off a wave of anger ahead of Hu's visit on July 1 to mark the 15th anniversary of the handover.

On Sunday, 25,000 people took to the streets, demanding the truth about Li's death, and the hostility building up in Hong Kong ahead of the state leader's visit has revived memories of before Wen Jiabao's visit on July 1, 2003.

Then the premier had to leave Hong Kong for Shenzhen after tens of thousands protested against the proposed inclusion of Article 23 in the Basic Law, the mini-constitution guaranteeing the city's democratic rights and freedoms. Sunday's protest has also revived memories of the scuffles that broke out between protesters and the police during Vice-Premier Li Keqiang's visit to Hong Kong in August.

On Thursday, central government deputy liaison office chief Li Gang gave assurances that a new probe would be launched into Li's death and that views of Hong Kong's people had been relayed to Beijing.

The semi-official Hong Kong China News Agency cited the Hunan government as pledging to order a fresh investigation with the participation of forensic and criminal experts from outside Hunan province, in an attempt to make the new inquiry at least look fairer.

The fact that the statement was issued by the CNA instead of the more popular channel Xinhua is another sign that the new investigation is aimed at assuaging public opinion in Hong Kong.

The authorities initially said Li hanged himself but later said he died 'accidentally'. So far, how the central government 'defines the nature' of Li's death remains unclear and there may be different interpretations within the Communist Party - which is undergoing intense internal struggles ahead of the 18th party congress expected to be held later this year.

One opinion was that 'anti-China' elements in Hong Kong have made use of the incident to fan public anger and create trouble for the central government, a party source said.

No matter what the interpretations are, there are pressing needs for the mainland government to cool down the public anger in Hong Kong over the case.

Hu's visit to Hong Kong in two weeks will be his last before retirement. As political legacy has always been the priority of an outgoing state leader, any risk of a fallout over Hu's visit would not be acceptable to the Communist Party.

Political analysts believe the threats of protests in Hong Kong during Hu's visit is the main reason for the central government to reopen the Li case. 'Without the fact of Hu coming to Hong Kong, the case could drag on or may be forgotten,' political commentator Johnny Lau said.

However, democracy activists said the pledge of a new investigation would not stop them mobilising people to hold protests on July 1, and on July 4, when Hong Kong's Legislative Council will hold an adjournment debate on Li's death.

Lee Cheuk-yan, chairman of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China, said he believed politics at top may determine the outcome of the Li investigation.

'It could be a political decision. But at least people need to get the truth,' he said. He urged mainland authorities to release a full report after the inquiry and allow Li's family to speak to the media.

Yin Zhengan, a friend of Li Wangyang, said he was pessimistic that Li will receive justice as a crackdown on the dead dissident's family and friends continues. 'I have not been able to contact Li's sister and her husband for more than eight days,' Yin said, adding that authorities had placed him under house arrest and cut off his internet access.

Tang Jingling , a legal rights activist and lawyer appointed by Li Wangyang's sister, said: 'It's impossible for the authorities to launch an impartial inquiry, as higher level officials have intervened in the case and Li's body was cremated.

'Police have controlled all the key evidence such as footage captured outside his hospital ward, and we can't rule out the possibility some of the evidence has been modified.' Political pundits believe the fallout of Li's death will not affect the career prospect of Hunan party boss Zhou Qiang , a close ally of Hu.

Zhang Lifan, a commentator formerly with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said authorities will avoid implicating senior officials.

'Even if Li's death was not a suicide or accidental, the investigation would probably conclude that it was lower-level county officials be held responsible,' he said.

Reporting by Dennis Chong, Fiona Tam and Teddy Ng