Stubborn courage of Shaoyang dissidents
Shaoyang, in the southwest of central China's Hunan province, is an almost forgotten city despite past glories in a history spanning more than 25 centuries, dating back to the Spring and Autumn period.
It is the province's most populous city, home to around eight million people, but often ranks last among Hunan's 14 main cities in terms of per capita economic performance.
To outsiders, it is best known for a slew of high-profile scandals in recent years. Last year alone, authorities were accused of covering up a ferry disaster and were embroiled in another scandal over local cadres' involvement in child trafficking.
In September, state media reported, at least 12 students on their way home for the Mid-Autumn Festival were killed when their overcrowded ferry sank in a river in Shaoyang. But in reports citing witnesses and the families of victims, more liberal media, including The Beijing News, said at least 30 people had died.
A subsequent local government investigation denied any cover-up of the death toll and the 'unauthorised' reports were purged by censors.
Shaoyang also earned worldwide notoriety last year when an investigation by Caixin Century magazine revealed that family planning officials in the suburban county of Longhui had snatched at least 16 'illegally born' babies and sold them for overseas adoption since 2005.
Shaoyang is the hometown of many historical figures, including revolutionary leaders, warlords and Kuomintang generals, such as Cai E, but the city and neighbouring areas are also hotbeds of political dissent.
Like Li Wangyang, who died in mysterious circumstances this month after refusing to back down despite more than two decades of severe persecution, many democracy activists are known for their fortitude and stubborn perseverance.
Veteran June 4 activist Zhang Shanguang, from neighbouring Suipu county, has said he never regretted his pursuit of democracy although he was beaten and tortured during more than 16 years in jail.
Zhang has also been hounded since his release in 2008, including three days in the custody of state security officers between June 4 and 6 after he tried to visit Li shortly before his death. Zhang has been missing since Saturday after he was 'summoned for tea' by security officers.
Another activist, 72-year-old Ouyang Jinghua from the suburban county of Suining, said many local activists were inspired by Li and would carry on his fight.
Many local activists say Li was offered remissions in jail in exchange for a confession. But Li rejected those offers and opted to serve out sentences totalling 21 years.
'I am too old to be intimidated,' said Ouyang, who had major heart surgery. 'Like Wangyang often said, we have done nothing wrong in pushing for democracy and freedom in our country and we must struggle to live on despite harsh treatment.'
For local activists their stubbornness is part of their identity as Hunanese. Many of the nation's most famous revolutionaries were born in Hunan, including reformist Tan Sitong, 1911 revolution leader Huang Xing and communist pioneers Mao Zedong and Liu Shaoqi .
But according to dissidents, state security officers in Shaoyang are particularly persistent and vicious.
During his first jail term, shortly after the bloody 1989 Tiananmen crackdown, Li was subjected to torture and constant solitary confinement in a small, coffin-shaped cell where he could only sit and lie down in total darkness, his friends said.