The agony of Li Wangyang

PUBLISHED : Friday, 13 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 13 July, 2012, 12:00am

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The 21 years that Li Wangyang spent in jail for his pro-democracy activism after 1989 made him a virtual unknown on the mainland.

But his suspicious death on June 6 sparked uproar in Hong Kong and widespread concern about the ongoing persecution of activists on the mainland.

The report yesterday of the probe into his death that said Li took his own life has not calmed the outrage.

Police in Shaoyang, Hunan, initially said Li had hanged himself in his hospital ward, but family and friends refused to accept that explanation, saying that Li, who was blind and deaf as a result of mistreatment in prison, had remained in a combative mood and would not commit suicide.

They said Li was found dead near a window of his ward with a noose of white bandages around his neck. Pictures taken at the scene by one of Li's friends just before his body was taken away by police showed Li's slippered feet still on the ground.

Suspicions that Li's death was the result of a plot by Hunan authorities, and not a case of suicide, were fuelled because Hong Kong Cable TV had aired an interview with Li four days before his death.

Li was coherent, feisty and unapologetic for his involvement in the 1989 student-led democracy movement. 'The students were rallying and protesting [for the country],' he said. 'As an ordinary citizen, I felt I had an undeniable duty to support them. I hoped, through my efforts, to help speed up progress towards democracy.'

He also gave details of how he had been tortured during his two terms in jail - the first from 1989 on charges of counter-revolutionary propaganda and incitement, and the second from 2001 for inciting subversion after he staged a 22-day hunger strike.

Li had been subjected to solitary confinement in a place friends said was about the size of a coffin, and his jailers had tortured him with pliers until he passed out from pain, even removing his teeth when he tried to stage a hunger strike. He shrank from 1.82 metres to 1.73 metres.

On June 7, Hong Kong-based online media critic Wen Yunchao, better known by his internet pseudonym Beifeng, Beijing economist Xia Yeliang and US-based democracy activist Wu Renhua started an online petition demanding a fair investigation into Li's death.

About 50 demonstrators from the Hong Kong Alliance In Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China, the Civic Party and other concern groups marched to the central government's liaison office in Western, demanding an investigation.

Michael Tien Puk-sun, a Hong Kong deputy to the National People's Congress, said he would write to demand that Beijing look into Li's death.

But instead of launching an investigation, Hunan authorities carried out an autopsy on Li on June 8 and cremated his body a day later, against the wishes of his family.

This triggered more anger and suspicions among Hong Kong people that Hunan authorities were destroying evidence, and at least five more Hong Kong deputies to the NPC vowed to urge Beijing to investigate his death.

On June 10, a coalition of Hong Kong political and pressure groups marched from Chater Road in Central to the central government's liaison office. Rally organisers said 25,000 people took part in the march, but police put the figure at 5,400.

And in a major U-turn, some pro-Beijing political heavyweights, such as Ip Kwok-him, of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, who had earlier declined to raise the matter with the NPC, said they would write to NPC chairman Wu Bangguo .

The propaganda office in Shaoyang said the case was 'an accidental death' and the cremation was carried out 'at the request of relatives', denying reports his family had opposed the autopsy and cremation.

Some Hong Kong government officials were also embroiled in the saga. Outgoing health minister York Chow Yat-ngok said it would not be easy for a severely disabled person like Li to commit suicide, and photos taken at the scene showed Li's death did not look like a suicide.

Secretary for Security Ambrose Lee Siu-kwong also said he hoped the truth would come out.

Some of Li's friends and members of his family, who were detained by police or put under house arrest, also cast doubt on the official account of his death and told of their encounters with the 62-year-old activist.

One of them, Zhu Chengzhi, said Li remained upbeat during a meeting on June 4.

'I simply don't think it was a suicide because Li was the kind of guy who would never commit suicide even if a knife was held against his neck,' Zhu told the South China Morning Post.

Another activist, Huang Lihong, a middle-school teacher in Shaoyang, said: 'He was in pain both physically and psychologically but he had never given up hope and always encouraged us to persevere because we may be witnessing the darkest moment before the dawn.'

Hunan authorities appeared to be giving in to the mounting public pressure from Hong Kong on June 14 when outgoing chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen raised doubts about Li's death and said he had reflected Hong Kong people's views to the central government.

The Beijing-based Hong Kong China News Agency quoted a spokesman for Hunan's public security bureau as saying that after a persistent focus on Li's death from overseas media and the public, the authorities had launched a further probe by a 'team of experienced criminal investigation experts'.

The agency reported on June 20 that forensic specialists and criminal investigators in the fields of detection, trace examination and physical evidence had been sent to Shaoyang, while deputies from the provincial people's congress and political consultative conference would supervise the process.

Some pro-Beijing politicians welcomed the move, but friends of Li and other critics remained sceptical because his body had already been cremated.

They suspected that the probe was only launched to calm Hong Kong public sentiment ahead of President Hu Jintao's visit to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the handover on July 1.

1950

Li Wangyang is born in Hunan. On finishing school he works at the province's Shaoyang Cement Plant where he becomes an advocate for independent labour unions.

1989

After taking part in the pro-democracy protests, Li is jailed for 13 years on charges of spreading counter-revolutionary propaganda. Prior to the protests he had helped publish unofficial newspaper Zijiang Minbao and founded the Shaoyang Workers Autonomous Federation, which organised strikes.

2000

Li is released on medical grounds after losing his hearing and part of his sight, allegedly due to torture. He begins petitioning authorities for compensation.

2001

As part of his efforts to seek compensation, Li stages a 22-day hunger strike which sees him sentenced to a second prison term, this time 10 years, for inciting subversion.

2011

Li is released from jail and admitted to hospital suffering from advanced diabetes and heart disease.

June 2, 2012

Hong Kong's Cable TV broadcasts an interview with Li in which he talks about the 1989 pro-democracy movement and his subsequent experience of imprisonment.

June 6

Li is found dead in his room at Daxiang Hospital in Shaoyang, his body hanging from a window but with his feet on the ground. The local authorities say he committed suicide, but family and relatives say he had shown no intention of it the day before his death.

June 7

Activists and 50 demonstrators in Hong Kong sign an online petition and march to the central government's liaison office demanding a fair investigation into Li's death. Michael Tien Puk-sun, a deputy to the National People's Congress, says he will write to Beijing demanding a probe.

June 8/9

An autopsy and cremation are carried out, allegedly against the wishes of Li's family. Five more Hong Kong deputies to the NPC promise to urge Beijing to investigate Li's death.

June 10

A coalition of Hong Kong political and pressure groups marches from Chater Road in Central to the central government's liaison office demanding an investigation. Rally organisers say 25,000 people take part. Police say 5,400.

June 11

Authorities in Shaoyang deny reports that Li's family opposed the autopsy and cremation and say the case is 'an accidental death'. Hong Kong chief executive-elect Leung Chun-ying says he will reflect Hongkongers' views to Beijing on the issue. Outgoing health minister Dr York Chow Yat-ngok says photos indicate Li's death was not suicide.

June 12

Security minister Ambrose Lee Siu-kwong says he hopes the truth of the case will come out.

June 13

Outgoing chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen raises doubts about the death and says he has reflected Hongkongers' views to Beijing, while 1,500 attend a memorial vigil in Central for Li. Police say 510 attend the vigil.

June 14

Hunan authorities launch a probe into Li's death, calling in a team of criminal investigators.

June 20

Hong Kong's China News Agency reports that forensic specialists and criminal investigators have been sent to Shaoyang and that deputies from the provincial people's congress and political consultative conference will supervise the probe.