As Sun Zhigang is cremated, spotlight falls on the plight of migrant workers Sun Zhigang's death in police custody highlights the shortcomings of a mainland residency system designed to keep the rural masses out of the prosperous cities. News of the 27-year-old graphic designer's death last month reopened bitter wounds created by the sponsorship system. Sun was arrested by police for not having sponsorship papers from his employer. He later produced them but he died three days after allegedly being beaten in a detention centre clinic. Though of peasant stock, Sun was also a university graduate, so his death under suspicious circumstances while in a Guangzhou jail was hard to ignore. Sun was cremated yesterday following a brief ceremony closed to all but a dozen family members and close friends. The media was banned from the cremation - not by his family but by Guangdong government officials. At least six propaganda officials were at the Moonlight Hall on the first floor of the Guangzhou crematorium. They told reporters to wait downstairs while guests were signed in and checked for Sars. Ten minutes into the ceremony, two attendants rushed upstairs with a stretcher. A woman was heard wailing and men were yelling. Not long afterwards, a younger brother came down carrying Sun's photograph and three men carried Sun's mother. His father walked on his own, helped by two other men. As he came down, Sun Liusong lamented the loss of his older son. 'My son is gone. My son is gone,' he said. Later at the hotel where the government had put up the Sun family, a brother said he hoped Sun's assailants would be caught. 'We want to know who instigated it, whether it was the police,' the brother said. The repercussions of Sun's death continue. The case has drawn attention to the plight of millions of migrant workers who are abused by authorities who arrest them and then demand fees for their release. The central government is so concerned about the potential for discontent rising from Sun's death it sent officials to supervise an investigation into his beating. The probe found videotaped evidence that he was beaten by eight fellow patients. Although local media has been restricted in reporting the case, an initial report on the case in the Southern Metropolis News prompted a public outcry. Zhongshan University professor Ai Xiaoming posted an open letter online questioning the beating. Her letter in turn encouraged people to share stories about their experiences in custody centres. Tsinghua University law professor Xu Jingrun said the sponsorship scheme infringed citizens' rights to equality and freedom of movement. 'There is no need for hukou [residence] and sponsorship permits because we have identity cards now,' he said. Not all peasants have identity cards, but those who do have them should not have to show other forms of identification papers, he said. Sponsorship permits, which cost 200 yuan (HK$188) each, do not work because newcomers to cities can be detained before they have time to get them issued. Moreover, sponsorship papers are only good for the city in which they are issued. 'Other proof of residence should be acceptable, for example a friend vouching for you,' Professor Xu said. He said a work permit and an identity card were sufficient to ensure that only migrant workers with jobs were allowed into cities. Alternatively, a migrant worker could have his home town issue a document about his place of residence. Academics and the media had been calling for reform to the system to protect the rights of the mainland's 100 million migrant workers, Professor Xu said. 'Perhaps after Sars is overcome we can sit down and debate this properly,' he said. Three law professors from universities in Wuhan and Beijing have issued a joint appeal to the National People's Congress to investigate the custody system. Despite the debate over Sun's death and the media clampdown, the country has come a long way from days when police could collect fees from detainees. There was so much profit to be made that migrant workers were thrown into custody in droves. Last year, after the laws were amended to outlaw collection of fees, the number of detainees dropped by 80 per cent. Professor Ai said people should not focus on Sun's death because he was a university graduate. 'We have to regard this as a human rights issue. We should use this opportunity to expose the evils of the custody system so that no one else will have to suffer,' she said.