Web of support
It was the word of drunken officials against the word of a hotel waitress. The official news release: she had stabbed a fun-seeking cadre to death and immediately confessed. Initially, the incident in an out-of-the-way part of Hubei province seemed straightforward.
But nobody, least of all the blundering officials of Badong county, knew what was coming next. Within a week, the 21-year-old waitress, Deng Yujiao , had become the poster girl for millions of mainlanders tired of corrupt and immoral local governments and the lack of justice for ordinary people.
As information about the case filtered out - including the official's taunting behaviour before he died, allegations of sexual assault and a cover-up - internet forums groaned under the weight of outrage. Women's groups took to the streets and lawyer-activists rushed to the town at the epicentre of the scandal to fight in Deng's corner.
With events threatening to spiral out of control in the run-up to the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown, the central authorities were forced to cleanse message boards and gag the media as they moved to regain control of the news.
On the night of May 10 in Yesanguan town's Xiongfeng Hotel, three officials approached Deng in the hotel and demanded 'special services', a euphemism for sex. Deng refused, saying she worked in the hotel's karaoke club and was not a call girl. According to Xia Lin , a volunteer who briefly served as Deng's defence lawyer, one subordinate official named Huang Dezhi tried to rip off her clothes - something denied by the authorities.
The head of the town's trade promotion office, Deng Guida, humiliated her by slapping her in the face with bank notes and twice pushed her onto a sofa. She then stabbed the 44-year-old several times. Deng Yujiao was detained the following day on a murder charge and was seen on TV tied to a bed in a local mental hospital, crying out for help from her deceased father.
The controversial murder charges and her plight triggered a national outcry as scholars, lawyers and women's rights groups mounted chiefly internet-based campaigns offering their solidarity with the woman. Online opinion polls showed overwhelming support for the claim that she had acted out of self-defence.
Under the slogan 'Everyone could be Deng Yujiao', volunteers from women's groups staged street performances highlighting the injustice that women like Deng have endured. Some even suggested setting up a shrine in her hometown to honour her as 'Lie Nu', a woman who is willing to sacrifice herself to protect her body.
The China Law Society's Anti-Domestic Violence Network said the case was not an isolated one and that 'it could take place somewhere else, if discrimination against women is not eradicated'.
'The controversy reflects an underlying social tension in Chinese society,' said Pu Zhiqiang, a prominent Beijing-based lawyer. 'The level of the public furore also demonstrates how much the general public is dismayed by rampant social injustice and the lack of fundamental respect in society.'
Despite the country's steady growth over the past 20 years, many people feel left behind and increasingly disillusioned by the gaping economic divide, corruption and pervasive injustice.
Hao Jinsong, a rights activist, likened the relations between the underclass and those in power to 'oil and water'. 'Many popular movements are, to a great extent, a test of what democracy will look like in China, and netizens are the major driving force,' Mr Hao said. The mainland had 298 million registered internet users at the end of last year. As academics debate the role the internet can play in moving the country towards a more open and civil society, netizens are wielding increasing clout in venting public grievances, exposing injustice and shaping public opinion to bring down corrupt officials.
The government's unease with the power of the internet was underscored by strict controls put in place before the 20th anniversary of the pro-democracy movement, which saw many popular social networking sites blocked.
In a symbolic gesture, President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao held separate public online forums, in June last year and February, to reach out to netizens.
As the Deng Yujiao case unfolded, the sight of mainland bloggers poring over government statements looking for discrepancies underscored the public's heightened distrust.
Through official media, Badong county police initially said the slaying of the cadre took place in a quarrel between him and Deng. In a statement on May 13, police said Deng Guida pushed Deng Yujiao down onto a sofa twice and was killed with a pedicure knife.
Five days later, the police said the official only pushed the woman to a sitting position on the sofa and that she had used a fruit knife to stab him. In a major breakthrough, Mr Xia said after two meetings with Deng Yujiao on May 21, that Mr Huang, who was wounded in the incident, had actually tried to rape the woman. He accused police of overlooking key evidence, including torn underwear.
However, the case took a bizarre twist after Deng Yujiao's mother, Zhang Shumei, washed most of her daughter's clothes - potentially ruling out the use of DNA evidence - and refused to talk to lawyers a day after a reported phone call from police.
On May 23, police announced that Ms Zhang had fired Mr Xia and another lawyer for breaching her daughter's privacy. Police said she had hired two lawyers from the semi-official Hubei Lawyers Association without approaching Mr Xia to terminate their contract as required by law.
Mr Xia said the case was the most unusual in his 17 years as a lawyer. 'It's common to replace defence lawyers, but why couldn't Zhang Shumei speak for herself?' he asked.
Wu Gan , an internet campaigner better known as Tu Fu (The Butcher), said Badong police had misjudged the power of the internet. They believed they could cover up the case and the controversy would dissipate.
'But when they discovered they couldn't, they tried to manipulate public opinion with one lie [after] another,' said Tu Fu, who is credited for bringing Deng Yujiao's plight to the wider public via his posts.
With financial assistance from netizens, Tu Fu went to Badong and visited Deng in the mental hospital, becoming the first person outside of her family to do so.
On May 26, the Central Publicity Department issued a gag order requiring media outlets to stick to officially sanctioned reports. Internet posts about the case have been subjected to heavy censorship.
The media curb is believed to have emboldened Badong authorities to crack down on dissent. Two reporters were beaten up by thugs purportedly employed by the Yesanguan government, visitors were denied access to hotels in Badong without official approval and boat services to Badong were suspended for several days. Tu Fu said he left Badong on May 22 after the situation became very tense. He said the government should not see people like him as adversaries. 'The government is supposed to do what the public expects them to do, and the public only hopes they can do it better,' he said. 'The problem is that there hasn't been a conduit ... for proper communication, and the Web could serve just that purpose.'
Apparently buckling under public pressure, Badong police released Deng and put her under house arrest on May 26, two days after the two Hubei lawyers took over. Police said on May 31 that they had finished their investigation and had referred Deng to the prosecutors' office for using excessive force.
Mainland media reported on Monday that the two Hubei lawyers representing Deng had received a court notice that she would be tried for deliberately causing bodily harm.
Zhang Zanning, a professor with Southeast University's Law School, noted that the key was not whether Deng is found guilty, but rather whether justice is served. 'Justice here means that Deng Yujiao should be held to account if she is found guilty and officials violating her rights should also face the force of the law.'
Mr Huang, the official who allegedly tried to rape Deng, was given only 'administrative detention' for up to 15 days after being fired and expelled from the Communist Party. 'That's not justice,' Professor Zhang said.