Suspicious Death of a Chinese Dissident Becomes Rallying Point in Hong Kong

Police in central China say Li Wangyang killed himself. But family and friends suspect he was murdered, and 800 km away in Hong Kong, activists are calling for an investigation

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Vincent Yu / AP

Hong Kong residents attend a vigil to mourn Chinese labor activist Li Wangyang's death on June 13, 2012

At recent protests in Hong Kong, and there are many protests these days in Hong Kong, you can see Li Wangyang’s face everywhere. The Chinese dissident died under suspicious circumstances at a hospital in Hunan province on June 6. While his case has been allowed little room for discussion on the mainland, he has become a rallying point for activists in Hong Kong, a semiautonomous Chinese city that enjoys far greater freedoms of speech and demonstration. Li’s close-cropped hair, his glassy eyes rendered useless by years of prison beatings, his gapped teeth, which guards broke prying open his mouth to force an end to a hunger strike, loom on banners and signs. One popular T-shirt carries his image and the words We Miss U.

Just one month ago, though, few people in the city knew who he was. The speed with which Li has moved from a nobody to an icon is a reflection not just of sympathy for his sad life and doubts about the official assertion that he killed himself, but also a sign of Hong Kong’s growing suspicion of China’s central government as the territory marks the 15th anniversary of its return to Chinese control.

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Many Hong Kong residents were introduced to Li on June 2, after local broadcaster Cable TV ran a rare interview with him. During the 1989 protest movement, he helped found a workers’ association to support the student-led demonstrations in Beijing and other big cities. After the deadly June 4 crackdown, he was arrested and spent 13 years in prison for counterrevolutionary propaganda and incitement. In 2001, he was again sentenced to 10 years in prison for inciting subversion after he sued for compensation for the abuse he suffered during his previous jail term. Li was released one year ago to little notice by the outside world. Among Chinese activists and human-rights advocates, his case was unique simply because he was one of the longest-serving prisoners after the 1989 crackdown. But despite his severe torture and abuse, Li showed no sign of being cowed. “To accelerate the arrival of a democratic society, to accelerate the arrival of a multiparty system in China, I won’t retreat, even if it means I will lose my head,” he told Cable TV.

Shortly after that interview was broadcast, and just two days after the 23rd anniversary of the 1989 crackdown, Li, 62, was found dead in the Daxiang Hospital in Shaoyang, where he was receiving treatment for several ailments. His relatives discovered him standing at a window with a thin noose of ribbon around his neck. Police said it was a suicide. But there are many doubts. As the television interview showed, Li was blind, largely deaf and had difficulty standing or moving without help. It would have been physically difficult for him to kill himself, activists say. And he had expressed determination to carry on, despite years of abuse.

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After learning of Li’s death, Hong Kong–based Chinese activist Wen Yunchao quickly wrote up a petition calling for a “credible investigation” into the cause. Within a day, it had 3,000 signatures. (It now has more than 14,000, about half of those from Hong Kong.) When Wang Xiangwei, the editor in chief of the South China Morning Post, Hong Kong’s leading English-language newspaper, condensed a story on Li to run as a brief inside the paper’s later editions, he sparked accusations of censorship and complaints from his own staff. Anger over Li’s death quickly turned into protest. On June 10, an estimated 25,000 people demonstrated outside the central government’s liaison office in Hong Kong. “For many Hong Kong people, they feel that this has crossed the bottom line and it was something they couldn’t tolerate,” says Wen. Five Hong Kong residents even traveled to Shaoyang to look into the case themselves. Two — Benson Siu, 20, and Debby Chan, 31 — were detained by local police for 10 hours, and Chan was strip-searched. “A lot of citizens in China don’t know his story,” says Siu, a law student at the University of Hong Kong. “We wanted to find Li Wangyang’s friends and relatives, we wanted to learn who was behind his death, and we wanted to spread the message on the mainland so more citizens know about him.”

Li’s case is just one of many issues troubling the people of Hong Kong. The gap between rich and poor is growing. Outgoing Chief Executive Donald Tsang ended his term amid scandal that he was cozy with local tycoons, accepting trips and a sweetheart deal on an apartment. His replacement as the territory’s top political leader, Leung Chun-ying, came into office amid his own scandal over illegal additions to his home. More significantly, Leung was seen as having close ties with China’s Communist Party leadership, deepening fears of mainland influence. A survey by the University of Hong Kong released in mid-June found that 37% of residents distrusted China’s central government, a level that was last seen in 2003 during the height of the SARS epidemic, when a cover-up by mainland officials delayed efforts to contain the outbreak. There is an uncomfortable similarity between the two events, notes Michael DeGolyer, a political scientist at Hong Kong Baptist University. “Death and official lying and cover-ups trigger a strong response among a large number of Hong Kong people,” he says.

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On Saturday, one day after Chinese President Hu Jintao arrived in town for Leung’s swearing-in ceremony and events to mark the July 1 anniversary of the handover from Britain, a few thousand protesters gathered in the Wanchai district to once again demand an investigation into the cause of Li’s death. “He represented the working class in China. He fought against the government because he felt June 4 was wrong,” says Cynthia Yu, a 61-year-old retiree who joined the protest. “We feel the same way. We ask for respect for those who died. We want to tell the Chinese government that it has done something wrong. Mr. Li should still be here with us.”

Amid intermittent rain showers, the protesters marched past nightclubs, girlie bars and a Lamborghini dealership, over a pedestrian bridge and toward the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, where Hu was speaking to a meeting of the city’s business and political elite, whom he urged to increase “cooperation, consultation and inclusiveness.” Police corralled the demonstrators into an area girded with tall plastic protest barriers. When some protesters attempted to push through, police responded with pepper spray. Several protesters, at least one photojournalist and pro-democracy lawmaker Leung “Longhair” Kwok-hung were hit with the stinging orange foam.

A short distance away from the fray, 15-year-old student Wayson Auyoung held a handwritten sign, its ink dripping from the rain, that quoted a Song-dynasty poem about the need for a fearless hero to save the country. “I think that Hu Jintao will not listen to us,” says Auyoung. “But we must do this. If we don’t do anything, nothing will happen.”

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