Beijing. Li Wangyang, one of China’s longest-serving political prisoners, was not the kind of man to go down without a fight. After serving 11 years in prison for organizing workers during the pro-democracy protests of 1989, he gained his freedom and promptly went on a hunger strike. His goal was to shame the government into providing restitution, and the medical care he required after successive beatings left him nearly blind and deaf.
The government responded by throwing him in jail for another decade.
So Chinese activists were stunned this week to learn that Li, 62, who was enjoying his first year of freedom, had supposedly taken his own life. According to the police in Hunan province, Li hanged himself Wednesday morning in the hospital room where he had been living since his release from jail. They say he strung a cotton bandage around his neck and tied it to a steel grille that covered the window near his bed.
Friends and family members have questioned the authorities’ version of events, saying Li was too feisty to bow out of the fight for political reform. Shortly before his death, he gave interviews to French radio and a Hong Kong television station in which he vowed to keep agitating for an end to single-party rule.
‘’Each ordinary man has a responsibility for democracy, for the well-being of the nation,” he said, nearly spitting with indignation.
But even if he wanted to commit suicide, friends say he was too feeble to orchestrate his own death. Besides being blind, they say he had trouble holding a spoon and needed to lean on others to walk.
“The way we see it, Li’s death was a homicide,” said Zhou Zhirong, another veteran dissident from Hunan province who was jailed for seven years for his role in the pro-democracy protests of 1989. “He never gave up during 22 years in prison, so why would he give up now?”
Such suspicions have electrified Chinese activists, who started an online signature campaign Thursday that calls for the authorities to investigate Li’s death. So far, the petition has drawn nearly 4,000 names.
The doubts have been fueled by a photograph, widely circulated on the Internet, that appears to show Li’s feet touching the ground as he hung from the window. It is unclear who took the photograph, which does not show Li’s entire body. Activists have also questioned why the authorities would not let Li’s family examine or photograph his body, which was promptly taken away by the police.
There is no hard evidence of foul play. Nonetheless, the government worked quickly to contain the speculation over Li’s death. Having blocked his name on Sina Weibo, the popular microblogging service, the government forced users to come up with creative ways to discuss his death. A Chinese phrase that is perhaps best translated as “suicided” became the stand-in search term.
Several of Li’s friends said they were being monitored by the police and had been instructed not to talk to the media. On Friday, the cellphones of Li’s sister and her husband were turned off, but the Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy, based in Hong Kong, said the couple was demanding an autopsy in the presence of a lawyer, preferably one from outside Shaoyang, the city where Li died.
Reached by phone, a police officer with the Shaoyang Public Security Bureau declined to comment on the case, saying Li’s death was still under investigation.
Li was not widely known outside China. Tall and opinionated, he worked in a glass factory and became politically minded during the Democracy Wall Movement of the late 1970s, when Deng Xiaoping encouraged people to post their uncensored thoughts on a wall in Beijing — and then responded with a wave of repression.
In the spring of 1989, during the heady and chaotic weeks of antigovernment protest, Li rallied workers in Shaoyang to show their solidarity with the students occupying Tiananmen Square. After the army put an end to the demonstrations, Li was arrested and convicted of “counterrevolutionary crimes.”
In later interviews, he acknowledged being an uncooperative prisoner. He spent many months in solitary confinement and lost most of his front teeth when prison guards tried to force-feed him during a hunger strike. Over the years, he developed heart disease and diabetes, but the authorities refused to treat his illnesses. When they did provide treatment, they charged his family. His sister, Li Wanglin, was sent to a labor camp for three years after speaking to foreign reporters about his plight.
Despite being largely deaf and blind, Li did not appear to lose his fighting spirit after his release in May 2011. With no place to live, he moved into the Daxiang District Hospital and ignored admonitions from the authorities by speaking to the overseas media. The local police responded by dispatching officers to his room in the days before the June 4 anniversary of the military crackdown on the Tiananmen demonstrations. It was not clear, however, if his minders were present the morning Li died.
Zhang Shanguang, a friend who spent 16 years in the same prison, said Li was still keenly interested in politics. Earlier this week, he said, Li asked for a radio so he could keep up with domestic news and try to improve his hearing. In the final interview before his death, Li displayed his characteristic mettle.
“Even if you cut off my head,” he told the Hong Kong cable station, “I still won’t regret what I’ve done.”
Jacob Fromer and Shi Da contributed research.
New York Times