The New York Times
9 June 2012
(c) 2012 National Post . All Rights Reserved.
BEIJING - Li Wangyang, one of China's longest-serving political prisoners, was not the kind of man to go down without a fight.
After 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 jailing him for another decade.
So Chinese activists were stunned this week to learn Mr. Li, 62, who was enjoying his first year of freedom, had supposedly taken his own life.
According to police in Hunan, he hanged himself Wednesday morning in the hospital room where he had been living. 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 this version of events, saying Mr. Li was too feisty to bow out of the fight for political reform. Shortly before his death, he gave interviews to media 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, 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, who was jailed for seven years for his role in the pro-democracy protests.
"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 calling for the authorities to investigate Mr. Li's death.
The doubts have been fueled by a photograph, widely circulated on the Internet, that appears to show Mr. Li's feet touching the ground as he hung from the window. It is unclear who took the photograph.
Activists have also questioned why the authorities would not let his family examine or photograph his body.
There is no hard evidence of foul play. Nonetheless, the government worked quickly to contain the speculation over Mr. Li's death.
Having blocked his name online, censors 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 Mr. Li's friends said they were being monitored by the police and had been told not to talk to the media. On Friday, the cellphones of his sister and her husband were turned off, but the Information Centre for Human Rights and Democracy said the couple was demanding an autopsy in the presence of a lawyer, preferably one from Shaoyang, the city where Mr. Li died.
The dissident 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 - then responded with a wave of repression.
In the spring of 1989, during the heady and chaotic weeks of antigovernment protest, Mr. Li rallied workers in Shaoyang to show their solidarity with students occupying Tiananmen Square. After the army moved in, he was arrested and convicted of "counterrevolutionary crimes."
He spent many months in solitary confinement and lost most of his front teeth when guards tried to force-feed him during a hunger strike. He also developed heart disease and diabetes, but the authorities delayed treating him.
Despite being largely deaf and blind, Mr. 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. Police responded by dispatching officers to his room in the days before the June 4 anniversary of the military crackdown on the Tiananmen demonstrations.
Zhang Shanguang, a friend who spent 16 years in the same prison, said Mr. Li was still keenly interested in politics. Earlier this week, he said, Mr. 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, Mr. 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."
Vincent Yu, The Associated Press / Mourners of Li Wangyang protested at a government office Thursday.;