The Chinese government is having a difficult time convincing people that a Tiananmen Square dissident who, after 21 years of imprisonment, was left blind, mostly, deaf, and unable to hold a spoon to his mouth would be dexterous enough to make a noose out of bandages and hang himself. Li's brother told the Associated Press his family was immediately suspicious after Li Wangyang, 62, was found by his sister hanging from the metal bars of his hospital room's window on June 6. He'd just begun a "feisty" public campaign to speak out against the government and so the timing seemed off. For a week, public anger has grown with massive protests in Hong Kong and an online petition calling for an investigation. A photo supposedly showing Li's body with his feet touching the ground -- implying that the hanging was staged -- has made its way across the web as well. (Found here, but a warning that it's graphic.) Thursday, public security officials in China's Hunan Province actually agreed to look into the circumstances surrounding Li's death
Li, a labor activist, was arrested in 1989 for organizing protests during the Tiananmen Square movement. His time in prison left him blind, mostly deaf, and he had trouble walking or even spoon-feeding himself. The idea, then, that he could fashion a noose from a cotton bandage and tie it to a window grill seems dubious. (Watching his final interview, given to a Hong Kong TV station, you get a sense of his frailty.) Even Hong Kong's chief executive, Donald Tsang, has publicly declared the protests justified.
Harvard professor and Bloomberg columnist Noah Feldman wrote an interesting piece last month about China's "partial, temporary free speech," and the government's decision to investigate the accusations seems like a handy demonstration of the way the authorities wield it. Feldman wrote:
Once the microblogs have conveyed what people are thinking, the government can respond to their concerns ... Responding to public opinion is the hallmark of accountable government. Without elections to provide oversight, China's leaders need every opportunity they can get to demonstrate that they respond to people's concerns. Seen this way, limited free speech, followed by government action, is an important part of how the Chinese Communist Party seeks to sustain its legitimacy.
In this case, a police spokesman has even admitted that public pressure forced the government's investigation, The New York Times's Andrew Jacobs reports. By acknowledging protesters, it seems like they are releasing a pressure valve. But when the point your public is making happens to be that your authorities were allegedly so sloppy that they murdered a proponent of free speech but botched the job because authorities had beaten him too badly in prison to make the alibi believable ... well, it seems like it won't be long before a pressure valve isn't all that's required to stave off discontent.