"Warriors don’t look back" - China's fear of collective action upon dissident's death

Caption from Hong Kong Cable TV's documentary on Li Wangyang on YouTube

On Wednesday, just two days after the 23rd anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square Protest, wherein tens of thousands of people demonstrated with a united voice for democracy, social equality, political reform and freedom of speech, Chinese dissident and activist Li Wangyang was found dead in a hospital in Shaoyang city.

According to Associated Press, Li Wangyang had advocated for independent labor unions in China’s Hunan province. On June 9, 1989, he was caught, jailed for “counter-revolutionary propaganda and incitement,” tortured and forced to labor.

He was discharged from prison in June 2000, but upon suing the government for compensation, was imprisoned a second time for instigating counter-revolutionary incitement. In all, he spent twenty-two years of his life in prison – more than any other dissident following the Tiananmen Protests – and was finally released a year ago and transferred to a hospital where he remained under surveillance until his death.

Officials said that the 62 year-old Li committed suicide, but his brother-in-law, Zhao Baozhu deems this account of the story highly suspicious: Li had never suggested a will to commit suicide, nor would he have been able to given his dire physical conditions following years of torture and intensive labor. Li was practically blind and deaf, and was being treated for heart disease and diabetes at the Daxiang Hospital.

Adding to the suspicion are images (warning: very graphic) that show Li’s feet clearly touching the ground as he stands hanged, which suggests a second party’s premeditation and involvement. At the hospital, Li was being monitored by about 10 police officers, 24 hours a day: unnoticed suicide under such conditions would have been a hard trick to pull off even for Houdini.

On June 2, Hong Kong Cable TV broadcast a video called “23rd anniversary of Tiananmen Massacre, when will it end?” which interviews Li Wangyang prior to his death. Struggling to walk to his seat for the interview, he explains his chilling but inspiring story. His blindness was a result of optic atrophy, which he comments, “is due to blows to the head. There is no other reason.” To ask him questions, the interviewers write Chinese characters on his leg, above his knee. When asked whether he regrets having participated in the Tiananmen Protests, he bitterly and furiously replies with a toothless mouth

Every individual is responsible for his country’s wellbeing. I will keep on and never look back, even if you chop my head off.

But it is his powerful and passionate reminders to rethink power hierarchies that can spur collective action which central authorities in Beijing fear the most. Li comments, “warriors don’t look back. China’s future is to be decided by Chinese people. Those in power cannot decide it... I believe China will soon be on the path of freedom and democracy. That day is not far. We’ve reached the finish line.”

In fact, collective action was soon taken: hours after Li's death, a petition appeared online urging the government to open an investigation on the actual causes of the hanging. It was started by Hong Kong-based journalist Bei Feng, economist Xia Yeliang and literary scholar Wu Renhua. By the following day more than 2,000 people had signed it.

In a recent study released by Harvard University entitled “How Censorship in China Allows Government Criticism but Silences Collective Expression,” the argument is made that “contrary to previous understandings, [online] posts with negative, even vitriolic, criticism of the state, its leaders, and its policies  are not more likely to be censored. [Rather,] censorship is oriented toward attempting to forestall collective activities that are occurring now or may occur in the  future.”

The study, which collected and analyzed 11,382,221 posts through automated algorithms for lexical analysis as well as real-time monitoring of the censorship process, found that online criticism of the government, its leaders or its policies did not increase the chances of censorship. Instead, the Chinese machinery appears to activate itself when the probability that the post will generate collective action is highest.

These findings were consistent throughout the Harvard researchers’ topics, which they categorized into 95 separate areas of high, medium and low sensitivity, such as Ai Weiwei, the one child policy and popular online video games. Importantly, they conclude that any area that threatens to encourage group formation is censored: for instance, following the Japanese earthquake and subsequent meltdown of the Fukushima nuclear plant, a rumor spread through Zhejiang province that the iodine in salt would protect people from radiation exposure. What followed was an en mass rush to buy salt. Harvard researchers write that the rumor was biologically false, and had nothing to do with China’s governance, but was highly censored due to the story’s potential to conflagrate into collective expression.

Contrary, posts that one assumes would be censored because of their staunch criticism of the government are often left alone, such as the following: “This is a city government that treats life with contempt, whose government officials run amuck, a city government without justice, a city government that delights in that which is vulgar, a place where officials all have mistresses, a city government that is shameless with greed, a government that trades dignity for power, a government without humanity, a government that has no limits on immorality, a government that goes back on its word, a government that treats kindness with ingratitude, a government that cares nothing for posterity...”

The Harvard study does not mention what the readership is like for the uncensored posts compared to the censored posts, nor does it explain how difficult it may be to find the uncensored posts via Chinese search engines. However, the argument is interesting as it alludes to the predicament censors find themselves in when facing incendiary topics such as Li Wangyang's dissidence: not suppressing him would beckon collective action, and suppressing him has the same result.

We at the East Asia Gazette believe one reason why the Chinese censorship machine does not block off all blog posts that condemn the government and its policies is precisely because censoring posts by irate citizens who judge and criticize the government is, in and of itself, a cause for collective action. Li’s murder testifies to this reality.

The pressure must be let out of the pressure pot in order for the entire mechanism to remain intact. As can be observed from the Li Wangyang incident, when an individual’s voice has the potential to beget an abyss of internal disorder, suppressing that voice is just as perilous for China as leaving it uncensored: as aforementioned, only one day after passing away, more than 2,000 citizens signed the petition asking for a thorough investigation on the causes of his death. What’s more, many more have taken to the streets of Hong Kong in protest.

In the meanwhile, Li’s family has been pressured by local authorities to speed up the cremation process, The Shanghaiist writes. To quote blogger and activist Wen Yunchao, “if Li Wangyang is hastily cremated against the wishes of his family members, then there can be no doubt that Li Wangyang has indeed died at the hands of security agents.”

Chinese authorities have stated they will soon conduct an autopsy of the corpse. What the official results will be is still a mystery. However, one thing is certain: the power to inspire people to collective action is hitting a tremendously sensitive nerve for China. It is in this direction that the people must proceed if they want to rid themselves of the government’s stifling fear tactics; it is in this direction that the people must proceed if they want China’s future to be decided by Chinese people.

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