Mar 01

The Mysterious Death of Li Qiaoming

Written by Allen on Sunday, March 1st, 2009 at 7:55 pm
Filed under:-mini-posts, culture, General, News, politics | Tags:, , , ,
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Chinese officials in Yunnan have recently taken the unusual step of inviting internet users to help in investigating the suspicious and controversial death of Li Qiaoming in policy custody last month.

The controversy began a little over a week ago, when on February 12 in Puning county of Yunnan province, a public security bureau announced that inmate Li had sustained fatal brain trauma during a game of 躲猫猫 (eluding the cat) with fellow prisoners.  躲猫猫 appears to be a physical game of rough and tumble played by inmates within some Chinese prison systems, and the term 躲猫猫 has since become a hot search term on the Internet in China, generating over 35,000 comments on QQ.com alone. 

Soon after the announcement of Li’s death, allegations of police brutality, of government complicity, even of corruption and conspiracy swirled in the public imagination.   To help alleviate the buildup in public anger and gossip, the government decided to invite Chinese netizens to participate in an investigation.

According to an article from the Southern Metropolis Daily (translated by ESWN),

The injury and subsequent death of the Yuxi city Hongta district Beicheng town young man Li Qiaoming in a detention center has received broad media attention, especially on the Internet. The term ‘eluding the cat’ has become a hot Internet term in a very short time. In order to satisfy the public’s right to know, the Yunnan provincial publicity departhment will form an investigative committee with other relevant departments and proceed to Kunming city Puning town on the morning of February 20 to find out the truth about the incident. We are presently looking for four netizens and other representatives from society to serve as members of the committee. You can register between now and 8:00pm on the evening of February 19, 2009.” The notice also included a QQ account number and a telephone phone number.

“There is no truth that needs to be hidden. We will show by actual action tomorrow that this is now a show.” Yunnan provincie publicity department press and publication administration deputy director Gong Fei said that the main reason why netizens were suspicious about the ‘eluding the cat’ incident was that the information had not been open and transparent in a timely manner. This time, the relevant departments (which includes the Yunnan provincial party public department, the Yunnan provincial public security bureau, the Yunnan Political Legal Committee and the Yunnan provincial procuratorate). Their public invitation for netizens is the first time in the history of the Internet in China.

Gong Fei said: “Before the public notice went out, we spent the entire morning convincing the other departments to cooperate with the media interviews. In the past, we did not respect the rules of journalism sufficiently and we did not understand the new media well enough. That was why we had a problem with public opinion. The purpose of this investigation is to show that there are no hidden secrets in this case.” This decision had not been easy to make. “We basically discussed this for one whole morning. But in the end, we thought that a news story cannot just be ‘blocked.’ Besides this closed and opaque approach violated the people’s right to know and caused the public to misinterpret the facts.”

Despite initial doubts about the authenticity of the invitation when it first appeared on a government website, more than 500 netizens still applied.  Last week, a committee of 10 diverse people – including an insurance salesman, a technology worker and an art student, for example – formed and visited the scene of the incident.

Personally I thought this was an interesting story when I first came across it last week – though I am not sure what a group or committee of netizens can really do.  Even if they don’t get to the “truth,” this will help to lend an air of justice to the case.

It’s sort of like the jury system in the U.S.  Legal experts have known for a long time that juries rarely follow judge’s instructions and actually routinely make up decisions according to their own reasoning … often having little to do with the law.  But right or wrong, the participation of citizens in some part of the justice system – no matter now tenuous – can lend an air of legitimacy and fairness to the system.

What do people think of the story?  Any other developments to add?

Reports of the story can also be found in the NY Times and WSJ’s China Journal and ESWN.

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19 Responses to “The Mysterious Death of Li Qiaoming”

  1. S.K. Cheung Says:

    To Allen:
    ““There is no truth that needs to be hidden. We will show by actual action tomorrow that this is now a show.” ” – I would think this is just a glitch with the translation. But I hope what they meant was that this is NOT just a show, but a sincere attempt to find out what happened.

    I’m curious why this particular case is drawing attention. Was this individual noteworthy for some other reason than having died in police custody?

    “But right or wrong, the participation of citizens in some part of the justice system – no matter now tenuous – can lend an air of legitimacy and fairness to the system.” – this will no doubt be achieved. The real question, I think, is whether people feel this provides real legitimacy, or just a flimsy veneer thereof. I don’t think this problem is unique to CHina. In Canada at least, potential police misconduct is often investigated by other police, with the understandable concerns about conflict of interest etc. I imagine this mistrust is even deeper in China. In rare cases, an independent public or judicial inquiry is ordered. I wonder if a similar mechanism exists in China, particularly in more than a mere nominal form.

  2. Steve Says:

    For an update, in yesterday’s China Daily:

    The man that police claimed died in custody while playing hide-and-seek was the victim of a vicious assault by another prisoner, prosecutors said on Friday.

    “Li Qiaoming was beaten to death by prison bullies while they pretended to play a game,” Yang Jianping, spokesperson for the Yunnan Procuratorate, said at a press conference.

    Several prison officials and police officers on duty at the time of the man’s beating have been punished or removed from their posts, Yang said.

    Yan Guodong, the deputy chief of the Jinning public security bureau; Yu Chengjiang, the prison warden; Jiang Yingyu, deputy warden; Li Dongming, a prison guard; and Zhao Zeyun, of the Jinning county procuratorate have been sacked for dereliction of duty.

    Da Qiming, the head of the Jinning public security bureau, was given an executive demerit.

    “On behalf of the police, I apologize to Li’s family,” Yang said.

    The press release said prison bullies Zhang Houhua and Zhang Tao had frequently beaten Li after he was put in custody at the Jinning detention house on Jan 28.

    At 5 pm on Feb 8, the pair and another prisoner Pu Huayong beat Li up after blindfolding him, they said.

    Pu was found to have delivered the punch to Li’s head that caused his death four days later.

    The three men are now being investigated on suspicion of intentional injury, the press release said.

    The Supreme People’s Court got involved in the case after police claimed Li had died while playing hide-and-seek. The claim caused a public uproar, and the court sent a commissioner to oversee the work of Yunnan prosecutors.

    Two bloggers were invited to join a special investigation committee that was allowed into Jinning detention house to consider the collected evidence.

    However, in a report, the team said it had failed to “decipher or expose the truth of” Li’s death.

    The local government was later criticized by the public for letting amateurs investigate a serious crime, a move that lawyers said was illegal.

  3. Steve Says:

    It took me a bit of sleuthing, but I was able to find where I read about this last week. In this NY Times story, the limits to the inquiry are spelled out:

    Although the reaction to Mr. Wu’s effort was initially favorable, it soured as the limits of the inquiry became apparent. When they arrived at the jail last Friday, the committee members were given access to the crime scene but were not allowed to view surveillance tapes, examine the autopsy report or question the guards on duty at the time.

    They were also not permitted to interview the prime suspect, Pu Huayong, an inmate who the police said had been unhappy with the outcome of the “elude the cat” game. The official police report said he kicked and punched Mr. Li, sending him headlong into a doorframe. Mr. Li died four days later.

    But if the authorities thought they could quell public cynicism with newfound openness, they were disappointed. Soon after disclosing the identities of the “volunteers,” Web users investigated their backgrounds, revealing that nearly all the “randomly selected” investigators were current or former employees of the state-run media. The team leader, Zhai Li, had previously worked as an “Internet commentator,” a euphemism for those who seek to shape public debate with pro-government postings.

  4. S.K. Cheung Says:

    To Steve:
    well, so much for that “air of legitimacy”. Maybe the initial translation was correct, and this was all just for show. I think one thing that’s worse than lacking transparency is faking it.

  5. Ted Says:

    There’s alot about this on ESWN: http://www.zonaeuropa.com/20090221_1.htm

    and CMP: http://cmp.hku.hk/2009/02/24/1483/ http://cmp.hku.hk/2009/02/26/1494/ http://cmp.hku.hk/2009/02/27/1498/

    I thought the CMP stories covered the bases pretty well.

    Why did this become a story: According to authorities a prison inmate died while playing “Eluding the Cat….” Now all kinds of awful images come to mind especially since this was presented as a game to err… welcome new inmates… But I’m applying what I’ve heard about the American prison system to China. I think people were simply blown away by how ridiculous this all sounded. “Eluding the Cat” turned into another internet catchprase like “Doing Push-ups”. With cops coming out with explanations like this who needs television.

    “Personally I thought this was an interesting story when I first came across it last week – though I am not sure what a group or committee of netizens can really do. Even if they don’t get to the “truth,” this will help to lend an air of justice to the case.”

    That seems to be precisely what this Wu Hao guy was thinking (see CMP stories).

  6. Steve Says:

    Hi Ted~

    With the exposure of the “volunteers” as state-run media employees, and then not even allowing them to see any real evidence, and all this being discovered by Chinese web sleuths, it seems Wu Hao’s positive spin tactics backfired, at least to me.

    Thanks for those two excellent articles.

  7. S.K. Cheung Says:

    Gosh, is Wu Hao’s official title really “deputy propaganda chief”? You’d think they’d have a nice euphemism at the very least, like deputy freedom-of-information officer. Hard to say you’re not getting propaganda when it’s coming from the chief of propaganda…but I suppose they’re at least up front about it, until this stunt came along.

  8. Wukailong Says:

    @SKC: “Propaganda” isn’t really a loaded term in China. When you read one of those educational comics that can be found all over the country, they usually have small sign saying where they were produced or who’s responsible for them. My favorite, back in the good old’ 20th century (1999), was titled “How foreigners steal state secrets” and was issued by the Xuanwu Area Propaganda Department.

  9. Raj Says:


    Even if they don’t get to the “truth,” this will help to lend an air of justice to the case.

    If they don’t get to the truth the worst thing that could happen is that they create an “air of justice” – that sounds like a whitewash designed to give credance to the view that everything has been done to investigate the claim when it really hasn’t.

    I’m not sure about this. It would be good if China brought something like the jury system in, but this appears to be more a case of asking ordinary citizens to be part of an investigative committee. They’re not trained to do that, and it could end up as little more than a PR exercise. You need independent officials to preside over something like this so for the other 99% of the time when investigations don’t include members of the public they look into matters properly and publish the full findings.

  10. Ted Says:

    Hi Steve: Maybe, I don’t know what people are saying about him on the web. I not sure how one moves through the government ranks here but publicly handling the whole affair, including how he directed things behind the scenes, could also be a bit of self-promotion. Based on the ESWN and CMP articles he has developed a reasonably positive image for himself and the local government. He successfully dealt with several situations in a manner that appears more open without actually granting any additional access or information and now his name is national.

    Take a look at the most recent article translated on ESWN “The New Conclusion In The “Elude The Cat” Incident (02/28/2009)”. Given the people’s initial reaction, would any of those comments from the police been accepted at the outset of the incident? “the other prisoners did it”, “the camera was broken”… I doubt it.

  11. yo Says:

    hmm, i have mixed feelings about this. Transparency has some definite pro’s, but inviting random people from the internet to do an investigation with no prior experience…that seems uncalled for and yielding to a populist sentiment, you got to have some standards here.

  12. Steve Says:

    @ Ted #10: That’s a good point. I guess it depends on whether the powers that be feel he did more good than harm, and if he takes a beating on the net from the people who found out the “volunteers” were all hand picked state employees.

    Overall, it looked like the prison guards who had this happen on their watch were trying to CYA with the “eluding the cat” excuse but because of the internet ruckus, the murder has been exposed and the murderers caught. How much credit Wu Hao gets from all of this will be interesting. Similar to yo’s feelings, internet reaction to his volunteer investigation has been negative. He rolled the dice but maybe the numbers he wanted didn’t come up, so does that make him famous or infamous? 😉

  13. B.Smith Says:

    Sorry this is unrelated (except that it deals with legal issues), but I’d like to hear Fool’s Mountain’s take on this article: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB123601731642111527.html .

  14. rory.luolei Says:

    @ Allen:

    I don’t think that you can compare this phenomenon to the jury system used in the US and elsewhere. First of all, these netizens had nothing to do with any formal legal investigation of the matter, nor were their findings used in any formal trial so far as I am aware. Note that the scheme was initiated by the publicity/propaganda bureau, not a law enforcement agency. Secondly, by my understanding both the prosecution and the defense have the opportunity to vet jury members in common law countries, to prevent any unfair bias. It seems that in this case no-one vetted the netizen investigators except Wu Hao himself.

  15. Allen Says:

    @rory.luolei #14,

    I agree that netizen participation here is difference from jury participation. For one thing, Netizen participation like this (even in the best case scenario) is ad hoc, while jury participation is part of a formalized process.

    What I was trying to get at was the use of citizen participation to give a semblance of fairness and justice – even if in both cases citizen participation actually fails to bring about real, substantive fairness and justice….

  16. Charles Liu Says:

    There seems to be some discrepencies between what NYT is reporting:

    “nearly all the “randomly selected” investigators were current or former employees of the state-run media”

    and the nddaily article Roland cited:

    “four of the eight netizen representatives are both netizens and media workers, while the other four are “pure netizens.””

    Also, accoding to the nddaily article, the citizen investigators were listed as “media” and “netizen” representatives. This question came up precisely because a media person noticed he was not listed as media representative.

    As to the wumao accusation, it also seems to be debatable. The guy mentioned in the nddaily is a reader comment moderator, and he claims to have cosistently criticized the local government in his personal opinion postings on the net.

    Lastly, NYT’s statement that the media reps are from “state-run media”, is incorrect. the blogger WenXin, is a reporter and Op-Ed writer from New Life Daily. According to Baidu Wiki, New Life Daily is a private newspaper started by disability advocacy group, not a state media.

  17. yo Says:

    @charles liu
    could it be the NYT believes all media is controlled by the state, at least in a de jure level?

  18. Ted Says:

    Here’s another interesting article translated by CMP:



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