China Middle-Class Anger Reignited by Death of Researcher in Custody

29-Dec-2016 Intellasia | WSJ | 6:00 AM Print This Post

s to drop criminal charges over the death of a researcher in police custody – an unusual display of middle-class anger over a perceived lack of official accountability.

Criticism has been building in the days since Beijing prosecutors said Friday that they won’t pursue negligence charges against five police officers despite finding that their “improper” actions had contributed to the death of 29-year-old Lei Yang in early May.

A number of prominent academics, lawyers and businesspeople have publicly taken the prosecutors to task, saying the decision undermines the rule of law. A petition started by alumni from the university Lei attended has attracted more than a thousand signatures decrying the outcome as “inappropriate.” Some high-profile lawyers expressed willingness to represent Lei’s family in potential lawsuits against the five officers.

Though discussions of the decision were heavily censored on social media – and searches for Lei’s name blocked – two censorship-tracking websites, Weiboscope and Free Weibo, logged hundreds of deleted posts on the Weibo microblogging platform. According to WeiboScope, censorship on Weibo rose to a three-month high in the two days after the decision.

“If this case allows the powerful to tighten their bind on the masses, then everyone will be bound, not just Lei Yang himself,” Zhao Yu, a Chinese writer, wrote in a Weibo post that has since been censored.

Neither the Beijing prosecutor’s office nor the Beijing police responded to queries. The five officers couldn’t be reached for comment. Weibo Corp. didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

The barrage of criticism amounts to a rare sustained burst of public anger by China’s burgeoning middle class. Though avid users of social media, white-collar professionals seldom respond collectively to government missteps or social problems. In recent years they have shied away from criticising crackdowns on civil liberties’ lawyers and activists.

The death of Lei, a researcher at a state-backed environmental group with a degree from the prestigious Renmin University in Beijing, however, reinforced middle-class concerns that higher incomes and better education offer little protection from a justice system that often ignores its laws.

In its account, police said Lei, a Beijing resident, was caught by plainclothes officers during a prostitution raid at a foot-massage parlor, and suddenly became unconscious after failed attempts to resist arrest and escape.

His death set off a social-media firestorm. Prosecutors later launched an investigation into police conduct and said Lei choked to death on his vomit, citing an autopsy report. In their decision last week, prosecutors said that the officers “exceeded reasonable limits” in their efforts to subdue Lei and that their actions contributed to his death and amounted to criminal negligence.

Even so, the prosecutors declined to press charges because the “circumstances of the crime were minor” and the officers showed remorse, according to a statement published on the Beijing Municipal People’s Procuratorate website. They also faulted Lei for resisting arrest.

Criticism zeroed in on that statement. “Minor! Minor?” Jia Kang, an economist and former director of the Chinese finance ministry’s Institute for Fiscal Science Research, wrote on Weibo in a post left uncensored. He also agreed with other comments that accused the prosecutors of undermining public confidence in China’s justice system.

More than 1,500 of Lei’s fellow alumni from Renmin University have signed an open letter criticising the Beijing prosecutors for “suicidally besmirching the rule of law and damaging public trust in the course of justice.”

Legal experts said decisions in publicly or politically difficult cases are usually made by Communist Party committees. In Lei’s case, they said, the findings appeared tailored to avoid antagonising the police, the party’s front-line enforcers of social stability.

While prosecutors in many democratic jurisdictions would typically bring similar cases to trial and leave “the ultimate decision of guilt or innocence to the court,” the police in China often exercise influence over judicial processes related to sensitive cases, said Jerome Cohen, a veteran China legal scholar at New York University.

A number of prominent Chinese lawyers have expressed disquiet. Some have agreed to represent Lei’s family should they decide to file suits against the five police officers, according to two of those lawyers, Li Xiaolin and Duan Wanjin, who specialise in criminal cases.

Their willingness to participate shows that “there is a great deal of anger among the ‘establishment’ legal community about the silencing of debate and analysis” over the authorities’ handling of Lei’s death, said Susan Finder, a Hong Kong-based lawyer who studies the Chinese judicial system.

Lei’s family didn’t respond to a query sent to their verified Weibo account. Chen Youxi, a lawyer assisting Lei’s family, issued a statement saying Lei’s family will continue seeking legal redress, including potentially filing lawsuits against the five police officers.


Category: China

Print This Post

Comments are closed.