As they awaited their fates in holding cell No. 9 of the Puning County jail, Li Qiaoming (李蕎明) and half a dozen fellow inmates played “elude the cat,” a Chinese hide-and-seek.
Li put on a blindfold, groped for quarry and soon was lying on the floor with a fatal head injury.
That, at least, is the story disseminated by the police in Yunnan Province, where Li, a 24-year-old farmer, lived and died this month after his arrest on charges of illegal logging.
Public reaction to the official explanation of Li’s death was swift. Thousands of Internet users surmised that Li died from a beating by the police.
Rather than suppress the accusations, provincial officials invited the public to help solve the case. They sorted through 1,000 volunteers to choose a 15-person committee that would visit the scene of the crime, cull the evidence and “discover the truth.”
The results proved dispiriting to those who hoped for an investigation of the police. But the case riveted the public and fueled a discussion online and in state-run media about the extent — and limits — of official attempts to shape public opinion.
In explaining his motives for a citizen investigation, Wu Hao (伍皓) of Yunnan’s propaganda department said he hoped to restore faith in a government that could be unresponsive to accusations of misconduct.
In an interview with Chinese reporters this week, he said the authorities could easily have quashed the debate, but “past experience has shown that the doubts of the netizens will not shift or recede.”
Although the reaction to Wu’s effort was initially favorable, it soon soured. 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.
They were also not permitted to interview the prime suspect, Pu Huayong (普華永), an inmate who police said had been unhappy with the outcome of the “elude the cat” game and attacked Li.
Soon after disclosing the identities of the “volunteers,” Web users also found that nearly all the “randomly selected” investigators were current or former employees of the state-run media. The team leader, Zhao Li (趙立), had worked as an “Internet commentator” to shape debate online with pro-government postings.
Over the past week, more than 70,000 postings accumulated on one of China’s most popular bulletin boards and many were less than sympathetic.
Even the Beijing News criticized the process.
“We’ve learned two lessons from this case,” it said. “One is that such inspections cannot solely rely on passion and idealism but on rational and pragmatic work. The second is that this has again exposed the flaws of the current system and that the need to establish an independent investigation system involving experts is urgent.”