As 2016 draws to a close, many in China feel the government has missed an opportunity to advance the rule of law, given its handling of the controversial case of Lei Yang, a 29-year-old environmental engineer who died in police custody earlier this year.
In early December, hopes were high that some progress might be made when prosecutors submitted a request that five officers allegedly involved in Lei Yang’s death be brought to trial. The case has sparked debate about police brutality. But when the case was rejected late last week, there was an outpouring of anger and disbelief online.
Authorities moved quickly to censor most posts. But since Lei Yang was picked up by police in early May, during what authorities say was a raid on a brothel masquerading as a foot massage parlor, and then pronounced dead shortly afterward, strict controls have done little to keep the public from discussing the case.
Since the announcement was made, it has been a top-ranking censored topic on Freeweibo.com, a website that collects censored posts that Chinese authorities have taken down.
At the time that police allegedly arrested Lei Yang for prostitution, he was on his way to pick up relatives who were coming to meet his newborn daughter.
Responding to the decision to not publicly try the officers for “dereliction of duty” thousands signed a petition online. Some focused on details in the case that a trial would have helped clear up, others said that this was only the beginning.
One post on China’s Twitter-like Weibo, which was eventually removed, argued that it was highly improbable someone could go to a brothel, stay eight minutes and ask for a receipt. There was a much higher probability, it adds, that police would destroy footage from nearby CCTV cameras.
According to reports, all of the nearby cameras that could have provided evidence of what happened to Lei Yang were damaged. Police say Lei Yang was resisting arrest and that he suffered a heart attack. An autopsy later revealed the cause of death to be suffocation on his vomit.
Lei Yang’s family was poised to appeal the decision and had plans to file charges individually against the police officers allegedly involved, an effort that would bring them under more scrutiny.
But late Thursday, Lei Yang’s family, citing incredible pressure (especially on his elderly parents), announced through their lawyer that they would not pursue charges against the police. Their lawyer also said a settlement was reached. Many have voiced their disappointment online.
The statement from the family came just hours after authorities announced that Xiong Yongrui, the police officer who led the sting on the foot massage parlor, was stripped of his membership in the communist party and fired. Four other officers were dismissed, demoted or reassigned.
Some say the entire case, and authorities’ unwillingness to allow for a full and more complete account of what happened to Lei Yang, has left them feeling numb.
“It’s extremely unfair that an individual has to pay the price for the government’s inaction,” said one woman who wished to remain anonymous. “But at the same time you feel so powerless and that there’s nothing that can be done to make a difference.”
She said that while some feel the overall situation is gradually improving and they hope for a next generation of leaders that would change things, it is moving much too slow.
“Rule of law is easier said than done in China … and the reason why authorities keep emphasizing rule of law is because it is something that still cannot be achieved,” she said.
Another Beijing resident who said he also wished to remain anonymous said that because the police were not put on trial, many questions will remain unanswered.
“We still have a long ways to go to establish rule of law in China,” he said.
Although VOA tried to interview some people about the case said they only knew scant details or were not following it. But one middle-aged salesman said it is clear the case was too politically sensitive to go to trial.
Stability vs rule of law
Chinese rights lawyer Chen Guangwu said the decision not to try the five officers is one that puts stability above the rule of law. He said it is clear authorities want the case and the debate over police brutality to be quickly put to rest. But the decision is sending the public the wrong message and hurting efforts to promote rule of law.
On one hand, not indicting the officers encourages police, telling them that if they make a mistake, it really will not be a big deal.
“At the same time, it is sending a message to the public that they should steer clear of police if they want to avoid disaster,” Chen said. “But the spread of this sort of sentiment through society is something that will add to instability.”
Chen said that while authorities have argued that there is not enough evidence for the case to go to trial or of police brutality, he disagrees. If the police did not do anything wrong, Lei Yang would not be dead, he said.
Despite all of this, public pressure is having an impact: the decision to fire the officer in charge of the raid.
“This is all the result of media attention and strong public response to the decision not to indict the officers,” Chen said. “If there was not such a strong response from the public in the wake of the decision, I doubt that the officers would have even been punished.”