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Tiananmen activist found dead under suspicious circumstances

Courtesy Of Li Wangling / Courtesy of Li Wangling

A recent photo of Li Wangyang, a former labor activist and Chinese dissident, with his sister Li Wangling. He who was found dead under suspicious circumstances on June 6, two days after the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown and an outspoken interview he did with a Hong King based TV-network aired.

BEIJING – Li Wangyang, a former labor activist and Chinese dissident jailed after the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Beijing, was found dead in a hospital ward under what his family says were suspicious circumstances, just two days after the 23rd anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown. 

His sister, Li Wangling, and brother-in-law, Zhao Baozhu, found his body when they paid a routine visit to the Daxiang District Hospital in Shaoyang, a city roughly 1,000 miles south of Beijing, on the morning of June 6.

They found him dead in his hospital room, hanging by a security bar in a window with hospital bandages around his neck. (Disturbing photos of Li circulating on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, show Li’s feet on the ground, something that puts in doubt the idea that he hung himself).  

Security and hospital authorities said that he had committed suicide.  

But his family is not buying that. 

"I'd never believe Li killed himself,” his brother-in-law Zhao said during a rushed phone interview with NBC News on Thursday. 

When asked what he thought was the true cause of Li’s death, Zhao said, "I don't know.  But the government has agreed to our request to do an autopsy at a lawyer's presence. No matter what, we want justice." 


Li had done a controversial interview with a Hong Kong-based TV channel that aired on June 4, the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests, in which he detailed the torture he underwent during the more than 20 years he spent in Chinese prisons.When Zhao was asked if he thought that interview had something to do with Li’s death, he said, “Yes.”

Zhao then quickly hung up the phone, saying someone had entered his hotel room, "It's not convenient now, let's talk later." 

Over 20 years in prison
Li, 61, had worked as a glass factory worker before he took the position of Chairman of Shaoyang Autonomous Workers Federation in 1989. He was a supporter of the student protests in Beijing in 1989 before they were brutally suppressed by the government with hundreds, if not thousands, of people killed by the army. 

Li was first arrested on June 9, 1989 for the crime of "active participation in a counter-revolutionary group.” He spent 11 years in a local prison. 

Vincent Yu / AP

Protesters mourn the death of Chinese labor activist Li Wangyang, seen in picture at center, during a protest outside the Chinese central government's liaison office, in Hong Kong on Thursday.

When Li was released from that prison term in 2000, he was suffering from severe heart disease, hyperthyroidism, and cervical vertebra diseases, according to family and friends. He was extremely weak and lost most of his hearing and sight in his left eye.

His second arrest, just one year later, made him one of the longest-serving political prisoners in China. 

In September 2001, Li was sentenced to 10 more years in prison for the crime of "subversion of state power.” That sentence was a result of a 22-day hunger strike by Li as an effort to protest the continuous persecution he had been subjected to after his release. His medical treatment was terminated and his house had been demolished, leaving him in frail health with nowhere to go, according to media reports.

After he went back to prison, his sister, Li Wangling, was put in a forced labor camp for three years for accepting interviews with the Voice of America and Radio Free Asia. 

Li was finally released from that prison sentence on May 5, 2011. Huang Lihong, a local teacher and Li’s friend, told NBC News that Li’s health was greatly damaged at the time. 

"He had lost his sight and hearing. He couldn’t walk, and suffered from diabetes and heart disease, due to longtime torture. His muscles contracted and he was in bed all the time,” said Huang.

However, Huang believed Li had been doing better in the past 12 months. "His health was improving and he remained hopeful. He was happy when we told him we believed the 1989 movement would be redressed soon." 

Too outspoken: ‘I’m not afraid of death’
But Li may have been too confident that past wrongs would be righted soon. In an interview on June 4, the 23rd anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown, with i-CABLE, a Hong Kong based news channel, Li was extremely outspoken in his description of his torture during his various prison terms. 

"The prison had their own tailored handcuffs, smaller than your wrists,” Li explained. “They used pliers to handcuff me, and that was almost like clamping my wrist bones with pliers. When they did that I almost lost consciousness and couldn’t see anymore." 

In the two-minute-long video interview, Li, who appeared physically deteriorated, said he didn’t regret what he did. "Every man has a share of responsibility for the fate of his country. I’m not afraid of death, if that would fasten China’s process to enter a multi-party and democratic society." 

When asked about the candle vigil on the night of the anniversary in Hong Kong, Li said, "I hope Hong Kong’s memorial will spread all over China," with his arm waving firmly in the air and a very thick Hunan accent, "I hope it’s remembered by all Chinese people." 

Two days after the interview he was found dead in his hospital room. 

‘Everything seemed fine’ two days before
Another longtime friend of Li’s also expressed disbelief that he would ever take his own life. 

"Everything seemed fine when I visited him on June 4," Zhu Chengzhi, a long-term activist and former school mate of Li’s, told NBC News in a phone interview Thursday. 

"We talked about many things, like Syria deporting foreign ambassadors. He was in a good mood, and seemed to be more open minded since last May,” said Zhu. “As a close friend, I don’t believe he would commit suicide." 

Zhu also said in another interview that just one day before his death, Li asked his sister to buy him a radio so he could listen to the news.

Zhou Zhirong, a local leader of China’s legal, but powerless, "Democratic Party", is organizing a "committee of investigation into the death of Li Wangyang," under the risk of being arrested himself for doing so. 

"I have no evidence whether [Li] was killed, but I think the long term persecution by the authorities led to Li’s death," said Zhou in a phone interview with NBC News Thursday. "Li Wangyang is Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela in China. I don’t believe our investigation will come to any fruition, but it will wake up the citizens and make them fight for their rights." 

NBC News calls to Shaoyang and Longhui police for comment on Li’s death went unanswered.  

As of Thursday afternoon 2,700 people, including prominent Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei, scholars, lawyers and writers, had signed an online petition to step up pressure on China to investigate Li’s death, according to Reuters.  

Horace Lu contributed to this report.

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