Death in China: Crushing dissent or tragic accident?

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 12, 2011 

WORLD NEWS CHINA-DISSENT 1 MCT

Mourners at a shrine for Qian Yunhui at his home in Zhaiqiao Village, China.

TOM LASSETER — Tom Lasseter / MCT

ZHAIQIAO, China — Qian Yunhui would not be silenced. A local leader in a community of farmers, Qian devoted much of his time to protesting a power plant being built on his village's ancestral land.

In a country where public dissent against the government is rare — and quickly silenced when it appears — Qian continued to lead demonstrations and submit petitions despite having been sent to prison twice in three years. He wrote letters to provincial and national leaders naming the government officials and companies he accused of stealing land — something most Chinese would consider extremely dangerous.

His provocative campaign ended Christmas morning. That's when after receiving a phone call, Qian's family said, he walked out of his modest concrete home to meet someone, though it's not known whom. Villagers found his body a short while later, mangled under the front wheel of a construction truck. The fat tire had crushed Qian's chest and neck, coming to a rest at the back of his head — the pressure sent blood and flesh spurting from his mouth. Qian's face lay in the cold mud, eyes shut.

Every villager interviewed by McClatchy in Zhaiqiao said they thought Qian, 53, was murdered as a warning to locals that it was time to stop talking about the power plant. Witnesses, they said, had seen men holding Qian down as the truck pulverized his body.

Government officials maintain that Qian died in a simple traffic accident, an unfortunate bit of bad luck on a wet patch of road.

The difficulty of drawing a conclusion about what happened that morning says a lot about the system in which China's authoritarian government operates.

As the world focuses on Chinese President Hu Jintao's visit to Washington next week, and his country's growing economic clout and military ambitions, at home the Chinese Communist Party is often far more preoccupied with maintaining domestic order — "harmonious" is the adjective preferred by leaders like Hu.

The death of Qian Yunhui is in many ways a startling reminder of how high the cost can be for those who won't fall in line, a reality that the government tries hard to suppress.

China's Zhejiang Province, where Zhaiqiao sits, is an epicenter of factories that make clothes, shoes, lighters and other cheap goods for export to the West. The billions of dollars that flow each year from that manufacturing boom have filled the roads south of Shanghai with Mercedes sedans and sprinkled towering homes in the middle of impoverished villages.

The flood of cash, however, hasn't brought a corresponding rise in civil liberties. While the state allows the election of local village heads, like Qian Yunhui, it does not tolerate challenges to its political or financial decisions.

In Qian's case, his efforts only got him arrested, imprisoned twice and, locals say, murdered.

"He went to Beijing (to lodge formal complaints) only after he petitioned at every local level," said his 31-year-old son, Qian Chengxu. "It was all useless."

Whatever the cause of Qian Yunhui's demise, this much is clear — he was not afraid to stir up trouble. He said publicly that village leaders had signed over their mountain plot for a power plant in 2004 only after police detained them at a hotel for a week until they agreed.

That same year, Qian helped lead hundreds of villagers to protest the property deal in the nearby town of Yueqing, which oversees Zhaiqiao. That earned him an 18-month prison term after a Yueqing court convicted him of intent to "make disturbances and provoke incidents."

The sentence was suspended, apparently on the condition that he keep quiet. Instead, Qian ran for and was elected village leader in 2005 and kept complaining about what he described as an illegal land grab. The local security bureau appealed for help to the court, which dusted off the 2004 conviction and sent Qian to prison for eight months in 2006, according to a case summary provided by Yueqing officials.

By 2008, his role as village leader was no longer officially recognized, but Qian was re-elected anyway. Court records show he was sent back to prison in 2008 on a new charge of land fraud, though government documents given to McClatchy didn't fully explain the charges.

Qian was released in July, the same month that the provincial government announced the power plant officially had been put into operation. Qian was not deterred — he continued writing letters to officials alleging corruption and organizing locals.

The leadership in Yueqing maintains that villagers in Zhaiqiao were simply trying to renege on their agreement to sell the mountain plot and other pieces of land. The villagers, according to a release from Yueqing's government, were given about $5.7 million but kept demanding more and more cash.

While residents of Zhaiqiao say they never received the $5.7 million, the Yueqing government contends the money was put in a special account and that village leaders decided not to disburse it.

In the days after Qian's death, grisly photographs and videos showing his bloody remains spread across the Internet. His name became a national symbol for frustration with the country's widespread corruption.

On Jan. 1, hundreds of demonstrators clashed with police down the road from Zhaiqiao. Video footage from the standoff shows protesters lobbing rocks and the police charging into the crowd behind riot shields.

A few days before, police commanders from the nearby metropolis of Wenzhou had attended a news conference to confirm that Qian's death was an accident. Their explanation: The truck was 35 tons overweight with broken rock, its driver was unlicensed and "Pedestrian Qian Yunhui crossed the road before confirming that it was safe to cross."

Video shot not long after Qian's death showed the truck in a nearly straight line on the shoulder of the wrong side of the street, with Qian's body lying under the front tire with scant evidence that he'd been thrown by any impact. There was little sign of skid marks on the road that one might expect from such a large truck slamming to a halt.

The police acknowledged that four other men were at the scene shortly after the incident — raising suspicions locally that it was they who killed Qian — but officials said the group consisted of a passenger from the truck and three guards from a nearby construction site who'd run over to see what happened.

The government said it would allow a combination of lawyers, Internet activists and rural experts to investigate the matter. By the time those gestures were made, the state had snipped away any loose ends that might contradict the official narrative.

Qian's body was taken away before an autopsy could be performed. Officials reported that a security camera at the spot where Qian died wasn't working.

The two people who villagers say saw men press Qian down as the truck ground his life away disappeared briefly. When they surfaced on state television in separate interviews four days later, they denied seeing anything suspicious.

One of them, Qian Chengyu, was in handcuffs and behind bars during the television interview.

The other, Huang Diyan, said she'd been coached by unnamed collaborators to say she'd witnessed a killing. Careful viewers could see a man dressed in what looked like a police uniform reflected in the window behind her.

A friend, who asked for anonymity for fear of being arrested, told McClatchy that police had taken Huang's husband to a hotel for a night and told him that it would be best for her family if she recanted her tale of murder.

Even Qian's family is reluctant to talk. His 81-year-old father, Qian Shunnan, was recently standing near his dead son's house as relatives sat in front of a small shrine and burned paper meant to serve as money in the afterlife.

"I can't tell you anything except what the government wants me to say," he said, wearing dusty cotton pants. Then he looked toward the altar with a picture of his son and blurted out, "He was murdered!"

Qian Yunhui's younger brother was listening nearby and offered an explanation for why his father seemed torn about what to say.

"None of the villagers want to talk about it. If the government finds out they spoke with you, they'll be arrested," said Qian Yunyong, 45, a rice farmer with rough hands.

Like everyone else in town, he'd seen the men in a black Volkswagen with no license plates on a nearby road filming passersby and taking photographs.

A visiting Western journalist was approached several times by more than a dozen villagers who hurriedly whispered that Qian Yunhui had been killed because he'd openly challenged area powerbrokers and officials.

The accounts were followed by pleas not to report the speakers' identities.

"Don't take our pictures; don't write down our names," said one middle-aged woman in jeans and a dark coat. "They will beat us."

A younger man in a brown jacket with the hood pulled down said that some in the area had made the unfortunate decision to talk candidly with Chinese state media; they were later arrested.

"I'm very scared," he said.

The young man, like many others, said he was speaking up only because Qian Yunhui had sacrificed his life for them.

That, said the villagers, should count for something.

ON THE WEB

WARNING: Graphic content: Video of Qian Yunhui and the truck that ran over him

WARNING: Graphic content: Photo of Qian Yunhui beneath truck tire.

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