Chinese officials in Yunnan have recently taken the unusual step of inviting internet users to help in investigating the suspicious and controversial death of Li Qiaoming in policy custody last month.
The controversy began a little over a week ago, when on February 12 in Puning county of Yunnan province, a public security bureau announced that inmate Li had sustained fatal brain trauma during a game of 躲猫猫 (eluding the cat) with fellow prisoners. 躲猫猫 appears to be a physical game of rough and tumble played by inmates within some Chinese prison systems, and the term 躲猫猫 has since become a hot search term on the Internet in China, generating over 35,000 comments on QQ.com alone.
Soon after the announcement of Li’s death, allegations of police brutality, of government complicity, even of corruption and conspiracy swirled in the public imagination. To help alleviate the buildup in public anger and gossip, the government decided to invite Chinese netizens to participate in an investigation.
The injury and subsequent death of the Yuxi city Hongta district Beicheng town young man Li Qiaoming in a detention center has received broad media attention, especially on the Internet. The term ‘eluding the cat’ has become a hot Internet term in a very short time. In order to satisfy the public’s right to know, the Yunnan provincial publicity departhment will form an investigative committee with other relevant departments and proceed to Kunming city Puning town on the morning of February 20 to find out the truth about the incident. We are presently looking for four netizens and other representatives from society to serve as members of the committee. You can register between now and 8:00pm on the evening of February 19, 2009.” The notice also included a QQ account number and a telephone phone number.
“There is no truth that needs to be hidden. We will show by actual action tomorrow that this is now a show.” Yunnan provincie publicity department press and publication administration deputy director Gong Fei said that the main reason why netizens were suspicious about the ‘eluding the cat’ incident was that the information had not been open and transparent in a timely manner. This time, the relevant departments (which includes the Yunnan provincial party public department, the Yunnan provincial public security bureau, the Yunnan Political Legal Committee and the Yunnan provincial procuratorate). Their public invitation for netizens is the first time in the history of the Internet in China.
Gong Fei said: “Before the public notice went out, we spent the entire morning convincing the other departments to cooperate with the media interviews. In the past, we did not respect the rules of journalism sufficiently and we did not understand the new media well enough. That was why we had a problem with public opinion. The purpose of this investigation is to show that there are no hidden secrets in this case.” This decision had not been easy to make. “We basically discussed this for one whole morning. But in the end, we thought that a news story cannot just be ‘blocked.’ Besides this closed and opaque approach violated the people’s right to know and caused the public to misinterpret the facts.”
Despite initial doubts about the authenticity of the invitation when it first appeared on a government website, more than 500 netizens still applied. Last week, a committee of 10 diverse people – including an insurance salesman, a technology worker and an art student, for example – formed and visited the scene of the incident.
Personally I thought this was an interesting story when I first came across it last week – though I am not sure what a group or committee of netizens can really do. Even if they don’t get to the “truth,” this will help to lend an air of justice to the case.
It’s sort of like the jury system in the U.S. Legal experts have known for a long time that juries rarely follow judge’s instructions and actually routinely make up decisions according to their own reasoning … often having little to do with the law. But right or wrong, the participation of citizens in some part of the justice system – no matter now tenuous – can lend an air of legitimacy and fairness to the system.
What do people think of the story? Any other developments to add?