Grisly photographic displays of traffic accidents are common in China. The authorities use them to shock the public out of widely shared indifference towards the rules of the road. They have no observable impact. Recently, however, pictures circulated online of a man crushed by a truck have created a furore, and caused the government itself alarm.
The photographs show the body of Qian Yunhui, a former village chief near the coastal city of Wenzhou, under the wheel of a truck, his head apparently severed. On January 4th the police charged the driver with accidental death. The Chinese internet, however, has been awash with rumours that this was no accident: that Mr Qian was actually held down by government-hired goons to allow the truck to drive over him. It is an all too plausible story in a country where local officials, especially in the countryside, often recruit thugs to intimidate people who make their life awkward. The murder story gained credibility when even some state-owned media reported eyewitnesses as saying they saw it happen.
A local police investigation claimed no evidence of foul play, but internet users were quick to scorn that. After all, local officials appeared to have a motive for killing Mr Qian. For years he had organised fellow villagers in protests against the government’s failure to compensate them for appropriated land. Three times he had been arrested and once imprisoned.
Hundreds of mourners who gathered on New Year’s Day were not convinced either. Some threw stones at riot police. Suspicion of a cover-up only grew after two people claiming to have seen a murder changed their story. The local government has posted notices threatening severe punishment for spreading false rumours. This is a tactic often used to silence dissent. One Chinese magazine spoke of “terror shrouding the village”.
For all that, several widely respected Chinese lawyers, academics and journalists went to investigate for themselves, and their separate findings have so far revealed nothing that gives strong credence to the murder theory. Still, Han Han, one of China’s most popular bloggers, wrote on January 3rd that the government ought to consider why so many people do not believe its story. Mr Qian, he said, could “go on his way in peace”, because his death had exposed the unfairness of the villagers’ lives as well as the fragile nature of the government’s credibility.
Land grabs and a disputed death in China: Goons and the Common Man, Economist, Jan.8, 2011, at 41