The death of a young man in police custody is rattling the trust of China’s middle class

To serve and protect?
To serve and protect?
Image: AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein
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On the surface, the death of a man in police custody in China would be considered unremarkable, if still unsettling.

But the recent case of Lei Yang, a 29-year-old researcher at Beijing’s prestigious Renmin University, has rattled the Chinese public, as it exposes how China’s law enforcement agencies will abuse their power and go to great lengths to cover up their wrongdoings. It also shows how even members of China’s educated middle class are not immune to such treatment.

At 9pm on May 7, 2016, police detained Lei at a foot massage parlor on suspicion of soliciting a prostitute. A few hours later, he was dead. The details surrounding his death remain in dispute.

According to official statements (link in Chinese) from Beijing police, when officers arrived at the massage parlor, Lei resisted arrest. He physically struggled with police for 20 minutes before the officers managed to capture him. Once he was taken to a car to be driven to a police office, he attempted to escape again. When he arrived at the station, Lei suddenly fell ill and was rushed to a hospital. He was declared dead at 11pm.

Days after his death, Lei’s family requested a deeper investigation into the matter. It also filed criminal charges in a civil lawsuit against the five officers involved in Lei’s arrest.

An autopsy released on June 30 (link in Chinese) declared Lei died after suffocating on gastric fluid. Yet more details about the incident—some revealed by the police themselves—suggest that Lei was outright murdered by officers acting irresponsibly. For one thing, according to both police and witnesses, Lei was first approached by two plainclothes officers. That could have them hard to distinguish from ordinary thugs. Lei’s family, meanwhile, found his body covered in injuries. One witness at the scene said he saw officers stomp on Lei while he was lying on the ground facedown, and that his head at one point began to bleed.

Meanwhile, police said the phone they used to capture audio during the arrest broke amid the fight, and the surveillance cameras at the massage parlor were found broken as well. The absence of this footage, in the eyes of the Chinese public, suggests a cover-up.

A media frenzy erupted over the case, as even more conflicting evidence from police and witnesses poured in. It reached an apex on Dec. 23, when the Beijing Municipal People’s Procuratorate—the highest city court—announced that it would drop the criminal charges against the police.

That came even as the court determined that the five policemen had violated the law and contributed to Lei’s death by choking him and stomping on his face. It added that the police were guilty of “making up narratives, hiding the truth, and obstructing investigations.” But it ultimately declared the case a “light crime” committed out of “negligence.” Some of the police at the scene lost their jobs, while others were merely given warnings (link in Chinese).

Days later, the Lei family indicated it would not pursue further legal action. “The stress is too great and the long legal process requires too much energy for us to bear, especially two elderly people like ourselves,” Lei’s parents relayed through their lawyer (link in Chinese) on Dec. 29. They ultimately settled with the government for an alleged 20 million yuan ($2.9 million), as well as an apartment.

Riling the middle class

Cover-ups of police brutality remain common in China. According to state media outlet Xinhua, in 2008, when a man in police custody in the Jilin province mysteriously died six days after his arrest, officers said he passed away in his sleep. In December 2009, when a handcuffed detainee in the Yunnan province was found dead in jail, police claimed that he opened his handcuffs using tissues and hung himself with his shoelaces. That same month, a woman in the Shanxi province died after a 20-hour interrogation session. Police attributed her death to “overreaction” leading to a cardiac arrest. Her family claimed they saw bruises on her body.

Yet Lei’s case has resonated in China more than other such instances. That’s in part due to the light sentence the court gave the police after their blatant abuse of power came to light.

But it’s also due to Lei’s social standing. Most victims of police brutality, like the ones listed above, live in remote parts of China and are poor. Lei, however, was a cosmopolitan Beijing resident. Well-educated and a father, he was firmly in China’s middle class—a subset of society typically insulated from abuses of power from low-level authorities like local police, says Willy Lam, an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Much of the online uproar about Lei’s case has come from people with similar middle-class backgrounds. On Dec. 24, more than 1,500 academics, lawyers, and Renmin University alumni signed a petition (link in Chinese) questioning the decisions of the Beijing court, asking how the brutal actions of the police could be considered a “light crime.”

“Lei’s case reminds many people, particularly the middle class and educated urbanites, that even their social position cannot protect them from officials’ abuses,” says Maya Wang, a researcher at Human Rights Watch.

Silencing discussion

Authorities have responded to public uproar by censoring discussions of Lei’s case on social media. A search for “Lei Yang” on Weibo, China’s Twitter-esque social network, yields no results “in accordance with laws, regulations, and policies,” according to a statement that appears below the search bar.

Online commenters are nevertheless circumventing the ban on discussion by using modified search terms—altering the characters of Lei Yang’s name (“雷洋” to “雷阳”, which has the same pronunciation), in order to dodge keyword filtering. They remain uniform in their outrage.

“The details announced [by the court on Dec. 23] are concrete proof of wrongdoing, but they dropped prosecution,” wrote one commenter (link in Chinese). “After this, how can we trust China’s legislative, executive, and judicial branches? This is a disgrace to the notion of the fair treatment of humans. Chinese people have such a weak right to live! This is a tragedy for China’s public security bureau.”

Others noted how the censorship surrounding the issue only reinforced the public’s feeling that the court had committed an injustice.

“Will government Weibo accounts dare to open up for discussion?” wrote one commenter (link in Chinese) on a thread marked by a modified keyword. “The fact that the Beijing Procuratorate closed all debate [on its Weibo page] shows that it doesn’t listen to the people of this country, doesn’t accept the opinions of the masses to guide the country, and doesn’t allow people in this country to debate. What does this tell us? It just shows that the court knows it’s done something wrong.”

An editorial published under a pseudonym on the website of the Supreme People’s Court, China’s highest national court, praised the outcome (link in Chinese) of Lei’s case as “progress.” It noted that the city court disclosed evidence of the investigation to the public as the case progressed, rather than keeping it private. It also acknowledged the media’s role in publicizing the case, noting how it served as a check on authority.

But professor Lam, like most of the Chinese public, believes the case stains the ruling party’s legacy, even as it touts efforts to reform the legal system. “It shows that despite president Xi Jinping’s repeated emphasis on rule by law, neither the party nor government authorities have the most basic respect for either the law or human life,” says Lam.