Li Wangyang, 62, was a labor activist from Hunan province who led workers in sympathy protests during the student demonstrations in 1989 and served more than two decades in prison. He was on medical parole in Shaoyang, Hunan, when he was found early Wednesday morning hanging by a bedsheet from security bars over the window.
The family was telephoned at 6 a.m. and rushed to the hospital, where they saw Li’s body still hanging over the window, said brother-in-law Zhao Baozhu. He said they are skeptical about whether Li, who was blind and mostly deaf, could or would have killed himself.
"He could barely hold a bowl without his hands shaking. I can’t imagine how he could have tied his sheets into a knot," said Zhao. He noted that there were guards assigned to the hospital to watch Li. "How could this happen when there were security guards watching him? We have many questions."
The family was not permitted to take photographs of the body, but they were told that there would be an autopsy.
Fellow pro-democracy activists called for an investigation of the death. They noted that Li, despite his poor health, seemed in good spirits.
The night before he had asked his family to bring him a radio so that he could improve his hearing. An interview in which he called on the "whole nation to observe June 4" aired on a French radio network on Sunday, the day before the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown. On Monday, he told a friend he was optimistic that "China’s constitutional democracy will be achieved."
"Although Li was ill, he was very energetic," read a statement released Monday by a group of friends calling themselves the Committee to Investigate Li Wangyang’s Death. Comparing him to South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, they wrote, "How could a strong-willed pro-democracy veteran like Li Wangyang, who had served 22 years in jail, take his own life?"
To his supporters, Li was one of the unsung heroes of 1989, gaining fewer accolades than the elite university students who demonstrated in Beijing and receiving a harsher punishment. A cement factory worker, he was one of the early union organizers in China.
On June 4, 1989, he glued a big poster on a traffic sign in Shaoyang calling for workers to go on strike in support of the democracy protests. Two days later, he organized a memorial for the victims of the massacre.
He was convicted of spreading counterrevolutionary propaganda and received a 13-year sentence. Harsh treatment in prison led to the deterioration of his health, and upon emerging he started campaigning for restitution. As a result, he received another 10-year sentence.
"The workers were treated worse than the students," said Tang Baiqiao, a former student leader who lives in exile in New York. He compared Li to Chen Guangcheng, the self-educated blind lawyer who had energized peasants to resist Communist Party cadres and who recently escaped to the U.S.
"Li wasn’t well-educated, but he was a born leader, tall, heroic," said Tang. "People listened to him when he spoke about democracy."
Li may have received harsh punishment because he was in Hunan province, the birthplace of Communist China’s founder Mao Tse-tung, where support remains high for the party.
Dui Hua, a San Francisco-based human rights group, reported last week that fewer than a dozen people remain in prison today from the 1989 crackdown. But discussions of the events of that chaotic spring, in which hundreds, maybe thousands were killed, remain strictly banned in public discourse in China.
In another Tiananmen-related tragedy, the 73-year-old father of a young man killed in the 1989 protests committed suicide on Friday, according to a support group for relatives. The group, Tiananmen Mothers, said that the man had left behind a suicide note in which he wrote of his continuing distress over the death of his 22-year-old son.
-- Barbara Demick
Photo: People take part in a candlelight vigil in Hong Kong on Monday to mark the 23rd anniversary of the crackdown on the pro-democracy movement in Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989. Credit: Philippe Lopez / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images.