January 6, 2017, by Tony Hong
Death Controversy Exacerbated by Institutional Failure
By Dr. Zhengxu Wang,
Contemporary Chinese Studies, University of Nottingham Ningbo China.
On Friday (23 December 2016), Beijing’s Procuratorate of the Fengtai District announced that, after a thorough investigation, it came to the conclusion that police officers involved in the death of a man in May would not be charged.
The decision was a perplexing one, as it stated that the evidence was sufficient for the policemen to be found guilty of dereliction of duty as well as abuse of power. But it went on to say that the crimes were too light to warrant a formal charge.
Lei Yang’s death occurred in May when he was caught by five policemen in the Changping district of Beijing, as he was allegedly leaving a prostitution business. The incident invoked public outcry as he appeared to suffer brutal injuries and the evidence that he was using prostitution services were dubious.
In the months since, the internet and social media spaces have been full of discussions and demands for fair and just treatment of the case. The long-waited decision from the Fengtai Procuratorate, unsurprisingly, fell short of the public’s expectation.
Soon after the decision was announced, Lei’s family released their statement that they would not accept the outcome and would go on to appeal. Activist lawyers have come out to support the family.
A group of alumni from Lei’s alma mater has organized a petition campaign, directed to the State President, calling for judicial justice in this case in the spirit of building a country based on the rule of law (which is also the ruling party’s stated project).
The family as a last resort, if its appeal fails to reverse the Fengtai Procuratorate’s ruling, will have all of its five members filing a case against the involved policemen.
But when the case goes to the court, it will clearly be an uphill battle given how the state has treated the case so far. That is also to say, even if the Procuratorate eventually decides to charge the policemen and put the case to the court, the court may well rule against it.
Furthermore, the Fengtai Procuratorate’s decision should not be taken as an independent act. The decision must have been part of a coordinated plan regarding how to manage the case made by the party-state’s leadership authorities.
It appears those in leadership roles within the party-state have failed to appreciate how angry the public is about this case.
Police brutality is common, in almost all countries. In China there has been some improvement in recent years. Yet the death of Lei Yang shows how far the country still needs to go for people to be free from fear of state power.
Deeply concerned with its repression capacity, the state is committed to supporting the security apparatus. Low-level police forces need to feel they enjoy such kind of support. It is with this rationale that in a case like this, the state needs to ensure it is on the side of the police.
But this case appears to reveal how bad the state is in reading public sentiment. Had it rightly judged the degree of public anger and the intensity of the public’s expectation of a fair and just outcome, it would have taken a more nuanced approach.
Legal experts have suggested that alternative ways to manage the case do exist, so that both the public feel justice is made and the police feels the support of the state.
The failure for the state to take that approach, therefore, points to a worrying institutional deficiency – those making important decisions at the top of the system can mismanage, not because of ill-intention but because of information failure.