If you search this site you’ll find many posts that mention Sun Zhigang. The story terrified me, and seemed to epitomize the dangers of total police powers and the lack of rule of law. A 27-year-old college student and graphic artist, he had the misfortune of leaving his home in Guangzhou without his ID card. He was arrested as a vagrant when a policeman stopped him and asked for the card, and he was brutally beaten to death in the prison infirmary. It was one of the first stories in China to cause a sensation on the Internet, and the wave of public outrage helped convince the government it was time to change their vagrancy laws.
And then I read this story, and it felt like deja vu all over again. From a letter written for his parents:
Zhao Wei is a senior student at Hebei University of Technology. He bought Seat No.45 on Car 12 of Train No. 1301 departing from Tianjin for Zalantun, Innor Mongolia on January 22, 2011. He also had a classmate in Car 11.
According to this classmate of his, after getting onto the train, Zhao Wei was scoffed at and ridiculed by a train attendant because of a seat-changing issue. Zhao made this issue known to the train conductor. At 10 p.m. or so, Wei Zhao brought his backpack to Car 11 and told this classmate that he might have offended the conductor. Then he changed seats with a passenger who sat next to this classmate. At around 3 a.m., Zhao was called away by the conductor. When the classmate next saw Zhao Wei, his eyes were black and blue, and he was no longer alive.
Go to the site to read the entire letter and, if you can stand it, to see graphic photos of the young man’s beaten corpse. The parents are now caught up in a bureaucratic maze of denial and passing the buck. No one will take responsibility, no one will even show any interest in investigating what happened. The story, needless to say, is being scrubbed from the Chinese Internet.
For an extraordinary analysis of how this hideous crime is being censored, you must read this post (be forewarned that it, too, contains graphic photographs). It reads like a suspense story, following the censors as they systematically cause the story to vaporize. Great journalism, great description of how the Chinese media and search engines work in cooperation with the censors.
There’s something about these stories that tugs at the heartstrings. Sun Zhigang was going out to celebrate (I forget what; maybe he had just graduated school). Zhao Wei had innocently tried to have his seat changed on the train he was taking to Inner Mongolia with friends. And each had his life snuffed out for what seems to be no reason at all. There was absolutely no need. So young and so senseless. So infuriating to watch the cover-up and hear the lies.
Murders happen everywhere. But in both cases the murders were carried out by the very people assigned to help the public. If they had been murdered in a robbery, or even killed by an insane gunman I would at least understand why it happened. In these two cases, the horror is that they died at the hands of people who are there to protect us. I think of the police in New Orleans who shot blacks in the back on a bridge after Hurricane Katrina, and I see similarities, and I felt the same sense of revulsion reading about that heinous crime. But it wasn’t scrubbed from the papers, and the officers were brought to justice.
Ultimately Sun Zhigang’s murderers were tried and convicted and the law was reformed, but one wonders if that would have happened had there not been an Internet firestorm. Let’s hope that the Zhao Wei tragedy generates a similar firestorm. As of this moment, based on these articles, it appears the government is pulling all the stops to keep the lid on and erase all remnants of the story. I am hoping tech-savvy Chinese will find ways to keep this story alive until Zhao Wei’s murderers are tried and convicted. Shame on all those who are aiding and abetting the cover-up of a fiendishly brutal, senseless and unforgivable crime.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.