Residents of the city of Shishou in the central province of Hubei fought police and set fire to a hotel after authorities labeled the death of a chef at a hotel a “suicide”.
The chef, 24 year old Tu Yuangao, was found dead outside the Yonglong hotel on the 17th of June, but his family cast doubt on the finding of “suicide” after viewing his body. They said there were no signs of blood where he was found, and the injuries on his body were inconsistent with a fall.
Locals told media that the hotel was known to be involved with drug trafficking, and that it is partly owned by the mayor, with senior police and other officials having a stake in it. They believed Tu was killed for threatening to expose the hotel owner, and that police intended to cremate his body to destroy the evidence.
Offered 30 000 RMB ($4 400)by the owner, Tu’s father apparently armed himself with a gas canister and threatened to blow himself up until the truth about his son’s death was revealed. Crowds began to gather on Friday the 19th outside the hotel to prevent police removing the body.
Three days of clashes
Over the weekend several violent clashes between residents and riot police occurred, involving 10 000 people according to official sources, or up to 70 000 according to reports on internet sites and Hong Kong media. The hotel was set on fire, and six police vehicles were destroyed or overturned to block the roads.
Police who tried to disperse people were repelled with projectiles by the crowd, and at one point on Saturday night the street lights were turned off by authorities. Eventually Tu’s family agreed to a formal autopsy of the body, and people dispersed.
The Hong Kong-based Information Centre for Human Rights and Democracy claimed at least 200 people were injured, but the authorities claimed no one had been injured in the clashes.
On the surface it is surprising that a seemingly small incident lead to such a violent clash, but Radio Free Asia reported one witness as saying:
"The reason for this is that the relationship between the government and the ordinary people here has been mishandled. In the past there have already been a few high-profile cases, and the police just left them unresolved. There was already a lot of anger against the government. Now I hear they have agreed to the family's requests. I don't know whether they really will carry out an autopsy."
The role of the Internet
Internet users played a significant role in spreading news of the incident. Photos and video footage taken by observers was posted on the internet, and accounts of what people believed had happened wide spread.
One rumor alleged that Tu was murdered when he threatened to expose a drug-dealing operation that was based in the hotel where he worked. A posting in Chinese on Globalvoiceonline.org asserted that the owner of the Yonglong Hotel was the head of a drug-cartel who enjoyed close ties to senior local government officials.
When the owner refused to pay Tu his salary, Tu threatened to expose his illicit activities and was murdered as a consequence. The posting is replete with a graphic account of Tu's gruesome and sadistic killing, which included a lengthy beating, castration and the insertion of nails into his skull. It is also alleged that the Yonglong Hotel was the site of at least several related murders in the past few years.
Officials, however, insisted it was suicide:
"In fact, the truth is that this person committed suicide, so the city authorities are going to carry out an autopsy on the body. Some people thought the government was trying to forcibly cart the body off for cremation, so they rose up in protest."
An subsequent official autopsy has reaffirmed suicide the suicide. It also claimed a suicide note to have indeed been written by Tu, despite allegations by some that he was illiterate, as he had only received 3 years of primary school education. Xinhua, the Chinese state news agency, reported that Tu's uncle, Tu Dexiang, speaking for the family, said he accepted the conclusion.
"The tests were conducted by experts from the Public Security Ministry, the local department and the university, so we have to be convinced of the result," he said. "We don't want to spark more unrest and bring more trouble to the government.”
Nevertheless, the China Daily said local authorities gave Tu's family 300,000 yuan ($44 000) in compensation. The report did not specify which authorities awarded the compensation, nor explain why it was paid before an investigation into Tu's death was completed.
One unusual response from authorities was an editorial in the People's Daily on the 24th of June, which called for both local government and the mainstream media to provide greater "information transparency" in the immediate aftermath of incidents that could trigger public unrest.
Mass protests against official corruption, land grabs and arbitrary taxes are becoming increasingly common in China and often spin out of control into violent confrontations between the public and officials.
Photos and video from Shishou: http://observers.france24.com/en/content/20090623-shishou-residents-up-in-arms-suspicious-death-cook-tu-yuangao