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How an activist's death in China inspired a wave of citizen sleuthing

Qian Yunhui's suspicious death led to an unprecedented amount of detective work among Chinese citizens who were not convinced by the official version of events.

By Staff writer / February 9, 2011

Fei Liangyu, the truck driver involved in the death of Qian Yunhui, was sentenced to three years and six months in prison. Government mistrust drove activists to seek an ulterior motive.

Xinhua/Newscom

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Beijing

Qian Yunhui died under a truck on Christmas Day in Yueqing, a village in China's eastern Zhejiang Province. But almost as soon as he had been struck down by the overloaded vehicle, accusations began circulating around Mr. Qian's hometown and online that his death was no accident at all.

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Qian was a village leader who had clashed with local authorities over compensation for residents who lost their land to a power station development. Even though the police concluded he died in a routine traffic accident, many locals didn't believe it.

His death first provoked suspicion and then outrage among many Chinese who suspected murder. Shortly after Qian's death, photos of his body went viral online. Bands of social activists, connected by the Internet and motivated by the kind of mistrust of the government that is increasingly common in China, decided for the first time to challenge the authorities with their own citizen investigations.

"This is the beginning of a new dynamic in Chinese social and political development," enthuses Yawei Liu, an expert on grass-roots Chinese politics at the Carter Center in Atlanta. "These people are not just writing blogs anymore. They want to be on the ground, presenting the facts."

Citizen investigators

Xu Zhiyong, founder of the human rights aid group Gongmeng, was among those inspired to challenge police; he teamed up with a lawyer and a number of volunteers. Within days of Qian's death, two other groups of scholars, journalists, lawyers, and bloggers also descended on Yueqing.

"The public didn't believe the version that the police published, so as a grass-roots investigative group we decided to do our own research," says Mr. Xu. As they carried out their investigations, inspecting the site of the death, interviewing witnesses and family members, and questioning the police, they also chronicled their every move online.

"The significance of this case is that citizens moved from the virtual world to the real world and did something together," says Jia Xijin, head of the Civil Society Research Institute at Tsinghua University in Beijing. "The Internet can have an influence on real life."

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