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.
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Eventually, suspicions of murder dwindled (the truck driver who hit Qian was sentenced on Feb. 1 to 3-1/2 years in jail). One group concluded that the police report was correct, and that rumors of Qian's murder were unfounded. Another tended toward that conclusion, and the third team decided that it was impossible to reach a firm conclusion based on the evidence they had been allowed to see.Skip to next paragraph
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But instead of finding support online, the groups earned derision on the Web from commentators who had hoped they would tear the mask off official duplicity. Though most of the investigators are well respected as independent-minded figures, they were angrily criticized for having backed the authorities, and even accused of taking bribes.
Limits for 'netizens'
That suggested one weakness of these citizen-detectives: Despite their individual reputations they lack the authority to conduct a police investigation and the credibility to make their conclusions stick.
One investigator in Yueqing, the famous blogger Wang Xiaoshan, admitted as much on his blog as he tramped around the village. "An independent investigation means you can go anywhere you want, talk to anyone you want and access any information you want," he wrote. "We are just a low-grade netizen observer team who represent only ourselves."
With time, that may change, says Xu. "When we've done a lot more of this kind of investigation people will end up believing us," he says. "You accumulate credibility with the things that you do."
It is unclear, however, how far the government will let this kind of experiment go. Professor Jia is skeptical. "Real investigations need time, money, and a lot of energy," she points out, "and without the involvement of professional nongovernmental organizations I don't know how long it will last."
But, she cautions, "the legal environment is not right" for an NGO promoting citizen investigations to win the official registration it would need.
Dr. Liu, though, suggests that the authorities may see value in this sort of work, even if it challenges local officials' authority. The independent teams' conclusion that the police were correct "played a role in calming very irritated relations" between the local government and villagers, Liu points out.
It is unlikely, however, that citizen investigators would always endorse the official version of controversial incidents, and they are pledging to keep up their new activities. "Mistrust between officials and the public has reached very high levels," says Xu. "The situation requires a neutral group with credibility to seek out the truth. This work has a future."