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.
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."
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."
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.
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."