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Death in custody: a Chinese scandal that will not die

Public resentment of police brutality is growing


THE Chinese Communist Party has a formula for responding to crises. In the Mao era it buried unpalatable news. That is harder to pull off when smartphones and social media provide a steady flow of revelations about schools built on toxic soil, tainted foodstuffs, poorly stored vaccines and other scandals. Instead the government tries to manage public sentiment. It releases some information, raises questions and very often launches an investigation. Later, a senior official makes a pronouncement on the issue and a few people are fired. But in most cases almost nothing is done to fix the underlying problem. Sophisticated censorship prevents follow-up reports; public anger fades.

One recent scandal, however, has refused to die. Last May a 29-year-old environmental scientist, Lei Yang, died in police custody in Beijing. Officers said he had a heart attack after being arrested for soliciting a prostitute. Chinese people are used to being bullied by the police. Most victims are poor and cannot fight back. Mr Lei, however, was well-educated and worked at a state-linked think-tank.

The government took its familiar steps to quell the outcry. President Xi Jinping said the police should behave better, a comment that People’s Daily, a Communist Party mouthpiece, directly linked to Mr Lei’s case. An autopsy in June corrected the cause of death to choking. The police involved were put under investigation. And censorship was stepped up: online searches for Mr Lei’s name were blocked.

But anger grew again in December when prosecutors dropped charges against the police. They said “inappropriate professional conduct” by the officers had caused his death, but the wrongdoing was “minor” (Mr Lei, after all, had resisted arrest). The family acquiesced, citing exhaustion and “great pressure”. Mr Lei’s remains were cremated on January 6th.

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