This much is known: last Thursday, at the start of business hours in Qiaojia county, in the remote northeastern corner of China’s Yunnan province, someone walked to the front door of a local government office and blew themself up.
The other facts of the case – such as who the bomber was and why they did it – remain hotly disputed a week after the bombing, which shocked China and left four people dead and 16 others injured.
As the official story shifts, and new bombers and motives are found, the already battered reputation of China’s justice system is emerging as another casualty. Some blame it some for causing the sense of desperation that inspired the bombing in Qiaojia. Others accuse it subsequently of trying and failing to cover up what really happened there.
Initial news reports distributed over the official Xinhua newswire were tragic to read. Quoting from local newspapers that had spoken to eyewitnesses, Xinhua reported that a woman had detonated the explosives outside the office, which was handling compensation payments for local residents whose homes were slated for demolition. Other reports, quoting local villagers, suggested the woman’s home was about to be knocked down to make way for a hydroelectric power station. Some said she had a 15-month-old baby strapped to her when the bomb went off.
The worst part about the story was that it was believable. Suicide bombings are very rare in China, but if there’s anything that might drive a Chinese citizen to such a rash action, it could be the relentless effort of local governments to force poorer citizens out of their homes and land so the property can be used for other purposes. Forced evictions have bred a string of appalling stories in China in recent years, including that of a 70-year-old grandmother beaten and then buried alive by bulldozers in 2010 after she refused leave her home that had been slated for demolition.
China’s justice system favours the rich and the connected, meaning acts of desperation are sometimes all that’s left. On May 4, a man in another land dispute set his motorcycle on fire outside the same office in Qiaojia where the bombing occurred six days later. Last month, police there beat another man to death for opposing the demolition of his home.
A suicide bombing, however, was a new level, one that risked setting a dangerous new precedent for such disputes.
As a result, many in China smelled a diversion when the Yunnan government declared the day after the bombing that the initial reports had been wrong. The suicide bomber, they said, was not a woman carrying a child, but another of the four people killed in the blast, a 26-year-old man named Zhao Dengyong, a motorcycle-taxi driver who had no known dispute with the property office. Producing angry quotes from messages Mr. Zhao had allegedly sent to a friend via an online service, police said the bombing had been the work of someone who had been angry at society as a whole, not the local government.
“Society has become so much crueler, it is pressing me to revolt. I do not know how many people I will kill if I become really sick of my current situation,” read the police transcript of Mr. Zhao’s alleged conversation in 2009.
By Monday, the head of Yunnan’s Public Security Bureau, Yang Chaobang was publicly declaring the case closed, even though police had yet to identify even what type of explosive had been used in the blast. “I will stake my reputation and career on it: Zhao Dengyong is the suspect in the case,” Mr. Yang told a press conference. “As to whether there were other people involved, police are still investigating.”
And that’s when many Chinese, including someone within the justice system, began to question what was going on in Yunnan. “As a legal professional, this kind of talk should either seldom be spoken, or not spoken at all,” someone wrote in a public response to Mr. Yang, using the official Weibo (a Chinese Twitter-like service) account of the prosecutor’s office in the city of Shaoxing, in faraway Zhejiang province. “Proving whether or not someone is guilty of a crime depends of proof. A question: Can your reputation and future be used as proof?”
Chinese Internet users began poring over the facts of the case, questioning why the bombing site had been so hastily repainted, and why only an edited video of what happened that morning was released to the public, as well as why three-year-old online comments were considered that Mr. Zhao had a motive to blow himself up in a crowded place. Others seized on a statement by the local Communist Party secretary, Ye Libin, who ordered the Public Security Bureau to “take full command of dealing with the aftermath [of the bombing]and controlling public opinion.”
“I'm not law professional, nor police, of course not a Public Security Bureau chief, but I know there must be enough evidence before confirming that some suspected criminal is guilty, instead of basing it on deduction or a subjective assumption. Why are there so many suspicious facts in the case? Why is the whole country of China asking questions?” read one commonly expressed sentiment on Weibo.
Mr. Zhao’s family and friends have waded in, claiming the dead man was being used as a scapegoat by local officials who are desperate to avoid the conclusion a dispossessed woman behind was the attack.
“It’s so dark here and there is nowhere to make our voice heard,” Mr. Zhao’s brother, Zhao Dengxian, posted on his own Weibo account this week. “They say my brother is the suspect but they can’t identify the source of the explosives.” He said his brother knew nothing about bomb-making and had no access to the needed materials.
“The police have to solve this case based on the facts, even if they are under pressure to get to the bottom of it quickly,” the Global Times, a newspaper affiliated with the ruling Communist Party, quoted Liu Xiaoyuan, a prominent Beijing lawyer, as saying. “They have a responsibility toward the deceased and their families.”