Thousands of people have signed an online petition, joining growing calls for a government probe into the death of veteran 1989 pro-democracy activist Li Wangyang after official claims that he killed himself while in police custody were disputed by activists and a Hong Kong official.
The Google Docs-based petition titled "Urgent Appeal for a Credible Investigation into the Truth of Li Wangyang’s Death" had garnered eight thousand signatures in total by Tuesday, including signatures collected on the streets of Hong Kong,
The petition, which was initiated by veteran journalist and blogger Wen Yunchao and a number of Hong Kong-based pro-democracy groups, is indicative of a growing mood of public outrage and suspicion surrounding Wang's death.
A small group of activists in the southwestern city of Chengdu on staged a small protest of around a dozen people in Li's memory.
"We think the explanation of suicide is pretty unbelievable," said Chengdu protester Li Yu. "If Li Wangyang can commit 'suicide' then this could happen to any one of us."
Shanghai-based independent writer Li Huaping said he had written an open letter online, calling for a full probe into the circumstances surrounding Li's death.
"The same day I published it, the Shanghai state security police asked me what I meant by it," Li Huaping said. "I said that we want ... to know the truth, because in the absence of the rule of law and the truth, there is no bottom line."
"They gave me a warning, very good-naturedly, because this topic is still very sensitive from China's point of view, they said."
Activists, politicians and even government officials in Hong Kong have responded to Li's death, with further demonstrations planned for July 1, the anniversary of the former British colony's 1997 return to Chinese rule.
Hong Kong's Food and Health Secretary York Chow said on Tuesday he doubted the nearly deaf and blind activist could hang himself, while Sin Chung-kai, vice-chairman of Hong Kong's Democratic Party, said the petition organizers hoped to raise at least 10,000 signatures ahead of July 1, when Hong Kong celebrates the 14th anniversary of its handover to Chinese rule.
"When President Hu Jintao visits Hong Kong to celebrate the handover anniversary, we will hand it to him," Sin said. "The main thing we want from this campaign is a full investigation into the cause of Li Wangyang's death."
"We hope that the central government will send officials to carry out a comprehensive probe, and report back on the cause of Li Wangyang's death to the general public."
The petition was signed by "citizens who are deeply concerned with the state of human rights and the democratic development in China."
It called for the probe to be monitored throughout by representatives of family and friends and the findings presented to the public.
It also called on officials to allow Li’s friends to visit his home, send their condolences, and help with the funeral and other affairs, and for the authorities to "hold local police accountable for their criminal and civil responsibilities for Mr. Li’s death."
The signature campaign follows a demonstration by thousands of people in Hong Kong who carried symbols of mourning for Li and who called for a full investigation into his death.
Independent Chinese author Sun Liyong said the demonstration showed that Hong Kong people were "China's conscience."
"This gives great support to those people who sacrifice their own freedom for the cause of freedom in China," Sun said. "We embrace these people who are far from the spotlight, who are quietly dedicated to the cause."
"The reaction in Hong Kong was really great, with everyone coming out on Li Wangyang's behalf," he said.
Li Wangyang, 62, died at a hospital in Shaoyang city in the custody of local police last week. When relatives arrived at the scene, his body was hanging by the neck from the ceiling near his hospital bed, but was removed by police soon afterwards.
Relatives, friends, and rights groups have all called into question several details of both circumstance and timing which they say point to the possibility of foul play, including photographs distributed on the Chinese microblog service Sina Weibo, which showed Li’s feet touching the floor.
Police took away Li’s corpse after his death was discovered and have kept it in an unknown location, Li's relatives said.
Li's death came as Chinese authorities moved to crack down on dissidents and rights activists around the country, in a bid to prevent any public memorials on the 23rd anniversary of the June 4, 1989 bloodshed.
Li, a former worker in a glass factory, was jailed for 13 years for "counterrevolution" after he took part in demonstrations inspired by the student-led protests in Beijing, and for a further 10 years for "incitement to overthrow state power" after he called for a reappraisal of the official verdict on the crackdown.
He was blind in both eyes and had lost nearly all his hearing when he was finally released from prison in May 2011, his family said.
Chinese activists began a campaign this week via Twitter to issue statements saying that they would never commit suicide, in an attempt to stymy any future attempts to do away with them.
Beijing-based rights activist Hu Jia, who has served a three-and-a-half jail term for subversion, wrote, in comments translated by the Shanghaiist blog: "I guess I need to get the following document notarized at the lawyer's. It will say: 'I, Hu Jia, will not commit suicide at any time, because of anyone, in any situation, or for anything.'"
Hu called on Chinese political prisoners, dissidents, activists and citizens who are illegally detained by national security on a regular basis to make their own copies of the statement, and have them notarized.
"This country has no lack of people being 'suicided'," Hu wrote.
Activists began to issue a series of tweets under the hashtag "I will not commit suicide", declaring that they would never commit suicide, and that any subsequent "accidents" that occurred should be treated with extreme suspicion.
Reported by Wen Yuqing for RFA's Cantonese service, and by Lin Di for the Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.