Sun Zhigang - a story and its story

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NEWS.SOHU.COM, via Xinhua News Agency, 2003-04-25
>> Original article at (in Chinese).
>>About this translation, its limitations, and my reasons to post it [1]

By Chen Feng and Wang Lei (reporters)

Sun Zhigang had just finished his studies of fine arts some time ago. His relatives have found his self-portrait between his belongings.

17th of March. Sun is arrested on the street and taken to Huangcunjie police station.
18th of March. Huangcunjie police station transfers Sun to the Yisong detention centre.
18th of March. Yisong detention centre transfers Sun to the detention centre's hospital.
20th of March. Detention centre hospital reports that medical treatment did not save the victim.
18th of April. Post-mortem examination tells that the victim has been subject to heavy beating, during the 72 hours before his death.

Sun Zhigang, male, almost 27, had just obtained his university degree, two years earlier. On March 17, 2003, at 10 p.m., he went out to an internet café, as usual. During the following three days, he went through the three locations mentioned above: Guangzhou Huangcunjie police station, Guangzhou City detention centre, and Guangzhou detention centre hospital. On March 20, Sun Zhigang died at Guangzhou detention centre hospital (Guangzhou Hospital, cerebral department, Jiangcun in-patient floor). His body hasn't yet been incinerated, but still kept at the mortuary.

Sun Zhigang had been in Guangzhou for about 20 days. In 2001, he had graduated from Wuhan Polytechnical Institute, then worked for a Shenzhen company, and had now started work at a tailoring company in Guangzhou. As he had just arrived, Sun hadn't yet arranged for his temporary residence permit, and on the evening he went out, he didn't carry his ID card, either. About eleven p.m., he contacted his roommate, Mr. Cheng (name has been changed for anonymity), by mobile phone, and told him that he had been taken to Huangcunjie police station for not carrying a temporary residence permit. On a "city asylum 'San Wu' (Three No's) [2] registration form", he wrote:
I was strolling on Huangcun Street, and I was questioned there by the police. When it turned out that I hadn't carried out the temporary residence permit procedures, I was taken to Huangcunjie police station.

During the phone conversation, Sun asked Mr. Cheng to "bring the ID card and money" to bail him out. Hence, Mr. Cheng and another colleague hurried to Huangcunjie police station. When they arrived, time was approaching 12 p.m.. For unknown reasons, Mr. Cheng was told by the police that "no matter if Sun Zhigang had an ID card or not, he can't be released on bail". At the same time, Mr. Cheng saw many people being bailed out, but while talking to two policemen after another, both officers, after walking over to where Sun was being questioned, told him that "this man is no good", without further explanation. Mr. Cheng says, one of the policemen told him to take a look at the regulations, and that the police had the right to hold anyone in custody [3]. Mr. Cheng felt surprised, and called a friend in Guangzhou to ask him about this. His friend told him that there could be two reasons for the police not wanting to let Sun go. One could be that Sun might have committed a crime. Another could be that Sun had "argued" with the police. Mr. Cheng recalls that he saw Sun Zhigang through a counter window, and secretly asked him: "How come they arrested you - did you cooperate, or not?" [4] Sun said: "I haven't done anything. I just left the house and was arrested." Mr. Cheng says that Sun conceded he had argued with the policemen, but he thought that what he had said wasn't a very serious matter. Police then told Sun to fill in further papers. This was the last time Mr. Cheng saw Sun Zhigang.

Next day, another of Sun's friends got a phone call. Sun spoke from the detention centre, and his friend remembers that () Sun "spoke very fast, and apparently was very afraid". He therefore informed Sun's boss and asked him to go to the detention centre to bail Sun out. Then, one of Sun's colleagues went, but was told that the bail-out procedures were incomplete. After completing all required statements, Sun's boss went to the detention centre himself, but was told that it was after office hours, and that he should wait until next day.
On March 19, Sun's friend gave the detention centre another call and was told that Sun had been transferred to the detention centre's hospital.
Hospital records say that Sun arrived there on March 18, at 11:30 p.m.. Mr. Cheng says that he wanted to go the hospital to see him, but was told that he couldn't come. It would take Sun's relatives to bail Sun out. [5] On March 20 at midday, when another of Sun's friends made a call, he was told the unbelievable: that Sun Zhigang had died, because of a heart disease.
The records say that, on arrival in hospital, Sun had been "sleepless, nervous, frequently urinating, heavily vomiting, but that his spirits were clear, and his behaviour was calm." In hospital, Sun slept almost all of the time. On March 20 at 10 a.m.., a nurse found that Sun's "condition changed rapidly, that his face was pale, that he didn't speak and didn't move, that he breathed only slightly, and that his blood pressure was too low to measure". The doctors started emergency aid at 10:15 with injections and other measures, and stopped their efforts ten minutes later.

They told Sun's friends to wait at the mortuary. His friends waited for two hours, before Sun's body arrived there. According to the hospital's records, Sun died on March 20, 2003, at 10:25 a. m.. They suggest that Sun died suddenly, and that the death cause was naoxueguan yiwai [6] and heart disease. But this way of putting things met with rejections from Sun's family and friends. Sun's father says he never heard of his son having a heart disease, and likewise, the medical examiners' findings reverse the conclusions of the hospital physicians.

Zhong Shan [= Sun Yatsen] University medical faculty, law-court medical examination centre, clearly conclude in their report of April 18, that "according to general analysis, Sun Zhigang died from frail cell tissue, through injuries and traumatic shock." No fatal injuries could be found outside on Sun's body. But when the examiners made the first cut on his back hip, they found a blood trace under his skin, of about 60*50 centimetres size. At his lifetime, Sun was 1.74 metres tall, and quite strong. A blood trace of this size means that the trace area was about as large as all of his back.

The autopsy was carried out on April 3, at Zhong Shan law-court examination centre, with two of Sun's uncles, Sun Bingwu and Sun Haisong, witnessing the examination.
"It was hard to see this", says Sun Bingwu, "the body was without clothes, so we could see the injuries very clearly." Sun Bingwu says, he saw round, black imprints on each of Sun's shoulders, each about 1.5 centimetres large. On each of his knees, there were about five or six more of these imprints. They looked like "black oil drops on a white wall, just as clear."
Sun Bingwu says that he heard one of the examiners saying, "these are definitely burns". Sun Bingwu says that he saw a number of red fist impacts on the left side of Sun Zhigang's chest, and the injuries on his back even "scared" the supervising examiner. From shoulders to bottom, everything was dark red, plus many long-shaped injuries. With the first cut, a black chain appeared, and with the second, they found a black clot of blood. The examination states that no impact on inner organs, or "no fatal pathological changes" on them were found. It also says that Sun Zhigang died from wide-spread inner injuries on his back. And the analysis explanation on the report points out that on Sun's body, there were many bruises and chafes, while on his back, there were clear traces of blood under his skin. It also says that, apart from blood under his hips, there was more blood under his chest - "death from weak cell tissues and large-scale injuries usually occurs within 72 hours."

A doctor at Guangzhou First People's Hospital explains that "weak cell tissue and injuries lead to these small cells dying, and expelling blood at that time. As this happens inside the body, you can't see it from outside. But if the injuries are serious, it can lead to the arteria melting into their blood. This kind of condition is also called DIC. DIC is a turning point during medical treatment. Once it happens, the patient will, in all likelihood, die very quickly. It is extremely difficult to handle. So, in such cases, one has to stop the blood drain at an early stage, treat the shock, above all, and the goal must be to stop the condition entering DIC. As long as you can avoid DIC, you have every reason to be hopeful."

On March 18, at 11:30 p.m., Sun Zhigang was sent to the detention centre medical station from the detention centre [7]. The chief physician in charge that night wrote "None" under "outside condition" of the record; for "state of mind", another note says "no visible anomalities, stable mind".
The first impression was that Sun was over-anxious or suffering from heart disease. As for the dubious black spots on his shoulders and knees, and the purple-red impacts on his chest, the records say nothing.
On our visit to the hospital, the doctor who was in charge that night admits that, as the light wasn't very bright, he didn't see the injuries. Next day, "as the patient had clothes on, and didn't tell by himself that he had those injuries", they still didn't find out about them.
"The state of sleeplessness (as noted in the records) was most probably a state of shock", says a Guangzhou First People's Hospital doctor at the surgical department. "Inner bleedings lead to falling blood pressure. The patient may (...) show a condition of shock, this is one of the first stages of DIC, where emergency aid should be applied, immediately."
As the examiners say, Sun Zhigang's inner bleedings have been caused by beatings with a blunt object, more than once. "Only once would not explain the scale of inner bleedings", an examiner said, under condition of anonymity, after reading the report.

From the findings of the report, it is out of question that Sun Zhigang was beaten during the days before he died, and that this lead to his death. What the examiner told us is that, normally, cell tissue is injured like this when the victim wears a lot of clothes, like people would in winter. But while Sun was in custody, temperatures in Guangzhou were between 16 and 28 degrees Celsius. Certainly, Sun wouldn't wear clothes of this kind.
These three days at Huangcunjie police station, the detention centre, and the detention centre's hospital, don't really look as peaceful as their registration forms and records would suggest.

Was there any reason to put Sun into the detention centre at all? He had a job, a regular place to live, an ID card. The only thing missing was a temporary residence permit. After receiving material from the dead's relatives, we went to the three places mentioned above. Huangcunjie police station refused entry, saying that it would take permission from the City Police newsroom captain. So we contacted the News officer's colleague there, who told us that it would take chuanzhen caifang tiwang[8]. After providing this (...), no reply was given. A deputy head of the detention centre put it just the same: without permission from the higher levels of authority, he could not talk to us. We therefore, eventually, went to the Guangzhou People's Government service bureau, and the head of this department, Xie Zhichang, talked to us. He says that there is video surveillance at the detention centre. Xie Zhichang says he isn't sure why Sun Zhigang was beaten, but that he certainly wasn't beaten at the detention centre. After finding out that Sun wasn't well, they had immediately transferred him to hospital.
"I can guarantee by 99.8 percent that people are not beaten at the detention centre", says Xie Zhichang. Also, Sun hadn't been held there for long, before being transferred to hospital.
One of those responsible there says that there is video surveillance in hospital, too, and that someone is working there exclusively to monitor the screens. Once there were beatings or fights, they would stop this, immediately. On our request to see the records, the man in charge answered that he had to wait until the police had finished their investigations. Only after the results, they could provide recorded material.

The government's service bureau says there can't be beatings at the detention centre. The hospital says that Sun can't have suffered his injuries while in care, there. And Huangcunjie police station refuses to talk.
On leaving the detention centre for hospital, Sun Zhigang filled in a "leaving detention centre suggestion form", and he wrote: "Satisfied! Heartfelt thanks! Heartfelt thanks!".
We don't know his state of mind while leaving the place, or why he wrote "Heartfelt thanks" twice. Should we think that he was grateful for having been detained?
Only after reading the regulations several times, and speaking to experts, we understood that Sun wasn't someone who should have been taken into custody at all. According to the "Guangdong detention management regulations", passed by the Standing Committee of the Provincial People's Congress on February 23, 2002, "these regulations apply to people who beg or tramp in the province's cities; to those who can't make a living by themselves."
An inspector at Huangcunjie police station wrote that "according to 'Guangdong Province detention centre management regulations', article nine, para six, I recommend detention."
But the paragraph he referred to reads as follows: "People with one of the following characteristics should be detained: "(para six) no legal documents and no regular place to live, no normal income and tramping the streets". And the regulations also stipulate that when "people with valid documents, a place to live, regular income, do not have the relevant documents with them, their background should be checked, and the detention centres must not detain them."
Sun Zhigang had a job - one can't say he had "no regular income". He stayed with a friend - one can't say he had "no place to live". He had an ID card - one can't say he had "no legal documents". The questionnaire at Huangcunjie police station contains, very clearly, the number of Sun's ID card[9]. But on the form filled in by Huangcunjie police themselves, this is changed to "no permanent place to live, no income, no valid documents." All that was missing was a temporary residence permit. But in no pertaining regulations, would we find a paragraph telling that if "a temporary residence permit is missing, the person must be detained." We therefore contacted the office of the Guangzhou People's Congress work committee, and got a clear answer: "Just for not having a temporary residence permit, one can't be taken into custody." According to Guangzhou City's "san wu" ("three no's") regulations, pertaining to tramping or begging people, only homeless people with invalid registration, or those whose registration has expired, "who stay in this city on a non-permanent basis" can be treated according to the regulation. But why, under "do you have a permanent place to live", or "how do you make a living (evidence)", did they write "None" at Huangcunjie police station? Mr. Cheng had already stated that Sun Zhigang actually stayed with him, and we have also seen his company's written statement that "on February 24, 2003, (Sun Zhigang) started working for our company, in charge of (renpingmian) design. His behaviour is very good, he is honest, and he is indeed working for this company." Why does a form that states there is no income, bear Sun Zhigang's signature? City government's service bureau chief, Xie, feels confused, too. "He was a student. His intelligence can't have been low. How could he say he had no work?"

By the words on the questionnaire, Sun Zhigang became a "san wu" person; hence, the officer in charge at Huangcunjie police station signed the "detention" decision; hence, Guangzhou (area) police approved it; hence, Sun Zhigang was detained, and eventually died.

His death has deeply saddened his family, friends, teachers, and classmates. To them, Sun was a very good man, with musical talent, sometimes a bit extreme, and somewhat stubborn. Sun's younger brother says, "he didn't have much experience with society, just studied and worked, and he was rather fond of talking principles." Sun's classmate, Li Xiaoling, says that artists are people of their own kind. Sun Zhigang really had his own opinions, but loved disputes whereever there was an opportunity. Sometimes, he would debate a small issue with her, for a really long time.

After Sun Zhigang's death, his father and younger brother came from their poor native Huangfeng district. After going through his personal belongings, they would show us what Sun Zhigang had left behind. Among other things, there was a whole lot of award certificates. "He was the first university student from our district." But then, Sun's relatives now feel a bit of remorse, as they had him study. "Hadn't he studied, maybe he wouldn't have died."

update - Oct 9, 2006 and Dec 24, 2007

The article at is an online reprint of Chen Feng´s and Wang Lei´s article at the Southern Metropolis Daily. While Peking abolished the detention law, local Guangzhou leaders appear to have taken their revenge on Chen Feng´s and Wang Lei´s bosses at the Southern Metropolis newspaper, as soon as circumstances permitted.

A story by the » Washington Post (no longer available online) of August 1, 2004, is another interesting - but much less encouraging - insight into how Chinese authorities deal with scandals. And here, it shows how little has yet been done to secure the rule of law, even in Guangdong, which likes to think of itself as mainland China´s "most progressive" province.

More about the governing style of Zhang Dejiang, Guangdong Communist Party secretary, can be found in a » BBC report on Guangdong. According to the Washington Post, Zhang played an important role in clamping down on the Southern Metropolis Daily.

[1] My translation isn't as good as the original, and will most probably contain some mistakes. If you can read Chinese, the original (see the "" link at the beginning of this text) will be better. I am grateful for any advice that helps to improve this translation.
I wouldn't post this, if I believed that it could offer additional ammunition to those who hate "Red China", anyway. Rather, it looks interesting to me, as it appears to be sort of an educational article, that describes how power abuse should be investigated, once it happens. As news coverage is censored in China, and as this story was first brought up by the official Xinhua News Agency, this kind of "constitutional education" is apparently becoming an official goal. Then again, the findings as later described in the English-language "Shanghai Star", don't look as encouraging as this article did. There, the beatings were blamed on Sun Zhigang's fellow inmates.

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[2] Here, "san wu" stands for the status of a person without a place to live, without a right to abode, and without a regular income.
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[3] "...once you get arrested on charges like this in China, you get found guilty, even if there is no real effective sentence, or prison sentence, awaiting you." (Adam Brooks, BBC correspondent, on BBC World Service, July 7, 2001, after the arrest of US academic Li Shao-min, on charges of spying for Taiwan). Li Shaomin was not jailed, but "deported" back to Hong Kong.
If any of the allegations against Li were true, never became clear. Chinese authorities are "always right"; the EP-3 spy plane crew, too, wasn't returned to the U.S. in April 2001 because they would have been cleared of the charges (of having "destroyed" Wang Wei's fighting jet, in that case), but on "humanitarian reasons".

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[4] This might look like if "Mr. Cheng" didn't support Sun Zhigang the way he should have. In fact, China is still an authoritarian country, and power isn't questioned the way we would question it. If someone is stronger than you are, you need to "compromise". Besides, even if it isn't about power, compromise seems to matter at least as much as your rights - be it in negotiations among equals, be it with some kind of authorities.
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After this myriad of different "regulations", quoted by the officers, it is clear that not all of them can be true. In addition to all suspicions that any Chinese and Western reader will have by now, it is also true that Chinese officials often simply don't understand their own regulations. In theory, regulations should make power abuse more difficult. In daily Chinese practice, they are used to keep any challenger in the dark about his own rights, and to help local officials to control and decide everything, as it suits them best. A Westerner in China is very unlikely to ever meet the same destiny as Sun Zhigang, but this pattern of referring to "facts" or "regulations" is practiced everywhere in China, where people disagree with you, or where your goals conflict with those of others.
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[6] I can't translate this word. But it seems to describe something unusual happening to the brain bloodcells or blood arteries.
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detention centre may not be the most appropriate translation. One might also translate it as "asylum centre". Its purpose is to put people there who, as stated by the "san wu" regulations described above, do not make a regular living, who aren't correctly registered and have no home.
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[8] another term that I can't translate.
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[9] It might appear strange that Sun's ID card number was available, while he didn't carry his card with him. But as you meet with a great deal of paperwork in China where you need to provide your ID card number, he either knew it by heart anyway, or filled it in after "Mr. Cheng" had brought the ID card.
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Related or similar topics
The case of Zhao Yan
BBC News, Sept 15, 2007

收容遣送 (custody and repatriation): The Sun Zhigang case and its aftermath

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