After Wukan’s Protest, Grieving Family Can’t Move On

February 10, 2012 Updated: February 12, 2012
Relatives cry at the funeral for Xue Jin
Relatives cry at the funeral for Xue Jinbo, the 42-year-old village leader killed while in police custody in Wukan, Guangdong on Dec. 16, 2011. (AFP/Getty Images)

When the village of Wukan in southern China threw out Communist Party officials and protested for three months this past fall, one village leader paid for the resistance with his life, dying in police custody under suspicious circumstances.

Xue Jinbo’s family now faces a choice: they can continue to demand a complete and just accounting of what happened to Xue, and seek punishment for the officials responsible, understanding that in doing so they will likely bring retribution on their own heads; or they can forget about it, accept a cash payoff, and “admit” that he died from a heart attack, disavowing what they believe was Xue’s torture and murder.

The deceased leader’s daughter, Xue Jianwan, has for months maintained a public and emotional microblog documenting her family’s struggle with decisions like these. She describes her own feelings in often raw detail, carries on conversations with other microblog users to evaluate her options, and above all keeps a chronicle of her encounters with Communist Party officials—the source of much of her distress.

Her account on Sina Weibo, the most popular of the Twitter-like microblogs in China, appears to have been opened in late September—but not until January of this year does her writing begin in earnest. That was after her father died and the public Wukan standoff was largely resolved.

Xue Jinbo, her 43-year-old father, died on the evening of Dec. 11, two days after he was taken into custody. Officials said it was “sudden death due to heart failure.” But Xue Jinbo had no history of heart problems (the authorities confiscated his medical records, so the family can no longer prove that.) 

Xue and her family were able to see the body. It bore signs of torture: the wrists were swollen, the thumb had been broken back, the forehead and chin were bloodied, the chest was badly bruised, blood was caked in the nostrils, the neck was black, and the body was scarred, bruised, swollen, and black. 

The body already smelled, and Xue suspected that he’d been beaten to death on the same day he was abducted from a restaurant while eating lunch.

Relatives carry a picture of Xue Jinbo,
Relatives carry a picture of Xue Jinbo, the village leader who died in police custody, in Wukan, Guangdong on Dec. 16, 2011.

High-level Party and public security officials from Lufeng City, the city which Wukan Village is a part, were gathered in the room and watched her look at the body. The same officials managed to obtain from the medical school at Sun Yat-sen University a note that “the death cannot be attributed to external causes.”

Xue didn’t update her blog for two weeks. When she did, she wrote, “My father, you’re a hero. Your family are not cowards. We will persevere, obey mother, and look after mother, don’t worry. But we really miss you. I’m really not used to you not being here. I never thought dad would leave us. … When are you going to come back?”

Her brief missives from Jan. 1 onward document the difficult terms set by the authorities on the Xue’s family reclaiming the body of Xue Jinbo, and gaining a public and truthful account of what happened to him in custody. 

Xue conversed with her Weibo followers almost daily throughout January—sharing her feelings, noting her encounters, almost uniformly unpleasant, with Party officials, and debating openly about the choices she and the family should make vis-à-vis her father’s body. Her posts are frequently forwarded thousands of times and attract thousands of responses.

She strikes a defiant tone on Jan. 4: “There’s no question that my father was beaten. Till today they have not given us the entire (video) recording, which contains the whole process of my dad being tortured to death by them. … I’m not sure if an autopsy is a trap or the truth.” 

The officials appear regularly throughout January. They taunt Xue with offerings of cash if she will drop her complaints, or attempt to emotionally manipulate her.  Xue wrote on Jan. 17 that one officer was telling her that it’s almost New Year, that she should bury her father soon, and not to drag this on any more, not to let her father suffer the cold anymore. She said, “Those words coming from their mouths are really rich!” 

On Jan. 14, she wrote, officials promised to clear Xue Jinbo’s name of the charges that stood against him—charges that, Xue says, were themselves made up by the officials. 

“I had a terrible thought,” she writes. “What if every official is corrupt? What do we do then?” 

Just before the Chinese New Year, on Jan. 20, she is paid a visit by several cadres, and gets into a heated argument about the lack of legal procedures associated with her father’s case. The officials appear annoyed at being taken to task. They tell her “Don’t get too worked up, let’s not talk about this.” They leave two red envelopes—filled with cash. 

Xue is convinced that if her family presses the case, they will forgo the chance to have an ordinary life. Sina Weibo followers sometimes urge her to leave the country. Faced with the agony of decision, at one point she writes: “Retreat or proceed, both impossible, I’m about to go crazy. … What world is this! Will you not stop until you hound our family to death?”

In the afternoon of Feb. 8 she wrote “When hit in the mouth, you can only swallow the broken teeth along with the blood.”

Her most recent message was left at 1 a.m. on Feb. 9, when she wrote: “I was dreaming that dad was there, laughing. He began moving closer. … Then I woke up!”