Li Wangyang, a prominent labour leader who sacrificed for a better China

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追究李旺陽死因遊行10/6/2012 (ReflectionandSeeing via flickr)

‘June 4’ is a forbidden topic in China. The mere mention or discussion of the 1989 Tiananmen Square pro-democracy movement is quickly clamped down on by the government’s tight censorship. Yet despite the government’s intense surveillance and suppression, the people have not been intimidated.

Over the past 34 years, countless individuals have been imprisoned, and some have even made the ultimate sacrifice to shed light on the truth for the world to see. Li Wangyang was one of these brave souls. He was China’s longest-serving political prisoner from the Tiananmen Square protest, who fought fearlessly for democracy in China until his passing in 2012.

One of the pioneer advocates for independent trade unionism in China 

Back in 1983, Li was working at a glass factory in Shaoyang City in Hunan Province. This was when he took the brave step of establishing an independent labour union. He later became the chairman of the Shaoyang Workers Autonomous Federation and stood shoulder to shoulder with the fervent students in Tiananmen Square, calling for freedom and democracy in China.

However, fate had other plans. In the sweeping nationwide crackdown on the dissidents of the democracy protests of 1989, Li was arrested and received a 13-year prison sentence for allegedly ‘inciting counter-revolutionary propaganda’. In 2001, Li was put behind bars again. This time, he was handed a 10-year sentence for ‘subverting the state’.

Li ended up spending two decades in jail and was incarcerated longer than any other of the pro-democracy activists involved in the 1989 Tiananmen demonstration. As an inmate, he was subjected to brutal torture. By the time he was finally released in 2012, he had gone blind and deaf, and most of his front teeth had been knocked out. He was in fragile health and had to be hospitalised immediately following his release.

Fought for democracy at all costs 

One year after his release from prison, Li continued to advocate for the vindication of the Tiananmen Square protesters in an interview with Hong Kong Cable TV. He vowed to continue to fight for democracy and said he would never regret his fight for a better China, ‘even if I were beheaded’.

On 6 June 2012, four days after the interview aired, Li was found hanged in a hospital room. He was found next to a window with a white strip of cloth tied around his neck and fastened to a window bar. Chinese officials claimed that Li had committed suicide. However, Li’s death caused widespread suspicion. The public had doubts that the nearly deaf and blind activist would hang himself without leaving a note. Li’s body was then cremated without his family’s consent.

Never forget Li’s spirit, never give up the fight for democracy

It has been 11 years since Li Wangyang passed away. Yet, countless activists continue to face repression in China for their unwavering pursuit of freedom and democracy. In Hong Kong, at least six labour rights activists have been sentenced, and three have been detained since late 2022. Like Li, they remain undeterred by the threat of prison time.

Today, as we remember Li Wangyang, let’s not forget the sacrifice he made for democracy. ‘China’s future is inevitably on a path to freedom and multi-party democracy,’ he said in his last interview, ‘and the future is not far away.’ Let’s stay hopeful and have faith that democracy will prevail.

“Li Wangyang’s spirit won’t die.” On 10/6/2012, hundreds went on the streets in Hong Kong demanding an investigation into Li Wangyang’s death (Photo: alcuin lai via flickr)

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