Why Are Beijing Police Trying to Convince Us That a Man Who Died in Custody Was Soliciting a Prostitute?

Passersby heard him crying for help during the arrest, and his body showed physical injuries according to the hospital. (Image: Beijing Patrol via flickr/CC BY 2.0)
Passersby heard him crying for help during the arrest, and his body showed physical injuries according to the hospital. (Image: Beijing Patrol via flickr/CC BY 2.0)

A young environmentalist whose wife just gave birth to their first child in April died in police custody after being arrested in a crackdown on prostitution in Beijing’s Chang Ping district on May 7. Since the man’s passing, police have aggressively sought to remind the public that the man allegedly solicited the services of a sex worker — and thereby avoid answering tough questions about the circumstances that led to his death.

The 29-year-old man’s name was Lei Yang. He graduated from Renmin University and worked for the China Association of Circular Economy, a government-affiliated environmental organization. Law enforcement say Lei was apprehended outside a foot massage parlor and presented a two-hundred-yuan receipt (about 30 US dollars) signed by a prostitute as proof that his arrest was justified.

His relatives, however, maintain Lei was on his way to the airport to pick up friends and somehow was caught up in the police raid, ending up dead just one hour after leaving home.

Police say Lei resisted arrest and died from a heart attack. Passersby heard him crying for help during the arrest, and his body showed physical injuries according to the hospital. The police claimed that the injuries were a result of him jumping off the police vehicle. All nearby surveillance cameras in the area weren’t functioning like normal at the time, and there were no cameras in the police vehicle.

The Chang Ping district police department has tried to influence public opinion on the case, appearing to hire a large number of online commenters to spread the idea that Lei does not deserve sympathy. These online commenters all listed on their user profiles that they were employees of the “Ideal Office” (it’s not clear if this company really exists). China Digital Times screen-captured a sample of the posts they published on popular social media platform Weibo:

In addition, China’s web censors also started deleting comments and speculations on the incident.

‘This is a cover-up’

Of course, many Chinese weren’t buying it. Alumni of the university Lei attended spoke out in written petition against police abusing their power.

Others, like Twitter user @pearlher, reposted a popular post from Weibo criticizing the police’s diversion tactics:

网友:他怎么死的? 警察:他涉嫌嫖娼了! 网友:他是怎么死的? 警察:摄像头坏了! 网友:他是怎么死的啊? 警察:拍摄设备摔坏了!网友:他到底怎么死的? 警察:他支付过200元嫖资!网友:卧槽我就问他到底是怎么死的啊? !警察:小姐帮他打飞机了! 网友:……卧槽尼玛!

Many netizens joked about the prostitute receipt, which had the information of Lei Yang’s danwei (“work unit”). It read:

A Chang Ping district resident commented on the receipt on Weibo (screen-captured by Wang Yi):

Twitter user Wang Yi reposted an image of the receipt and added her view to the above popular Weibo post from Chang Ping resident:



Some male netizens shared their stories of having forced by police to confess to the crime of soliciting a sex worker allegedly because local law enforcement depend on those fines to fund the hire of temporary employees.

The case also seemed to soften some women’s view of prostitution, as one female Weibo user wrote (reposted to Twitter by Andy Yeung):


A female Weiboer wrote:

In the past, Chinese authorities have used the soliciting prostitution charge as a political tactic to crack down on human rights activists such as anti-graft activist Ou Shaokun and opinion leaders such as Charles Xue.

While Lei Yang never spoke up publicly against the injustices faced by social activists, many drew parallels between those cases and Lei’s. Political cartoonist Badiucao warned that until the political system changes, more will fall victim to the police’s abuse of power:

漫画 【 之死】暴力机关滥权成绞肉机器,这就是雷洋之死的根节。黑头套可能照到所有人的头,哪管你是穷苦或滋润,儿童或老人,文盲或公知。双早还是杨佳,有没有第三条活,只能在中国梦中寻找。

This article by Oiwan Lam originally appeared on Global Voices.

[Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.]

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