June 15 (Bloomberg) -- Hong Kong Chief Executive Donald Tsang said he told China the death of dissident Li Wangyang was “suspicious,” using his final address to legislators to make his strongest criticism of the mainland’s human rights record.
Tsang said he “understands the views of Hong Kong people” after thousands took to the streets over the death of Li, who was nearly deaf and blind and was found hanged in a hospital ward in the Chinese city of Shaoyang on June 6. Two days earlier, at least 85,000 people attended a vigil for victims of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown.
Tsang’s comments yesterday, less than three weeks before he leaves office, mark a reversal for a leader who, like his predecessor, refrained from publicly questioning authorities in the mainland. Li’s death has been ignored in Chinese state-run media as the Communist Party seeks to maintain stability ahead of a once-in-a-decade leadership transition later this year.
Tsang knows that people in Hong Kong “care about Li Wangyang’s death and follow the news very closely,” said Ivan Choy, a senior government lecturer at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He said the comments mean Chinese leaders “cannot pretend they don’t know what happened and ignore the issue.”
The official version of Li’s death was met with incredulity by some users of Chinese microblogging services after images circulated online that show him hanged by the neck even as his feet remained on the ground. His relatives also questioned the authorities’ description of the death as suicide.
Rita Fan, a member of National People’s Congress Standing Committee, joined other Hong Kong political leaders including the ministers of health and security in expressing suspicion about the death, the South China Morning Post reported yesterday.
The southern Chinese province of Hunan has started an investigation into Li’s death, Hong Kong China News Agency reported, citing a spokesman from the provincial public security department it didn’t identify. The Hunan government earlier asked for a coroner from outside the province to examine Li’s body, according to the report.
Li was initially sentenced to 11 years in prison for his participation in the 1989 pro-democracy movement, according to information posted on the website of Human Rights in China. He lost his sight and hearing, and had trouble walking after being tortured in prison for refusing to admit guilt, the site said.
In the crackdown 23 years ago, Chinese troops fired on demonstrators who had massed in the square for weeks to demand democratic reforms. The U.S. Embassy in Beijing estimated a death toll exceeding 1,000.
Asked June 8 about a demand by the rights group Amnesty International to investigate the death, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin told a briefing that Li was “somebody I’m not familiar with.”
Other scandals have confronted the party this year, including Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai’s ouster and suspension from the Politburo over murder allegations surrounding his wife, and legal activist Chen Guangcheng’s flight to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing in April.
The address was Tsang’s last to Hong Kong’s Legislative Council before he leaves office at the end of this month. In the speech, he acknowledged having made “lapses of judgment” and “errors of execution” during his time in office.
His final months were roiled by revelations that he took trips on yachts and planes owned by billionaire businessmen, in a city with the widest wealth gap in Asia.
While he said he’ll continue to do some soul searching, he said he won’t resign before his term end. “I must finish my tasks,” he said.
Of the city’s widening wealth gap, Tsang said salary increases for low-skilled workers have not matched those of high-skilled employees in the city. The wealth gap in Hong Kong is a long-term challenge that has fueled discontent, he said.
Tsang said his transition with Chief Executive-elect Leung Chun-ying will be “smooth.” Leung, a member of the standing committee of Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, will take over as the city’s third chief executive on July 1, when Hong Kong will mark the 15th anniversary of its return to China from British colonial rule.
Tsang, a career bureaucrat, was chosen to lead the city in 2005. He was Hong Kong’s financial secretary during the Asian financial crisis, when the Hong Kong Monetary Authority spent HK$118 billion ($15.1 billion) buying stocks to defend the Hong Kong dollar’s peg to the greenback.
He took over the city’s top post from Tung Chee-hwa, the city’s first chief executive after it was returned to Chinese rule in 1997. Tung resigned halfway into his second term after demonstrations by hundreds of thousands of people in 2003 against a proposed anti-subversion law they feared would curtail individual freedoms.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Peter Hirschberg at email@example.com