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David Wertime

Chinese Prosecutors: Man Was Unwitting “Human Bomb,” Not Murderer

Identification of the late Zhao Dengyong. His name has been cleared

It’s never too late to say “sorry.” Investigators have apologized after announcing their findings that Zhao Dengyong, the man authorities openly suspected of bombing a government office in Qiaojia, Yunnan Province on May 10, was not a disgruntled outcast who turned to violence, as prosecutors first insinuated. Instead, he was just another victim. The true perpetrators paid the unwitting Zhao 100 RMB (about US$15) to bring a backpack into a government building, then used a cellphone to remotely activate the bomb that killed four people and injured sixteen.

Authorities originally insisted Zhao, who arrived at a government office dealing with housing demolitions minutes before the explosion carrying a black bag, was suspect number one. Yunnan head of public security Yang Chaobang even appeared to stake his reputation on it. At a press conference, Yang infamously said, “I will stake my reputation and my future on it: Zhao Dengyong is the suspect in this case. As to whether there are other persons involved in this matter, the public security organs are currently investigating.”

Amazingly, someone writing for the Shaoxing prosecutorial office, about 1,000 miles from Yunnan, then sent a snarky tweet in Yang’s direction, writing on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter: 

The now-involuntarily famous Yunnan head of security, Yang Chaobang

“‘I will stake my reputation and my future on it: Zhao Dengyong is the suspect in this case.’ As legal personnel, this kind of talk should either seldom be spoken or not spoken at all. This is a society under the rule of law, proving whether or not someone is guilty of a crime depends on proof. A question: Can your reputation and future be used as proof?”{{1}}[[1]]我可以一个局长的名义和自己的前程来担保,赵登用就是此案的嫌疑人。” 作为一个法律人,这样的话还是要少讲甚至不讲为好。现在是法治社会,证明犯罪嫌疑人有没有犯罪是要靠证据来说话的。试问,名义和前程能当做证据来用吗[[1]]

As Tea Leaf Nation then wrote:

While it may surprise outsiders unfamiliar with China, disagreements, rivalries, and barely-concealed animosity between different government organs and offices is nothing new in China. However, it is rare to see one official organ publicly tossing spit-bombs toward another, even if it is from about 1,000 miles away. 

With Zhao’s name posthumously cleared, the second-guessing has resumed. This time, it was the surprisingly liberal Weibo account of Party mouthpiece People’s Daily, which tweeted: “There’s been a breakthrough in the Qiaojia bombing case: Zhao Dengyong’s taken a ‘dramatic turn’ from suspect to victim. The police have gone from swearing oaths [on Zhao's guilt] to apologizing and correcting themselves and restoring Zhao’s [good name]. This reminds us that public trust can’t just be won with chest-thumping, but depends on seeking truth from facts, depends on protecting truth and justice.” {{2}}[[2]]【微评论:拍胸脯拍不出公信力】巧家爆炸案告破,赵登用从嫌疑人到受害者的“剧情反转”,警方从起誓到道歉的校正,还了赵登用一个清白,同时提醒我们,公信力不是拍胸脯就能拍出来的,而在于实事求是,在于对真相和正义的维护。 [[2]]

Indeed, according to this detailed Chinese-language article that originally appeared in the newspaper Southern Metropolis, Zhao was not a disgruntled outcast, although he had not led an easy life. He spent his days as an overeducated day laborer (literally, a “coolie,” or 苦力) who pounded the pavement every morning looking for work. Zhao grew up in a hardscrabble village and was by all accounts an assiduous student who barely missed testing into a university after experiencing a personal “Waterloo” on the two occasions he took the dreaded Gao Kao, China’s college entrance exam. 

Zhao Dengyong, moments before his own death

Perhaps Zhao’s older brother Zhao Dengxian (@赵登贤) said it best when he wrote this on Weibo a mere ten days after his brother’s tragic death: “The Qiaojia government has hastily identified my younger brother as the suspect…I think my younger brother was taken advantage and [must have] unwittingly taken the bomb to the scene. Our whole family begs from our knees, can a kind lawyer from Beijing, Shanghai or Guangzhou help us find justice.” {{3}}[[3]]云南巧家政府匆忙认定我弟弟就是爆炸案的犯罪嫌疑人,我们认为弟弟是被人利用在不知情的情况下带了炸弹进入事发现场,我们全家跪求北京上海广州的良知律师为我们主持公道. [[3]] He then left his phone number.

A lawyer for Zhao’s family will no longer be necessary; now it is Yang’s turn to worry, as netizens have flooded in to call for his ouster. In a recent interview, the town’s Assistant Party Secretary Wang Gang defended his colleague, noting that Yang had never said that Zhao was the killer, only (correctly) that Zhao was a suspect. Furthermore, Wang noted, the embattled Yang is an investigator, not a PR man.

That may be the problem. As reporter Zhang Zhouyi recently noted in the Southern Metropolis, “Neither the Qiaojia government nor the public security bureau have their own official Weibo [accounts]. In fact, even workers at the propaganda ministry have not opened a Weibo account. Through today, Qiaojia authorities have maintained online silence in the face of a flood of voices.” {{4}}[[4]] 不过,巧家政府、巧家公安都没有自己的官方微博,实际上连宣传部门的工作人员都没有开通过微博账号。如今面对再次汹涌的声浪,巧家官方在网络上依然保持着沉默。 [[4]] In today’s China, that kind of silence can be deadly.  

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David Wertime

David is the co-founder and co-editor of Tea Leaf Nation. He first encountered China as a Peace Corps Volunteer in 2001 and has lived and worked in Fuling, Chongqing, Beijing, and Hong Kong. He is a ChinaFile fellow at the Asia Society and an associate fellow at the Truman National Security Project.