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Mysterious death of an activist

April 24, 2001

The unexplained disappearance of Leung Wah

 

Soon after the news broke about the arrest of a number of academics, the murder of Hong Kong democracy activist Leung Wah in Shenzhen shocked Hong Kong, playing on the worst fears about China and the power of the police there to detain people without telling anyone. Police labeled Leung’s death as a “suspected homicide.”

Almost eight months after Leung’s disappearance, there are still more questions than answers about the case. Close to three months after police announced that a corpse held by the Shenzhen police was that of Leung, family members have not even been able to see the body, and have been given hardly any information about the progress of the investigation into his death. Hong Kong police are also being criticized for not putting enough effort into investigating Leung’s disappearance. What happened to this 44-year-old, hard-working, but low-key activist? Chine Chan presents what is known, following interviews with a member of Leung’s family and his friends.

 

 

 


 

 

In recent years, Leung Wah (in Mandarin, Liang Hua) was known as the owner of the Park Book Store, a small shop in Jordan specializing in gay-oriented literature, social science and human rights books. In fact, Leung continued his long-term involvement in pro-democracy activities, both relating to Hong Kong and associated with Chinese exiles.

A co-founder of the US-based dissident group, the China Democratic Unity Federation, Leung became its representative in Hong Kong. He was also a publisher and distributor of a magazine published by exiled dissidents, China Spring. In 1994, Leung stood for election to a district council on the slate of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party. But he lost by a few votes. In early 1998, Leung joined a newly formed dissident group, China Peace.

Leung’s interest was not in making money. He worked as a finance manager and in shampoo sales, but did not have much success. Then in 1995, his friend Mrs. Sam loaned him HK$40,000 to buy the bookstore.

Apparently, Leung’s activities had aroused the attention of mainland authorities. He had reportedly been secretly bringing money to dissidents and their families in China on behalf of China Peace. On one trip in August 1999, Leung was stopped by state security agents at the border and questioned for two hours before being released.

Thus when Leung Wah disappeared in November after a trip to the mainland, many friends worried that he had been arrested. The first news report of Leung’s disappearance on April 2, 2001, linked it to the detentions of various China-born overseas-resident academics by the State Security Bureau, suggesing that he had been detained without notification as a “spy” for the Taiwan government.

But on April 14, the Hong Kong Police issued a press release with the title, “Disfigured body confirmed to be Leung Wah.” In the release, police said, “ On November 23 last year (2000), the body of a man was found in Nam Tau (Nan Tou) of Shenzhen. The Public Security Bureau suspected the victim to be a Hong Kong resident and requested Hong Kong police to assist in enquiries.” It also said, “As the body was badly disfigured and no identity document was found, only very limited information was available.” The police reported they had contacted Leung’s relatives.

According to Wong Sheungwai, Leung’s very close friend and partner, on November 17, 2000, Leung Wah received a call from mainland China. He had just come back from a meeting of exiled Chinese dissidents in the United States. A man, speaking in Mandarin, claimed that he had inherited some money, and wanted to go into the publishing business with Leung. Although Leung had his doubts about this venture, the Park Bookstore was running a loss, so he decided to give it a try.

On November 22, Leung went to Shenzhen. He first met with a friend and business partner Lee Ming, a Hong Kong resident living in Shenzhen. Then the two made an appointment to meet with their potential partner at the Luowu Hotel, at the entrance to Hubei New Village at 7:00pm. But around that time, Leung’s phone rang. The man they were to meet said he would be late, since the electricity system in a Karaoke club he owned in Futian needed fixing. At 8:00pm, a man who spoke Cantonese arrived at the Luowu Hotel and claimed he was sent by the person who had called Leung. He said the person was waiting at another place and Leung should go there with him in a taxi. Leung told Lee Ming that he would be fine and asked him to go home.

When he had not heard from his friend by noon the following day, Lee Ming tried to call his cell phone. Leung answered the phone, but was cut off immediately. Lee felt there was something strange so he called again. There was no answer. The next day Lee called the Park Bookstore to ask the staff whether Leung was back in Hong Kong. When they said no, Lee started to feel worried.

After a few days, still with no news about Leung, the bookstore staff went to the Mongkok Police Station to report that Leung Wah had disappeared. But the Hong Kong Police refused to accept the case, as they said they could only receive missing person reports from family members. After a week, Leung’s staff went to report again. Police said that since it happened in Shenzhen, they could not take up the case. The third time the staff went to the police station, they were also turned away. The police even treated the case as something of a joke: an officer asked if they were trying to play a trick on Leung because he had refused to pay their salaries.

When Leung failed to appear for a scheduled court hearing on a charge of possessing and selling pornographic VCDs in December, the police finally opened a file on his disappearance. But there was no news about his case for another four months. If media reports had not suggested that Leung had been arrested, it is possible the silence would have continued.

Leung Wah has an elder sister and a younger brother in Hong Kong. But during the past 10 years they have had no contact with each other. Leung’s brother agreed to talk to us but refused to release his full name: “We are down to earth people, we only want a simple life without fear. I know what my brother did. Many people may think he was great. But I don’t want to be involved in politics.”

When he saw Leung’s picture in the media and heard Leung had been arrested, the brother did not want to be involved. But on April 15, 2001, when the media reported his brother had died in Shenzhen, he called the immigration department to check the news. He was only told to report to the police. The next day, at midnight, he received a call from the serious crimes division asking for information, and was told they suspected his brother had been murdered in Shenzhen.

The next day he went to the Kowloon Central Police Station to provide information about Leung Wah. Two days later, he was called to the station again. This time, three officers from Guangdong Province and Shenzhen Special Economic Zone had came to Hong Kong to meet with him. But they only asked his name and his relationship to Leung Wah, and gave him a photocopied “Notice reporting unnatural death.” This notice had Leung Wah’s name on it and the address of the bookstore. In the space for cause of death was written: “Murder, body burned,” and in the space relating to disposal of the body were a few unintelligible scrawled words. The document carried a Shenzhen Public Security Bureau (PSB) seal and a contact number.

The younger brother was asked to sign the notice, and he agreed to do so, but asked for confirmation the body was Leung Wah’s. The police suggested doing a DNA test, and the younger brother gave some blood. Then he was asked to wait for news. It came with unexpected speed. Two days later, he received a call from police who said the test confirmed the body was Leung Wah’s, and said police would soon go to Shenzhen with him to receive the body.

During this period, Lee Ming came to Hong Kong, and told Leung’s friends that he had been questioned by the PSB 12 times and asked whether the clothes in some pictures they showed him were those Leung Wah wore. But they had never taken him to identify the body.

After more then a week of waiting, Leung’s younger brother had not heard anything further about how to deal with the body, so he called again. But this time the Hong Kong Police said they had no power to deal with the matter, and asked him to contact the Shenzhen PSB. He called the number on the death notice, but was told that higher level people were now in charge of the case, and was given the cell phone number of an Inspector Huang in the Guangdong Provincial PSB. When he called this number, he was merely told that he would soon be informed about the matter.

Three months on, and many calls later, the answer is still the same: “We will inform you soon.” Up to July 2001, Leung’s family have not been given any clear evidence of Leung’s death, nor a formal death certificate. They have not been able to receive his body, let alone identify it. “We don’t want to check what’s the inside story,” said Leung’s younger brother. “We are still wondering whether the body is really Leung Wah’s. We only want to receive the body and hold a funeral for him. Why is it so difficult? Why does the whole case seem such a top secret?”

The information released by the authorities raises more questions than it answers, and is often contradictory. Some of the main questions are described below.

For example, in their press release, the Hong Kong Police said that they believed Leung Wah was murdered on November 22, 2000, and that his body was dropped where it was found on November 23. But according to Lee Ming, he called Leung’s cell phone at noon on November 23, and heard his friend answer.

Why did it take six months to identify a body found in November 2000? It seems unusual that the Shenzhen PSB would keep an unidentified body for so long, since normally they cremate such corpses after one month.

Can it be just coincidence that the call inviting Leung to go to Shenzhen on business came the same day that he returned from a dissident conference in the United States?

Could a DNA test really be done in two days, considering it would take at least one day to send the blood to Shenzhen?
Why is the family not being allowed to receive the body? They have not even been shown any clothes or a picture of the body.

Different statements from the Hong Kong Police contain contradictory information about the case. This is particularly clear in comparing written police statements with what was said by Deputy Chief Commissioner Ng Wai Kit in an interview with the Washington Post. According to the police statement of April 14, Leung Wah’s body was found outside a hospital in Nam Tao. But according to Ng, the body was found at Sha Cheng (Shajing) Shangnan Emergency Center, one hour’s drive away from Nam Tao. The statement said the body was seriously burned. But according to Ng, only the face had been burned. Ng also said that when the police received reports from the Shenzhen PSB that they had found a body, they never thought it was Leung Wah, although by that time Leung’s staff had reported his disappearance twice. But according to the police statement, the body was identified as being Leung Wah only as a result of regular research on missing person cases.

Showing great faith in the likelihood that his colleagues across the border would abide by the law, Ng told the Washington Post he did not believe the case was related in any way to China’s State Security Bureau. “If Chinese agents were involved, why didn’t they just get rid of the body completely?” he said.

Both Shenzhen and Hong Kong police have refused to answer whether an autopsy has been performed, and if so, what the results were. When did Leung die, and was he killed where the body was found?

As we went to press, Hong Kong media reported that the Shenzhen Police had caught two people related to this case. But Leung’s younger brother said that when he called Shenzhen, the officer he spoke to refused either to confirm or deny this report. He only said: “The PSB is taking this case seriously.”

That remains to be seen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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