Skip to content Skip to navigation

Prisoner Profile: Li Wangyang

July 17, 2001

Li Wangyang, a veteran labor rights activist from Hunan Province, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for “incitement to subvert state power” by the People’s Intermediate Court of Shaoyang on September 20, 2001. Li was accused of subversion for demanding that the government pay for treatment of medical conditions he developed during 11 years in prison for promoting labor rights during the 1989 democracy movement.




Born in 1950, Li Wangyang became of the earliest advocates for independent labor unions in China while employed at the Shaoyang Cement Plant. During the 1989 demonstrations, Li founded the Shaoyang Autonomous Workers Union. Union members frequently gave speeches, distributed printed materials, put up “big character posters” and organized committees and demonstrations that advocated better protections for the rights of Chinese workers.

On June 4, 1989, the day of the Beijing Massacre, Li glued a big character poster onto a traffic sign in the People’s Square of Shaoyang City. The poster appealed to local workers to go on strike and to “give their lives to the cause for love of country.” Two days later on June 6, Li and members of other independent organizations in Shaoyang held a public memorial for the victims of the massacre in Beijing. On June 9, Li was detained on charges of “counterrevolutionary propaganda and incitement.” His formal arrest came a week later.

On October 25, 1989, the Shaoyang Intermediate People’s Court convicted Li on this charge, and sentenced him to 13 years in prison and four years’ deprivation of political rights. He was transferred to Hunan No.1 Prison.

In June 1996, Li was moved into a hospital for treatment of heart disease. Returned to prison in March 1997, Li developed severe hearing and vision problems, and his general health deteriorated to the extent that he could not walk without assistance. He was released from prison on June 8, 2000, after he had served 11 years of his 13-year term.

A medical examination following Li’s release revealed that in addition to heart disease, he also suffered from neck problems and had apparently shrunk in height during his stay in prison. Li measured 182 centimeters before entering prison. Eleven years later, he measured only 173 centimeters, the result of being beaten and confined to a cramped cell for many years.

With no source of income and facing large medical bills without health insurance, Li repeatedly petitioned the Shaoyang government to take responsibility for the numerous health problems he had developed as a result of the inhumane treatment he received in prison. Facing only silence in response, Li wrote to the city government on January 5, 2001. He demanded that the authorities act in a spirit of decency and morality, and escort him to the hospital. He threatened to bring his case to the attention of the international community, and said he was willing to lay down his life for the cause if necessary.

Four days later on January 9, city officials escorted Li to the hospital for treatment. But the authorities only arranged to pay for 2,000 yuan worth of medical treatment. On February 2, Li began a hunger strike to protest against the Shaoyang government’s decision to stop paying his medical expenses, while also expressing his opposition to political repression in China in general.

Li’s fast continued for 22 days. Officials from the local government and state security and public security bureaus visited Li in the hospital to discuss his situation. One official demanded that Li stop pressuring the government. Li told relatives he would end his fast but would continue to petition the government to pay his medical care.

Months later on May 6, Li was arrested on charges of “incitement to subvert state power” by agents of Shaoyang City Public Security Bureau at the Daxiang Hospital in Hunan Province. Li’s sister, Li Wanglin, and brother-in-law, Zhao Baozhu, were also taken from their home and put into police custody for questioning. Zhao was later released, but Li Wanglin was sentenced to three years of reeducation through labor for helping her brother publicize his situation and his hunger strike.

Li was convicted of “incitement to subvert state power” by the Shaoyang People’s Intermediate Court on September 5, 2001. Li’s brother-in-law, Zhao Baozhu, and many friends were denied access to the proceedings. In another closed hearing two weeks later, Li was sentenced to 10 more years in prison.

Joseph Chaney & Cai Jiquan