A well-known Chinese human rights lawyer died suddenly in hospital on Monday, according to Reuters. Li Baiguang, who had defended farmers and Christian pastors, died at the Number 81 People’s Liberation Army Hospital in Nanjing of liver failure, Reuters cited an unnamed source with direct knowledge of the case as saying.

The source said efforts to save Li failed after a “sudden outbreak of illness,” but it was unknown whether there was an underlying, long-term issue as he had not completed a health check recently.

Li Baiguang. File photo: VOA.

Bob Fu, a US-based religious activist who was a close friend, has cast doubt on the circumstances of Li’s death, telling Reuters that it was highly unlikely for Li’s liver to fail overnight as he did not drink or smoke.

‘Full, independent, and transparent account’

According to Fu’s US-based NGO China Aid: “Li went to the hospital for a minor stomachache and was declared dead hours later. The hospital alleged that he had liver problems and that he bled to death, but Li was previously healthy.”

Fu said in a China Aid statement that the Chinese government should be “held totally accountable” for his death, and called on the government to give a transparent account of the circumstances.

“We are deeply saddened by the loss of one of China’s most courageous, pro-constitution lawyers,” said Fu. “He was treated violently last year and was threatened a number of times recently by the Chinese regime… The whole world should demand that the Chinese government give a full, independent, and transparent account on what caused Dr Li’s sudden death.”

The NGO said in October that Li had been beaten and threatened with dismemberment while representing farmers in a land grab case against the municipal government.

Li was given an award by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) – a US NGO largely funded by Congress – in 2008 for his work defending religious freedom. He worked with China Aid and often met with US officials.

Li Baiguang (left). Photo: Bob Fu.

In a statement on Tuesday, NED President Carl Gershman said “it is essential that an independent and impartial investigation into Li’s death be carried out.”

US Senator Ben Cardin echoed the call for an investigation in a Tweet on Wednesday.

Li had attended the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington D.C. weeks before his death alongside Fu and other Chinese activists, according to China Aid.

Last year, Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo died at a hospital under police custody after being diagnosed with terminal liver cancer. Dissident writer Yang Tongyan also passed away in November while on medical parole, after undergoing an operation to remove a brain tumour several months earlier.

The NGO Chinese Human Rights Defenders said in its annual report released on Monday that the Chinese government’s ill-treatment of human rights defenders in custody may have directly contributed to the deaths of Liu and Yang.

HKFP has contacted China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs for comment.

Catherine Lai

Catherine is a Canadian journalist and photographer who lived in Beijing for almost two years, working in TV and online media. Aside from Hong Kong and mainland affairs, she is also interested in urban spaces, art and feminism. She holds a BA in Literature and Art History from the University of British Columbia.