BEIJING (AP) — China's Public Security Ministry is investigating a shooting in which a police officer killed an unarmed traveler in front of his elderly mother and three small children at a train station, the ministry said Tuesday.
Rising calls for a full, independent investigation have followed the shooting as the public has become uneasy about the newly granted power for normal Chinese police officers to carry guns and has questioned if the police can use the lethal weapon responsibly.
Already, several shootings have occurred where the police use of guns was questioned but never fully accounted for.
"When authorities fail to provide rational explanations for pulling the trigger and to handle such cases in a fair and just way, police officers will continue to use their guns blindly, raising the risks that social tensions would only one day erupt uncontrollably," said Zhao Chu, a Shanghai-based independent commentator, who says police violence can become habitual if it's not adequately checked by law.
In the latest case, local railway police in the northeastern town of Qing'an said the officer opened fire after Xu Chunhe, 45, attacked the policeman and tried to seize his gun.
But a clip of private video circulating online shows the policeman using a long stick to beat Xu, who tried to dodge the blows and then tried to pull the stick away from the policeman. A small child was heard asking the father not to fight but to go home.
Local authorities have yet to release the full surveillance footage of the May 2 shooting.
The ministry confirmed a state media report that it had dispatched a work team to Qing'an to gather evidence and witness accounts, and said it would release results later.
Following a deadly attack by members of the ethnic minority Uighurs at the train station in the southwestern city of Kunming last year, Beijing began to allow first-line patrol officers to carry firearms in a country where violent crimes also are on the rise accompanying intensifying social tensions.
However, the move has raised concerns over whether the newly trained patrol officers are responsible enough in the use of the deadly weapon. Experts worry that the gun training would focus too much on technical aspects, such as firing accuracy, and not enough on legal aspects, such as when to draw the gun.
Within months of the new decree, at least four people were killed by police guns.
In one case last year, a villager upset with land compensations was shot 12 times after he showed up in front of the town government in a truck decorated with wreaths and banners. Police said the man posed an imminent threat when he waved a knife and tried to ram the vehicle into a crowd, although more than 100 witnesses signed a petition testifying that the man posed no threat and the gunshots were unnecessary. The official ruling has stood since then.
The death of Xu has once again roused the public, as members of the Chinese public are demanding justifications for policeman Li Lebin to shoot Xu in the heart.
Xie Yanyi, a lawyer for Xu's family, said he believes the policeman had no compelling reason to fatally shoot Xu and that the officer should be investigated on charges of murder.
Local authorities said Li came to the scene when Xu barred other travelers from checking into the station and that Xu cussed at the police officer.
"He boxed at the police officer, knocking off his cap," police supervisor Zhao Dongbin told local media. "He said he would try to grab the gun ... and it would have been unimaginable if he had seized the gun."
Xu's cousin, Xu Chunli, told local media that the officer hit Xu so hard with the baton that Xu had blood on his head and face. Once Xu grabbed the baton, the officer pulled the gun, the cousin said.
Media reports and witness accounts add other details absent from the police account. One is that the police officer initially restrained Xu by handcuffing him and only released him after travelers passed the checkpoint.
"Xu then refused to leave, so the policeman dragged him and slapped him in his face," the cousin said of the scene before the police flashed the gun and retrieve the baton from the guard's room to beat Xu.
The police account also doesn't say what prompted Xu to cause a scene at the station. The cousin said Xu grew upset when he and his family were prevented from boarding the train.
Impoverished and ill, Xu was trying to travel to Beijing to seek government assistance for his family, which would have drawn unwelcome scrutiny on the local government. It's a common practice for local officials to intercept petitioners such as Xu.
"Why did the policeman feel he needed to kill?" asked Xie, the lawyer.
But lawyers, journalists and civil activists seeking answers have found them stonewalled when they arrived in Qing'an.
A television journalist reported that his crew tried to interview workers at businesses inside the train station only to get a uniform answer — that none of them was working the day of the shooting and they knew nothing about it.
Authorities also have isolated the key witnesses — Xu's mother and his three children — by placing them in government facilities. When Xie managed to speak to the mother, he learned that she had refused a settlement offer but insisted on justice for her son, contrary to reports that the family had accepted monetary compensations.
A week after Xu's death, the official Xinhua News Agency joined the public calls for accountability.
"Limited information and narration by police cannot answer the questions from the public, or ease the fear by the public over the police use of gun," Xinhua said. "Since it happened in the broad daylight with surveillance footage, why not release the full tape and invite an authoritative, independent agency to conduct an investigation to win the public trust?"
Also on Tuesday, a local official who led a visit to the police officer as a show of approval was suspended from his work on corruption suspicions, Xinhua said.
Xie hopes the swelling public opinion would eventually lead to better accountability on police actions.
"If this matter should be left unaddressed, it amounts to condoning violence and condoning crime. It would only deepen social confrontations that would add to social violence," Xie said. "If it's properly addressed, we would learn a valuable lesson so as not to pay such a heavy price in the future."