In 2002, Yang Baoying flew from China to Vancouver to identify her daughter Amanda Zhao’s body.
The 21-year-old English student’s remains had been found stuffed in a suitcase in Mission, B.C., and Yang’s identification of her daughter was also confirmed by a police DNA test.
Yang returned to Beijing with Zhao’s ashes. She had been “brought home,” her mother said.
More than 20 years later, any sense of closure that act offered has been torn apart by the claims of Zhao’s convicted killer, Ang Li, that he was framed by China’s government and Zhao might not be dead at all.
Li said in an interview with New Zealand’s Herald on Sunday newspaper that Zhao could be “still alive and walking around somewhere,” as he described himself as a “political target.”
Li, who served a prison sentence in China for killing Zhao, is now seeking refugee status in New Zealand, and posed for newspaper photographs draped in a Tibetan flag, his hands clasped in prayer.
Yang told The Canadian Press that Li’s claims about her daughter left her shaking with “extreme shock and anger.” She was also appalled by his claim to be a victim of persecution.
“So, who is going to trust your words this time,” Yang said of Li in an interview conducted in Mandarin. “It’s heartbreaking to go through this. I don’t think any country will be willing to accept this piece of filth.”
Li, she said, was “worse than an animal.”
The 38-year-old, using the name Leo Jiaming Li, is petitioning New Zealand’s government for asylum, saying in a submission to the country’s parliament that he and his “family from Tibet” had been tortured and harassed by China’s Communist government.
His case represented a “touchstone of democracy,” he wrote on the petition, which received 1,315 signatures and was referred to the government last week.
Li reportedly told The Herald on Sunday that he took part in Tibetan rights protests in China and his father, a military official, had gone against government orders to commit genocide.
Li has also taken part in Tibetan rights protests in New Zealand, but his participation was disavowed by Nyandak Rishul, president of the Auckland Tibetan Association.
Rishul said Tibetans in Auckland were “outraged and disappointed” to hear of Li’s various claims that were motivated by “selfish needs.”
“Li often turned up at the protests carrying a photo of the Dalai Lama and draping the Tibetan flag over him. Leo is not Tibetan nor of Tibetan descent and does not speak our language.
“We assumed he was one of the Tibetan causes’ sympathizers, but if we had been aware of his past, we would have stopped him from participating in our rallies and marches,” said Rishul.
He added that Li would be barred from any Tibetan community activities because “we have nothing to do with him.”
Andrew Lockhart, Immigration New Zealand’s acting general manager for refugee services, said in a written statement that he could not discuss Li’s case beyond confirming that it is being considered by an Immigration and Protection Tribunal.
Yang said she was confident the New Zealand authorities would reject Li’s claims, calling him an “outright liar.”
“He should not be above the law and live abroad. Everyone needs to know Li’s true colours,” she said.
“No matter how perfect he tries to disguise himself and even if he tries to hide at the edge of the sky or the corner of the Earth, he is always a murderer.”
Yang remembered her daughter as a blessing who would surprise her with gifts and loving messages.
“She was a very kind, compassionate, loving and caring kid and she always studied hard,” said Yang.
Zhao was studying English at Coquitlam College when she was reported missing in October 2002. Ten days later, her body was found in a suitcase near Mission in B.C.
Zhao’s boyfriend Li, a Simon Fraser University student at the time, returned to China three days after Zhao’s remains were located.
In 2003, Li was charged in Canada with second-degree murder, but because Canada has no extradition treaty with China, Li couldn’t be forced to return to stand trial. Instead, the RCMP shared evidence in the case with Chinese prosecutors after that country agreed to waive the death penalty.
“After we returned home to China, the police in China also did (DNA) tests on my husband and me to confirm that Wei Zhao was dead,” said Yang, referring to her daughter by her Chinese name.
Chinese court documents reviewed by The Canadian Press show that Li was initially given a life sentence for murdering Zhao, but in 2014, the Beijing High People’s Court in China changed the charge from murder to manslaughter and reduced the sentence to seven years’ imprisonment. The documents do not explain why the charge and sentence were downgraded.
Li was released in 2016 and travelled to New Zealand, where the Herald reported he now has a wife and two sons.
Member of Parliament Jenny Kwan, who has been helping Zhao’s family seek justice since 2008, has asked the Canadian government to share information about the case with New Zealand authorities to ensure they “won’t be fooled by Li’s blatant lies.”
The family wrote to Kwan for help again after hearing about Li’s refugee claim.
“The family is very hurt, very angry about this and that’s why they wrote the letter to me so that the truth will come out and be shared with New Zealand’s authorities,” said Kwan, who has written to Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly about the case.
Kwan wants the government to forward to New Zealand a report issued by B.C. coroner Kent Stewart that identifies Zhao’s remains, and says she died from strangulation.
Yang said in addition to Li being denied refugee status in New Zealand, she wants him to pay Chinese court-ordered compensation of more than $220,000. So far, they have received nothing, she said.
She said she had written to Chinese authorities on Saturday to intervene in Li’s case, and shared the letter handwritten in Chinese.
“To the Chinese government, is someone who has been convicted of murder and refused to abide by the law still allowed to leave the country? Why aren’t the measures and restrictions you have put in place effective? Is he privileged,” Yang writes.
Yang said in her interview that since losing her daughter, “one day drags on like years.”
“People who haven’t experienced the loss of a child won’t understand the pain I have been through and I am still suffering,” she said.
Li did not respond to requests for comment made via social media.
—Nono Shen, The Canadian Press