The death of a Sichuan student who appeared to have fallen to his death from his dorm building has sparked widespread public anger in China, causing netizens, local residents and even official media to demand answers from local authorities.
A 14-year-old student surnamed Zhao was found dead on the ground outside a building at Taifu Middle School on Saturday.
The local police issued a statement on Sunday saying that Zhao’s injuries seemed to be caused by a fall from height, and that they had evidence ruling out the possibility that his death was caused by others.
Rumours spread online after Zhao’s death, with some claiming he was bullied and killed by five classmates, and that his body was covered with bruises, with his arms and legs broken. They said his grandparents reported the bullying to the police, but the police did not act on the phone call. Some rumours also claimed that the classmates who bullied Zhao included the children of powerful local figures.
The local government announced on Monday that it had arrested four people for allegedly spreading rumours about Zhao’s death through QQ chat groups, WeChat official accounts and other online avenues.
Despite efforts to halt rumours, Weibo users, local citizens and official media outlets continued to criticise the local authorities for their handling of the case and the questions that remained unanswered.
According to US-backed Radio Free Asia, hundreds of people had been gathering in front of the school for several days since Saturday in protest of the way the matter was being handled. State tabloid the Global Times also reported that hundreds took to the streets in protest after Zhao’s death.
One local resident told RFA on Wednesday that the crowds had thinned out following efforts by the police, but that there were still at least one to two hundred people at the school, along with a heavy police presence.
Xinhua, China’s official news agency, raised questions about Zhao’s death on Thursday morning in a sharp critique of local authorities’ handling of the incident.
“According to the notice, if the authorities have already determined whether the child committed suicide or was killed by others before the autopsy results have come out, then what is the point of conducting an autopsy?” it said.
The agency reported that, in a video clip seen by its reporter, the child’s mother cut open his shirt in the funeral parlour to find huge bruises on his back and injuries on his hands and elbows. It also said that his parents had not consented to the police conducting an autopsy, contrary to a statement from local police.
When Xinhua’s reporter asked two local officials what evidence they had that eliminated the possibility of murder or manslaughter by others, and whether Zhao was bullied, they were told that they were online rumours and that they did not have to respond according to the law.
Social media outcry
The topic of Zhao’s death on social media site Weibo has been read by over two billion people, with over 140,000 users commenting on the matter. Many have called on the authorities to tell the truth.
Some compared the case to a recent sentencing that sparked public outcry against the police, when a young man who was given a life sentence in February for killing a debtor who sexually assaulted his mother in front of him. Police were called but did not intervene, according to an initial court verdict. The country’s top prosecutor said it will review the case following the public backlash.
One verified Weibo user – Zhao Jian, the director of a law firm in Beijing – posted about the incident, saying: “We need the truth! ‘The authorities’ and ‘the internet’, which version is ‘authoritative’ and which is ‘rumour’? The word ‘trust’ is powerful and fragile – if trust collapses, this will become a frightening world.”
Another user cited by Xinhua’s report said: “Falling from a height is only the cause of death – when did it become evidence eliminating the possibility that it was done by someone else? Isn’t there a possibility that the fall was caused by another person? If the deceased committed suicide then where is the suicide note? If there was school violence then were the bullies questioned? How can the police settle public anger if they make such a perfunctory judgement?”