○ In less than a week, the death of a 14-year-old student turned into a nationwide discussion after rumors spread on social media that he was beaten to death and the local government was trying to cover it up
○ The local government's delayed response, hostility to the media and overuse of police force further aggravated the incident
Zhao's four roommates at Taifu Middle School are interviewed by reporters in their classroom. Photos: Gao Lei/GT
Speculation about the death of a 14-year-old middle school student was recently met with a local police report, which proves that the death was a suicide, rather than the murder many claimed it was.
But questions still remain unanswered, and the incident, which escalated from a local tragedy into a nationwide discussion rife with mistrust and rumors, shows the difficulty many local governments have had adapting to the public relations reality brought by the rise of social media.
Social media failure
At 6:20 am on April 1, police in Luxian county, Luzhou, in Southwest China's Sichuan Province, received a report that someone was lying on the ground outside a dormitory of Taifu Middle School. That someone, who was already dead, was later found to be an eighth grade student at the school surnamed Zhao.
Zhao's grief-stricken mother went to the front gate of Taihu Middle School with her relatives and criticized the school through a loudspeaker, accusing it of causing his son's death, attracting dozens of locals who gathered and watched.
The same day, the Luxian government published a statement on its official Wechat account, saying they had started an investigation into the death.
Almost instantaneously, rumors started to circulate on social media platforms such as Weibo and WeChat, claiming that the boy was beaten to death by five school bullies who demanded 10,000 yuan ($1,449) in protection money. When Zhao couldn't cough up the cash, the rumormongers said, he was killed and thrown off the building.
Videos that circulated on the Internet seemed to corroborate these stories, but only some are genuine. In one video that shows Zhao's mother visiting the morgue, purple bruises can be seen all over the corpse's back and there are visible injuries on the boy's hands and elbows. In other videos, a boy that resembles Zhao is beaten brutally by his peers. Many of the video clips were later found to be shot on other occasions, and some were intentionally edited to be misleading. These videos soon went viral on social media platforms, leading netizens to believe that the boy was a victim of campus violence.
According to some observers, "anti-China forces" played a role in the rumors. One video clip that's been widely circulated on the Internet, saying Zhao was beaten to death by five bullies, was apparently produced by New Tang Dynasty Television, a New York City-based television station founded in 2001 by Falun Gong practitioners whom many accuse of spreading anti-China propaganda. Many anti-communist websites registered outside China also published rumors as if they were backed up by solid evidence.
The local authorities' unwillingness to respond to these rumors kindled more suspicions. On April 2, the Luxian county government's official WeChat account published a statement saying that the marks on Zhao's body were in line with fall-related injuries, and their investigation had turned up no evidence his death was a murder. Finding the actual reason for the death required an autopsy that first had to be authorized by Zhao's next of kin, the statement explained.
The following day, the government published another statement, saying four netizens will be punished by the police on charges of spreading "fake information" about Zhao's death.
None of these statements, however, directly addressed the speculation on the tragedy that was rampant at this point. Nor did they further reveal any new details about Zhao's death. The blunt wording of the statements sparked even more guesses on the truth behind the death.
Zhao's bunk bed in his dormitory, which he shared with his classmate. Photo: Gao Lei/GT
The local authorities' hostile attitude to the media further escalated the incident, putting the local government's credibility and integrity in doubt.
On April 3, Lü Qingfu and Xie Jiao, two reporters with the Xinhua News Agency, China's State news agency, arrived in Luxian county to investigate the incident. Interview requests from Xinhua, which is an official body on par with a ministry, are usually taken seriously by local governments. Their requests, however, were met with tremendous resistance from the local government, raising public doubts.
Police cars barred all vehicles from entering Taifu township, and the reporters had to walk several kilometers to bypass the roadblock. Taifu Middle School, which the reporters intended to visit, was guarded by rows of policemen wearing helmets. The reporters tried to interview Zhao's grandparents and classmates, but threats and obstruction from village and town officials made it difficult.
When the reporters asked Chen Jia, the county publicity chief, and Li Shengchun, the county's Political and Legal Affairs Secretary, for more evidence Zhao's death was a suicide, the officials brushed them off, saying they didn't want to respond to online rumors.
The reporters recorded their frustrating experience in an indignant article that was published the next day, titled "Three questions about Sichuan's campus death: How long does it take for truth to be revealed?" "A case that could have been handled through legal procedures gradually escalated and now involves mass gatherings, road closures by the police and the flooding of opinions on the Internet. Rumors abound, and yet the local authorities are not providing the truth to clear them away," the reporters wrote.
"Not offering convenience to reporters might suggest hidden secrets," they wrote.
The article went viral on the Internet, and the local government's treatment of the Xinhua reporters sparked greater and wider doubts about the local government's treatment of the case.
The dormitory is locked at night to ensure students' safety. Photo: Gao Lei/GT
The whole truth?
The finale officially came on April 6, five and a half days after the death of Zhao, when the local authorities finally called a press conference and announced the results of their investigation.
Mao Handong, a police officer with Luzhou's public security bureau, gave details on the whereabouts of Zhao over the several days prior to his death. They said the investigation showed that the 14-year-old, a boarding student, climbed over the school wall to buy snacks with his classmates on the night of March 27, violating school regulations. The school punished him by notifying his father, leaving him in a bad mood. From March 28 to 31, Zhao also suffered from a severe cold.
On April 7, the Sichuan Public Security Bureau's official Weibo account published a long post showing the detailed findings of the investigation, including pictures of Zhao's footprints near the window from which he jumped.
Officials also rejected the rumors concerning protection money after talking to his grandparents and his classmates.
However, this announcement came too late to effectively change public opinion. Some netizens refused to accept the belated explanations and still believe that the government is covering up the truth, with some arguing that the motive for Zhao's suicide has not been fully explained.
Many critics think this incident shows how ineptly China's local governments deal with and react to public opinion in the Internet age.
"Local governments are very unskilled at managing public opinion. They're not used to this age of new media. Nor are they used to media supervision," Zhou Peng'an, a media watcher and member of the CPPCC Committee of Wuhu, East China's Anhui Province, told the Global Times.
"Many questions are still unanswered, such as why did the 14-year-old commit suicide, and if the videos are fake, what's the real identity of the boy beaten up in the video and what happened?" he said.
Many people agree with an opinion piece on People's Daily's overseas edition which reads, "Bureaucratic practices such as shedding responsibilities, ignoring the Internet, covering up the truth and preventing journalists are not only wrong but sometimes illegal."
Rumors after death of the Luxian schoolboy
Rumor: Online posts and videos claimed that Zhao had been killed by five school bullies who are the sons of local government and school officials. Zhao's hands and feet were broken in the attack.
Truth: Police investigations showed that the school officials who were mentioned in many online posts only have daughters. None of the sons of Luxian county's mayor, Taifu's town mayor or head of the public security bureau are enrolled at the middle school.
Rumor: Online posts claimed the local police station paid 50 yuan in hush money to each villager who was willing to corroborate the government's version of the story.
Truth: A netizen surnamed Huang was arrested and punished by the police for cooking up this rumor, according to local police.
Rumor: Pictures showing that two Weibo accounts, "Luxian county news releases" and "Luzhou city news releases," had been deleted were circulated on the Internet, with comments saying that this is the first time authorized government Weibo accounts had been deleted. Many government Weibo accounts use the phrase "news releases" as part of their account name, making the rumors sound true.
Truth: It turned out the two accounts never existed, and therefore can't have been deleted, according to Luzhou city's genuine Weibo account.