The death of a high school student has exposed a credibility crisis for Chinese authorities
“Truth! Truth! Truth,” shouted the dozens of people gathered outside a Chinese high school on Tuesday in a video widely circulated online. Holding white flowers, they demanded to know why a 17-year-old boy had suddenly fallen to his death on campus that weekend.
Within minutes, the video — which hasn’t been independently verified by CNN — showed police breaking up the protest, another example of how China’s government under President Xi Jinping has doubled down on quashing organized dissent in recent years.
But the matter didn’t end there. Online, outcry was growing over the death of Lin Weiqi, a sophomore at the city’s No.49 High School in Chengdu, southwestern China.
On Sunday afternoon, which was Mother’s Day, Lin’s mother dropped him at school. An hour later, he fell to his death from a building on campus.
Lin’s mother said she wasn’t notified by the school until two hours later, when her son’s body was at a funeral parlor, or allowed on campus to speak with his classmates or teachers. And school officials initially rejected her request to check footage from security cameras.
“I’ve read about this kind of thing in the news many times, but I never expected it would one day happen to myself,” Lu wrote on microblogging site Weibo on Monday.
Her posts attracted hundreds of thousands of retweets, and several hashtags about her son’s death have since racked up hundreds of millions of views from Weibo users. Many sympathized with Lu, demanding that school and local authorities release the security footage.
But Lin’s death also touched on a number of broader issues that resonated deeply across China: the lack of transparency and empathy from authorities, the stifling of press freedom and the subject of school suicide.
A recurring pattern
To some, Lin’s death was not an isolated incident, but the latest in a series of campus deaths that have drawn public attention in recent years — and suspicion over their circumstances due to a perceived lack of official transparency.
On Weibo, a widely shared post listed four other student deaths in the past year — in each case, parents took to social media to plea for help after they failed to get answers and security footage from authorities.
In April, a 15-year-old girl fell to her death before her evening class at a vocational school in Chongqing, another metropolis in southwestern China. According to the mother’s Weibo post, the school had refused to show her the security footage and said the girl’s fall was not captured by surveillance cameras. The local government said in a statement that police had found several suicidal messages in the girl’s phone and ruled out homicide.
In November, a 16-year-old girl died in a high school in Shandong, a province in eastern China. The school said the girl had fallen to her death from her dormitory building, but her mother suspected contributing factors such as bullying or abuse and wanted further investigation. There was also no security footage. The girl’s mother was only notified two hours after her death, and when she arrived at the school, her daughter’s body had already been taken to a funeral home. The local police said in a statement it had ruled out homicide.
In the other two cases, in the provinces of Hunan and Jiangxi, the parents also disputed the official conclusions of their children’s deaths.
The academic pressure on Chinese teenagers is notoriously high, as millions compete in college entrance exams closely tied to their future success. Experts have long called for more attention on students’ mental health, but in reality, many schools still lack the awareness or resources to provide adequate mental care.
In Chengdu, police eventually allowed Lin’s family to watch the security footage, but it did not capture his fall, his mother said in another post on Weibo.
The fact campus security cameras had missed the death in a nation with an increasingly omnipotent surveillance network was, for some, a reason for outrage.
“There are so many surveillance cameras around, and they work perfectly when targeting violators of traffic rules, dissidents and even close contacts of Covid patients. But every time a (controversial) incident happens, something would go wrong with the camera,” a Chengdu resident, who asked not to be named due to fears of retribution from the government, told CNN.
“Everyone around me is dissatisfied with how (the authorities) have handled this. There has long been pent-up anger, and this time it has exploded all at once.”
Chengdu No.49 High School has not returned CNN’s calls for comment.
An information vacuum
Before posting on social media, Lu said she tried calling media hotlines to seek help from journalists — but none wanted to cover the story. “Nobody dared to speak up,” she wrote.
Under Xi, the space for Chinese media outlets to conduct investigative reporting has been further squeezed. On social media, some comments lamented that even the country’s most respected investigative outlets had shunned away from looking deeper into Lin’s death.
In the absence of an official narrative, Weibo users filled the information vacuum with rumors and conspiracy theories. In one version, for example, Lin was pushed off the building by his chemistry teacher, who wanted her own child to take Lin’s fictional spot to study abroad.
Amid swirling rumors, the local government released a statement on Weibo on Tuesday morning, saying an investigation had ruled out the possibility of foul play, and Lin was likely to have committed suicide due to “personal issues.”
The statement — which failed to address crucial questions such as the missing security footage — was met with a firestorm of criticism. Lu said there were “still many unanswered questions.”
By Tuesday evening, police had released another statement, again ruling out the possibility of a criminal offense. It said Lin’s family had been informed of the findings of the investigation in the afternoon, and had “no objection.”
Lu’s Weibo account has now gone quiet. She last posted on Tuesday morning, sharing a photo of her son holding up a prize certificate with three other students in front of the class.
“I haven’t gone home for several days, nor have I slept. This is a photo of my son I found in my phone,” Lu said.
CNN could not reach Lu by her mobile phone.
A rare moment of public anger
With Lin’s mother silent, nationalists started to push another conspiracy theory online — that the public anger over Lin’s death had been fanned by “hostile foreign forces” to undermine the Chinese government.
On Tuesday evening, as videos of the small protest outside Chengdu No.49 High School started to circulate on social media, the rumors quickly proliferated: some claimed the protesters were working for the CIA; others said they had been trained by the US consulate in Chengdu before its closure last year; some even warned the white flowers held by protesters were a sign of the “color revolution.”
While the protest videos were swiftly censored, many of the rumors were allowed to spread.
Then, on Thursday, several major state media outlets published reports on Lin — with the same findings. There was no security footage of his death, according to the reports, because that particular spot was not frequented by students and so not covered by cameras.
That day, state broadcaster CCTV aired disturbing footage showing Lin’s final moments. He walks past various buildings, and sits in a basement cutting his wrist with a paper knife.
According to Xinhua, police had found suicidal messages sent by Lin to friends on messaging apps, as well as what appears to be a suicide note addressed to a female student in his pocket.
The reports also said it took the school a long time to notify Lin’s family because it had been difficult for teachers to identify him, due to the severe injuries on his head.
Many Chinese social media users appeared to accept the answers from state media, while others remained unconvinced, asking why it took the school so long to notify Lin’s mother.
But overall, many agreed the authorities acted too late in disclosing information about the case.
“One can only say this is a tragedy and the truth has arrived too late, because the school and the police did not address public concerns in time,” said one of the top comments responding to the reports.
“The (local) authorities and the school should be held responsible for (their failure in) dealing with public opinion. If they have paid enough attention to the questions raised by the public, the whole thing wouldn’t have escalated, and rumors wouldn’t have been everywhere.”