Mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of a middle school student in China's southwestern Sichuan province has triggered large protests and sparked an outcry online, with demands for a full accounting of how the boy died. Others have focused their attention on police and their heavy-handed handling of the case.
Last Saturday, the body of a 14-year-old student, surnamed Zhao, was found outside his dormitory at Taifu Middle School in Luzhou with numerous bruises and broken limbs. Family members suspect Zhao was beaten to death, but authorities have ruled out homicide.
You Xiaohong, the mother of the deceased boy, is reportedly seeking the help of an independent forensic pathologist to find out the cause of her son's death.
VOA has been unable to reach You for comment and reports suggest she and others are under surveillance.
Luzhou police announced late Wednesday an autopsy will soon be performed, but did not say whether a third-party pathologist would be allowed to be present.
During the weekend, local authorities were quick to rule out the possibility of a murder, determining Zhao fell off a school building. Their conclusion was backed by the dormitory supervisor and one of Zhao’s roommates, who told local media there were neither signs of break-in nor any noise of fighting to disrupt their sleep that night.
The supervisor said Zhao, who had a fever, remained awake in bed at around 2:00 am when she checked on him again.
Authorities initially did not allow the family to examine the victim’s body, a move that angered the family and thousands of local residents, who quickly staged protests outside the school and the morgue to demand access and safety for their own children.
That was when video clips showing Zhao’s severely-bruised body, and alleged sightings of him being beaten up before his death, went viral on social media, triggering waves of criticism online and speculation over the boy's mysterious death.
Some suggested that Zhao was beaten to death by a group of five bullies, who had asked him for about $1,500 in protection fees. Others suggested that among those five bullies are the sons of the school principal, local police chief, and township chief, who shared a room with Zhao.
“All we need is truth,” a user of Weibo, China’s Twitter-like microblogging, wrote, saying this is a tragedy that may happen to anyone.
Another user, surnamed Hsiao, complained many of her postings surrounding the student’s death have been deleted, asking, “Why is it so hard for the justice to prevail in China? How shall we love you, our mother country of China?”
The other user, named One Bullet, questioned, “Why the cover-up if the local government has had nothing to hide?”
There is no way to independently confirm the online postings.
It appears authorities have put in place stability-maintenance measures, that include heavy censorship of online comments due to the hashtag “Luzhou Taifu Middle School” receiving millions of page views.
One social media user declined to speak with VOA, saying he had already been warned after forwarding a video posting alleged sightings of Zhao being beaten up before his death.
As of Thursday, the incident has remained as the top-trending topic on freeweibo.com, a website that captures censored social media posts.
Vowing to clamp down on rumor mongering, local police confirmed Tuesday that four people were arrested and charged with spreading “fake information” about the student’s death.
Several local residents told VOA more than 100 protesters have also been detained after an army of 2,000 police officers was dispatched to tighten the small town’s security.
They also confirmed many residents were asked to sign a letter, endorsing the authorities’ assessment that Zhao fell off the building, but many refused to do so and declined knowledge of a rumored payment of $7.50 each in return.
“Many parents complained about the collection of protection fees by school bullies, which they said the school has turned a deaf ear to,” a restaurant owner nearby told VOA.
Observers have called for the local government to ease its stability-maintenance policy, arguing only solid facts can put an end to rumors or public distrust.
In response to the incident and protests the school was closed for the past two days. Classes will resume Friday.
To ease the public outcry, several lawyers have offered to represent the victim’s family in future legal proceedings, which they say will expose the truth if fairness and transparency are ensured.
Lu Siwei, a lawyer from the province’s capital city of Chengdu, urged local authorities to allow the victim’s family to speak freely with their own choice of legal representation, independent forensic autopsy agencies, and witnesses.
The provincial government’s public security bureau should also take over the investigation and make public findings periodically to clear doubt, the lawyer wrote on his Weibo account.