Police explanation of deadly Fujian bus blaze questioned by sceptics

Scepticism over cause of blaze that left 47 dead indicative of wider public distrust in authorities

PUBLISHED : Friday, 14 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 14 June, 2013, 4:43am


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Soon after a fire on a crowded commuter bus killed 47 people and injured 34, authorities offered an explanation: One of the dead had written a suicide note, boarded the bus during the evening rush and set it ablaze.

After doubts were raised online, police said they found pieces of the burned cart and woven bag the arsonist used to transport petrol. They said survivors saw Chen Shuizong set the fire, and his wife and daughter confirmed that the suicide note was written in his handwriting.

Many are still not buying it, though. Their reaction reveals at least as much about their distrust of the government as it does about the June 7 fire in Xiamen, Fujian province.

"How can you solve a case in such a short period of time?" Liu Shanying of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences asked. "And the suspect is dead. From a legal point of view, the case just looks very suspicious."

The central government tightly controls access to information, censors the media and regularly refuses to provide data. Incidents of authorities or officials denying an event or guilt, only to later be found to have been lying, have added to citizens' distrust, as has endemic corruption.

Police changed their story twice following an explosion that killed four people last year at a community centre in Yunnan province's Qiaojia county. Twelve hours after the blast, they said a woman with a one-year-old was the perpetrator. Days later, they named a different suspect and stated categorically that he was responsible. Three months later, two other men were named the suspects.

Last month, authorities announced that they were investigating "suspected serious disciplinary violations" by Liu Tienan , deputy chief of the National Development and Reform Commission. But that came months after the agency fiercely denied a prominent journalist's accusations that Liu had shady ties with a businessman, was involved in large, problematic bank loans and had made up his academic qualifications.

Such backpedalling has made people more suspicious of the official versions of events.

In the case of the bus fire, police on Monday offered a greater level of substantiation than usual, but sceptics still want to see the suicide note, which has not been released, and any video that may have been taken inside the bus.

"So many suspicious points, if you really think about it," said Xie Tianming, a photographer based in Fujian. "How is there the space for a person to pour out [petrol] and light it in a crowded place? And no one saw it to stop it? No testimony from survivors? Where is the driver? Who can believe the lie that in this high-tech era we can't get surveillance footage?"

In a microblogging account reported by state media to belong to Chen, the writer claimed to be destitute and pleaded for an opportunity to live. The writer chronicled his frustrated efforts to get a local police station to correct his age so he could be eligible for social security payments. The last entries were made a day before the fire, and the account was removed the day after the blaze.

Some question how an impoverished man needing social security could afford a computer, or that a man of his age - born in 1954, authorities say - knew how to use the microblogging site.

"A confession online and an identity of petitioner makes one a suspect," lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan wrote on Sina Weibo. "It is lucky there was only one petitioner on the bus. What if there were more? It would be seen as a group alienating themselves from society. Why doesn't the police release the evidence?"

Such doubts are voiced every time there is a violent episode that the government blames on a loner. They illustrate the tensions between a government that seeks to control information and citizens emboldened to question official accounts online, where there is lively debate, criticism and access to more information than ever.

"People are becoming even more distrustful," said David Zweig, professor of social science at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

"In general, society in China pays a huge price for all kinds of government abuse or for company misbehaviour," he said. "That's the main theme in China these days, and so if this guy cracked because of one of those situations, the entire bureaucracy has no interest in it being publicised … And the Chinese people know it."