A stand-off outside Taifu Middle School. Photo: Weibo

Anger in China grows along with questions over death of teenager

Deadly fall of a high school pupil in Sichuan province has turned into a national controversy over how authorities handle public concerns

The mysterious death of a high school pupil in a remote part of the southwestern mainland has turned into a national controversy, with even state media criticising local officials for their handling of public concerns.

The furore over the death of 14-year old Zhao Xin, in Lu county in Sichuan province, has also led to media commentary on deep public distrust of the authorities.

Zhao’s body was found near Taifu Middle School dormitory on Saturday. Videos of grieving relatives surrounding his bruised body were soon circulating on social media, along with messages said to be from the boy’s parents.

According to those messages and local media reports, Zhao’s parents suspect their son was beaten to death after failing to pay a protection fee to sons of local officials or other school bullies. Police said the boy fell from the fifth floor of the dormitory, and ruled out the possibility of murder.

In the days that followed Zhao’s death, disgruntled crowds started gathering outside the school demanding an explanation from authorities. They were met by police in riot gear.

Police later said they had arrested four people for spreading rumours.

Five days after Zhao’s death, police in Luzhou city, which administers Lu county, called a press conference. Police chief He Shaopeng denied there was school bullying involved in Zhao’s death, and said an autopsy was under way in the presence of a third-party expert and a lawyer hired by the boy’s family.

“I promise that all investigation will be fair and just, and I’m saying this in my capacity as deputy mayor and police chief,” He said.

As the controversy continued to brew, a man from the Sichuan city of Nanchong was detained for rallying people online to stage a protest on April 15, according to a leaked internal police circular.

“There are still many people gathered outside the school today,” said one local, who refused to be named, on Wednesday. “Everyone is talking about the death of the boy but no one really knows what happened,” he said.

An elderly woman said police were “everywhere” in the town where Zhao died. “Some bystanders [on Wednesday] were taken away and beaten up badly,” she said. “Local party officials had offered us 50 yuan [HK$57] each to become witnesses saying the boy had committed suicide.”

In an article published on Wednesday, Xinhua criticised local authorities for blocking reporters from speaking to the boy’s family, and for failing to address public concerns over the cause of the boy’s death.

The article asked how police could rule out the possibility of murder just one day after the death. The article also decried local officials for failing to explain if bullying had been involved or why local residents had been told not to speak to journalists.

A People’s Daily commentary on Thursday hit out at local authorities for a lack of transparency, and said excessive social control measures made conflicts worse.

An article on the news portal affiliated with the national prosecutor’s office asked why so many members of the public did not believe what Lu county authorities had said, and criticised the “conservative” attitude of local officials in addressing public concerns.