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A student's death sparks a public outcry in China -- and a rare government response

Alice Su, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

BEIJING — They waved white flowers in the air before the school entrance, chanting: "Truth! Truth! Truth! Truth! Truth!"

Uniformed police quickly dispersed the protesters, knocking some to the ground and tackling others, then pushing them away, as seen in several videos that went viral online. But public anger continued to grow, with millions of online views and comments demanding clarity on the mysterious death Sunday of a 17-year-old boy at Chengdu No. 49 Middle School in China's Sichuan province.

It was the latest in a series of recent student deaths in China that have left parents heartbroken and struggling with inadequate answers or accountability for how their children died. But this one snowballed, sparking a rare outburst reminiscent of the demands for free speech that flooded China's internet when whistle-blowing Wuhan doctor Li Wenliang died of COVID-19 at the start of the pandemic last year.

The public anger was a reminder of the frustration with official secrecy and hunger for transparency that simmer beneath the surface in China, and that sometimes can pressure authorities into responding. In this case, they did — though government clarification came with a price: a silencing of the dead youth's family and a surge of online nationalists accusing those who sought answers of being "tools of foreign forces" trying to instigate unrest.

The outcry began with a mother's anguished plea Monday for help on Chinese social media platform Weibo. Her son, Lin Weilin, had fallen to his death from a school building Sunday evening. She had not been notified until hours after it happened, she said, and then was denied access to the campus.

The school claimed there was no surveillance footage of the incident, warned students not to speak about it and sent the boy's body directly to a funeral parlor without letting the parents see it, she said. When she called local media for help, reporters told her they couldn't report on such things. Some warned her and her husband not to waste energy trying to speak up.

 

"I am just a regular mother and have always been a dutiful, good citizen. I believe the government, believe the (Communist) Party and believe even more in our people. Now my son is gone, yet I am like a mute with any kind of sound I try to make," wrote the mother, who is surnamed Lu.

Her son had just wished her "Happy Mother's Day" before his sudden death that day, she added. "Son, your spirit is in the heavens. Please tell Mama what happened. Mama will always be waiting for you at the school gate."

A photograph of the mother sitting cross-legged in front of the school's closed security gates, head bowed and holding a photograph of her son, spread across the Chinese internet. Many commenters noted the irony of the school slogan printed on the building behind her: "Seeking truth, seeking reality, pursuing kindness and beauty."

It wasn't the first time a Chinese student had died at school, only for parents to be told that surveillance footage — which is notoriously ubiquitous in China — was not available. In April 2020, a 15-year-old girl named He Zhu in Anhui reportedly died after falling off her school building.

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