The following censorship instructions, issued to the media by government authorities, have been leaked and distributed online. The name of the issuing body has been omitted to protect the source.
All websites, immediately delete information related to the death of a student in Taifu, Lu County. Only official reports may be published. (April 2) [Chinese]
Zhao Xin, a 14-year-old middle school student, was found dead outside his middle school in Taifu, Sichuan on Saturday. Police claimed that evidence ruled out homicide, but rumors suggested that Zhao had been bullied to death by five classmates including children of powerful local figures, and that the bullying had previously been reported to police, who did nothing. The contradiction sparked protests by hundreds of local residents. The police’s alleged negligence has prompted comparisons with the similarly controversial case of Yu Huan, a 23-year-old Shandong man who killed a loan shark threatening his mother after police failed to intervene. Yu was given a life sentence which is now under review following a public outcry.
Local authorities have taken a number of aggressive measures, in addition to the city-level directive above, to contain the unrest and stop it spreading. Radio Free Asia’s Chinese service cited a local source who said that Zhao’s relatives are under house arrest; that special police are stationed at the protest site in Lu County on high alert, frequently taking away protesters; and that local authorities are clamping down on news and social media. According to South China Morning Post, a local woman claimed that “local party officials had offered us 50 yuan each to become witnesses saying the boy had committed suicide.” Global Times reports that Lu County police are holding four people for “inciting the public and severely disturbing public order” by spreading “fake information” about the case. An update published by the prefectural public security bureau on Wednesday promised an investigation and autopsy, but also warned of a further crackdown on starting or spreading rumors, according to RFA. The network also highlighted what appears to be a leaked memo from the public security bureau in nearby Nanchong prefecture. The notice described an online call for further protests in Nanchong on April 15 under the slogan “Give justice back to the student, give rule-of-law society back to Sichuan, and stop corruption.” Two people named in the memo as the author and a respondent could not be reached by RFA, and are believed to have been detained.
The two documents, RFA reports, sparked a fresh wave of protest online. Radio France Internationale’s Chinese service summed up some online reactions to the case in general:
As public indignation mounted and the truth remained unclear, some people posted on Weibo: “The crucial thing is to dig out the truth of the matter, not to spend money blockading and pushing back public anger.” @Guohongkuidaoyan wrote, “He took a steel pipe to strike himself, beat himself half to death, then leapt to his death from a building. The news reports have already said that the public security organs have evidence to rule out murder. Stick with the Party, no matter what. Love the Party, support the Party; don’t believe, spread, or start rumors; listen to the Party and walk with the Party. If the Party says he fell to his death, he fell to his death. The unruly people shouldn’t bring trouble to the nation.”
@Zhoupenshizhoulaoshi said: “The mass protests in Luzhou are not because of the death, but because of your approach to handling the case, joining forces with the school to cover it up … All the rumors were forced out by your information blockade. Temporarily withholding the cause of death and then suppressing us with police is also admirable … the reason the people don’t believe you is that you never planned to let us know about the school death at all.”
Other users feel that the way to dampen public anger is with timely information transparency and news reports, and that blockading information and deleting and suppressing discussion inevitably breeds all kinds of rumors. To then round up the people who started and spread the rumors makes it suppression from start to finish.
According to some analyses, if the authorities had released information from the beginning instead of resorting to pressure, intimidation, and censorship, things would never have got to this point. In another analysis, the relevant authorities’ credibility deficit, as in many similar cases, turned an ordinary case into a big one, and a local case into a national one. [Chinese]
Even state media have been sharply critical of the local authorities. A Xinhua reporter claimed to have encountered the sort of obstruction more usually described by foreign media in China, and accused local officials of failing to fight rumors with facts and of violating the spirit of Xi Jinping’s landmark February 19, 2016 speech on the role of the news media:
Upon arriving in Luzhou to investigate, this reporter realized that the case had gradually developed from its beginnings in the normal judicial channels into the current public assembly, police road blockade, and turbulent popular sentiment. Rumors arise on all sides, but the local authorities have not produced facts to dispel them. This makes me deeply anxious: how long will the people’s fear of the unknown continue? What difficult truths are being held back? These questions require clear-cut answers from the relevant local authorities.
[…] The explanation for the case still not having been filed for investigation has changed from “there is evidence that rules out homicide” to “there is no evidence to prove homicide.” This reporter feels that the change from “evidence” to “no evidence” places considerably less blame on local authorities.
[… The local authorities’] close monitoring made me feel an intangible pressure: wherever I went, someone would “accompany” me. When I, as a journalist, proposed an interview with the victim’s mother, the county Political and Legal Committee secretary Li Chengchun said that she could not be found. When I asked for her telephone number, he said he didn’t have it; when I asked for her address, he mumbled in reply.
When on April 4, this reporter broke with great difficulty through these restrictions to run more than 20km along country roads and interview the grandparents and classmates of the deceased, he attracted a “tail” of local cadres following him with all sorts of suggestions, threats, and other interference, leaving interviewees reluctant to tell the truth. The various kinds of harassment by telephone from local parties were even more intolerable.
A source tells me that the police are actively working on the victim’s mother to inconvenience journalists, and perhaps for some other hidden reason.
[…] The words of General Secretary Xi’s February 19 speech are still fresh in the mind, emphasizing the successful completion of the Party’s news and public opinion work, and adherence to news and propaganda rules. First among these is to let the facts speak, let the details speak, and let the people have trust. But in this case, that’s all been completely disregarded. Do the local authorities think that this speech was aimed only at the media, and has nothing to do with them? I look forward to their proper recognition as soon as possible that they should take the initiative in cooperating with reporters to find out the truth of this situation. Only when the facts are allowed to speak will turbulent public feelings subside. [Chinese]
Since directives are sometimes communicated orally to journalists and editors, who then leak them online, the wording published here may not be exact. Some instructions are issued by local authorities or to specific sectors, and may not apply universally across China. The date given may indicate when the directive was leaked, rather than when it was issued. CDT does its utmost to verify dates and wording, but also takes precautions to protect the source. See CDT’s collection of Directives from the Ministry of Truth since 2011.