Discussion of Press Restrictions, Youth Mental Health Follows Discovery of Missing Boy’s Body

If you or someone you know is in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 in the United States, or find local resources in the International Suicide Prevention Wiki.

The discovery of 15-year-old Hu Xinyu’s body late last month, 106 days after he was reported missing, put an end to a saga that gripped China for months. Hu, a boarding school student in Jiangxi province, disappeared in October 2022. His body was discovered on January 28, 2023 inside a grain storage facility in the woods near the boarding school’s campus. Police ruled it a suicide. (Manya Koetse of What’s On Weibo has provided a helpful timeline of the case.) The case drew national attention for its similarities to the 2021 death of a high school sophomore in southwestern Chengdu, and because of allegations of official malfeasance that recalled the 2022 incidents colloquially known as the “chained woman of Xuzhou” and the “Tangshan assault”—both of which were marked by initially half-hearted investigations that were transformed by massive social media outcries. The scripted press conference officials held to announce the results of the investigation into Hu’s death crystalized many of the issues online commentators had with the official investigation. Officials only called on reporters from the state-controlled outlets People’s Daily, Xinhua, China Central Television, Ta Kung Pao, Chengdu Economic Daily, and China News Service, refusing to call upon a persistent reporter who raised his hand repeatedly. A now-censored essay published by WeChat account @那样讲 (“Nayang Jiang,” or “Talk That Way”) reflected on Jiangxi officials’ refusal to call on non-state-media reporters during the Hu Xinyu press conference, connecting officials’ unwillingness to freely engage with the press to their earlier lack of attention to Hu’s case: 

The purpose of any press conference is to clarify by answering questions. Although it is impossible to cover every point in detail, or to give every journalist the opportunity to ask a question, not dodging questions is a basic requirement. If the dodge is too obvious, we cannot help but suspect that the press conference is but a smokescreen, intended only to quell public opinion. In other words, it’s something you were forced into doing in order to manage a crisis. If that was the case here, then the Jiangxi officials care only about themselves, not about Hu Xinyu. No wonder the latter went undiscovered for 106 days, even though he was right before our eyes.

I think back to that long-ago press conference when Premier Zhu Rongji unexpectedly called on Wu Xiaoli [a reporter for Hong-Kong-based Phoenix TV] to ask a question—what daring! Twenty-five years have passed since then. In today’s ultra-connected world, it stands to reason that officials should be calmer and more skillful in front of the camera. Thus, it’s important that we reflect carefully on the very nature of press conferences. [Chinese]

Similarly choreographed Q&A sessions have long enraged or frustrated Chinese netizens. In an infamous 2018 incident, a reporter’s dramatic eye-roll during a tightly scripted National People’s Congress press conference went viral, after which censors began banning posts containing the reporter’s name on Weibo. During the 2022 Xi’an lockdown, a rambling digression about the spinal condition spondylosis took up 11 minutes of a half-hour press conference on the city’s COVID outbreak. 

While the results of the police investigation were generally accepted online, many remained baffled as to how the police could have failed to discover his body, given that it was located so close to the school. The popular WeChat account @基本常识 (“Jiben Changshi,” or “Basic Common Sense”) criticized police attempts to find Hu as an unscientific process oriented more at quieting public anger than at finding his body as rapidly as possible. A People’s Daily Online opinion piece attempted to address these concerns by noting that the case had drawn national attention, and that therefore, “Nobody dares to fabricate anything; nobody can fabricate anything. Any mistakes will incur severe repercussions.” The opinion piece also called for a crackdown on “rumors” about Hu’s case. A small but vocal contingent continued to question the results of the police investigation, specifically whether reported details of Hu’s death were realistic. At The South China Morning Post, Phoebe Zhang reported that police have determined the boy’s death to be a suicide

“Beginning in September, when he started attending Zhiyuan Middle School, he was upset by bad grades and pressured by social relations and other aspects of puberty,” [Hu Mansong, deputy director of the Jiangxi Public Security Bureau,]  said.

“He had experienced difficulty sleeping, could not focus and had memory difficulties. He also felt guilty, pained, helpless and had an eating disorder.”

[…] Police recovered the files [on a digital recording device found near the body,] and confirmed it was used by Xinyu. The voice on the device matched the boy’s and the content was not edited or made by others.

Two recordings in October indicated that the boy wanted to harm himself, the police said. [Source]

Now, Hu’s case is drawing renewed attention to China’s burgeoning youth mental health crisis, which has been exacerbated by the pandemic. An epidemiological survey conducted between 2012 and 2021 found that 17.5 percent of Chinese youth and adolescents suffer from mental disorders, with depression being especially prevalent among teenagers. Under China’s zero-COVID policy, students struggled to deal with the isolation caused by lockdowns. The end of the policy has alleviated some of those concerns, but Vice Premier Sun Chunlan—the former “COVID czar”—recently remarked that “more attention and education” should be given to students’ and teachers’ mental health. Access to care is an issue, as many schools lack qualified staff. State media outlets have used Hu’s case to highlight the importance of students’ psychological health, but major challenges remain. In the aftermath of the Hu case, there were unconfirmed reports of schools forcing students to sign “No Suicide” pacts. On Weibo, there was an outcry after a Beijing “psychological consultant” made a clumsy attempt to use Hu’s death to drum up business for his practice by posting an unseemly posthumous letter to Hu. State-media tabloid Global Times tied Hu’s death to the Chinese education system’s overemphasis on test scores and underdeveloped psychological counseling services

Chu Zhaohui, a research fellow at the National Institute of Education Sciences, told the Global Times on Thursday that academic pressure is a main reason for suicide among Chinese students in elementary and middle schools. 

The high pressure is related to a single educational evaluation system that attaches the most importance to scores but neglects students’ emotional needs and the important issue of growth in autonomy.  

Abundant cases showed that the results differ a lot in terms of whether people with mental problems and suicidal thoughts get timely psychological counseling. The schools should establish a psychological education and suicide preventive system as well as make efforts to reduce academic pressure, Chu noted. [Source]

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