Mourning Displays Censored, Grieving Families Pressured in Wake of Qiqihar Gymnasium Collapse

Mourning continues for eleven people—a coach and ten members of a girls’ volleyball team in Qiqihar, Heilongjiang province—who perished when the roof of their junior high school gymnasium caved in on Sunday. Recent photos, videos, articles, and social media posts have shed more light on various aspects of the tragedy, including attempts by government officials to intimidate grieving parents into signing away their rights before they were allowed to identify their children’s bodies at a hospital.

As more information about the girls emerges, the vast sea of flower bouquets outside the entrance to Qiqihar No. 34 Middle School has expanded to include food items that the girls enjoyed: canned peaches, milk tea, yogurt, and other snacks. Social media posts containing the names of the victims and celebrating their lives, friendships, and achievements have begun to be censored, and many photos and videos of the flowers and other tributes have been scrubbed from Weibo and other social media platforms. A recent photo shows the scale of the outpouring of grief:

Passersby gaze at the sidewalk outside Qiqihar No. 34 Middle School, which is covered with thousands upon thousands of peaches in glass jars, bottles of drinkable snack yogurt, cups of milk tea with straws, and bouquets of flowers.
(Image source: WeChat, 晖思/Hui Si)
A screenshot of a now-deleted Weibo post shows a panel of eight different Weibo posts in which all or some of the images of flower bouquets and other funereal offerings have been deleted and replaced by a standard gray backdrop. (Image source: Weibo)

Thus far, there have been at least two viral videos showing interactions between police, officials, and grieving parents as they waited to identify their children’s bodies at a hospital. In the first video, a bereaved father remains preternaturally calm as he tries to reason with officials, hoping that they will allow him and the other parents to identify their children’s bodies. CDT editors have archived and republished a number of articles discussing these videos and inquiring why grieving families feel they must suppress their emotions lest they alarm the authorities tasked with “stability maintenance.” 

A Chinese Father, Suppressing His Rage,” an essay from WeChat account 云起时王维 (Yun qi shi Wang Wei, “Wang Wei When the Clouds Arise”), ruminates on the cruelty of expecting grieving parents to repress their emotions for the sake of “social stability.” The author, while making it clear that he is not criticizing the father in the video for being impassive, is dismayed by the fact that the man manages to control his emotions so completely and choose his words so carefully, to avoid offending the officials he is speaking with:

He’s too reasonable. So reasonable it’s almost unreal.

He’s restrained. Too restrained for a parent who has just lost a child. 

[…] What made him bend over backwards, desperately trying to avoid a “misstep?” What made him so afraid that his [legitimate] questioning would cross the line into “willfully stirring up trouble?” What made an enraged father choose to tamp down his anger and practice such “aggrieved restraint?” [Chinese]

In “Chinese People—Why Aren’t You Angry?” WeChat blogger 大头费里尼 (Datou Feilini, “Big-head Fellini”) cautions that if such impassiveness becomes normalized, it will become the de facto standard, and soon everyone will be expected to tamp down their emotions in times of tragedy. And former investigative journalist Song Zhibiao (宋志标), in his opinion piece “Practicing to Become a Bereaved Parent,” bemoans the intense scrutiny placed on parents who have lost children. If they cry, grieve, or complain too much, they risk being labeled by the Chinese authorities as troublemakers, threats to social stability. But if they seem too calm and rational, too well-dressed or dry-eyed, they may be accused of callousness and targeted by cyberbullies. “This is our present reality,” he writes. “To be a parent who has lost a child, you must be glib and articulate, not too aggressive or overbearing, and you must never show weakness—for if you do, you will be pecked to death by the vultures lying in wait.”

A second video, released more recently, shows some of the Qiqihar parents in a hospital, angrily confronting police and local officials who are trying to pressure them into signing some sort of document (likely a pledge not to “cause trouble” or publicly criticize the government) before they are allowed to identify the bodies of their daughters. The 14-minute video has been widely shared on various Chinese social media platforms. CDT editors have compiled a summary and partial transcript of the video, the translation of which appears below:

Various family members (shouting): Why won’t you let us see our kids?

Government official: I’m trying to understand the situation first. But it’s not my decision, so I’ll need to check with my superior. 

Man: Why don’t you call your superior right now?

Second official: We’ll ask the director to come down here, and if you have any questions, he’ll be able to answer them for you.

Woman: When will he be here? It took you a whole hour to show up.

Second official: He’ll be here soon.

Woman: “Soon”? How long is “soon”?

Second official: Be patient.

At this, several parents protest that they’ve already been waiting a long time, and that they feel ignored by the officials and doctors. One man asks why he needs to sign a document before he can identify his child’s body. When one of the officials tries to convince him to sign the document to speed things along “now that things have reached this point,” the man angrily begins asking the official about his own family.

Man: How old’s your daughter? How old’s your kid? Huh? I want to know!

Nearby policeman (gesturing at the man): Lower your hands. Control your emotions.

Man: The police should shut up!

Woman: Control our emotions? The collapse was reported at 5:00, but we weren’t even notified until 11:00. We’ve been waiting here this whole time. We got here just after 4:00, and now it’s past 11:00 and we’re still waiting for a rational explanation from you!

Official: Ma’am, why do you keep asking him to explain?

Hearing this, the families protest angrily. One man shouts: “Asking who to explain? Is anyone from the government even here?” 

One woman asks why the families weren’t notified immediately, and points out problems with the timeline. Many families aren’t sure exactly when their children died, she says, and don’t have any details about what resuscitation efforts were made and how long those resuscitation efforts continued.

Woman (continuing): After 5:00, when our kids were already dead, what did our government leaders do? They sent in a bunch of police to maintain order, but they couldn’t be bothered to show up themselves. Not one of them showed up, not one of them came to talk to us! Now it’s past 11:00, and you show up to make us sign some documents! The doctor told us we have to sign them, because if we don’t, we won’t be allowed to see our kids.”

Official: How about we do this? The children are already gone, so let’s deal with the aftermath … 

Man (angrily): Aftermath? I haven’t even processed it yet, and you’re telling me to “deal with the aftermath”? That I can’t see my child if I don’t sign?

Woman: Besides, you have to let me see my child to identify whether it’s her. What if it isn’t even her?

Later in the video, an attending physician appears in the office, but he ignores the parents’ entreaties and ducks back into the operating room. This further incenses the grieving parents, who are urged by police officers to “control their emotions” and stop recording video on their cell phones. [Chinese]

CDT has collected and translated some Weibo comments about the video and the behavior of police and officials toward the parents:

你问我说全世界是哪里最美: After the Urumqi fire, they accused us of having “ulterior motives.” Now, after the Qiqihar gymnasium collapse, we’re “destabilizing society.”

三金同学Jayden: People’s trust in the state is steadily being destroyed by behavior such as this. When we pay taxes, we expect bureaucrats to serve the people, not to make life more difficult for people. Those who depend on the people for their livelihoods should show some respect for the people.

反裤衩阵地: Even though the children have died, [officials] are still using them to put the squeeze on the parents.

海边的卡忽卡: You can see your child one last time, but only if you promise not to cause trouble or to petition. Even in the end, they’re using those kids to coerce their parents.

陈生大王: This is the open secret underlying many problems: Do we treat these people as grieving family members, or as problems that need to be dealt with? [Chinese]

In a past interview with CDT, Simon Fraser University’s Jeremy Brown, who has conducted extensive research into how Chinese officials in the Maoist and post-Mao eras handled accidents and natural disasters, discussed the entrenched bureaucratic mindset of viewing accident victims and their families as potentially destabilizing forces that need to be “handled” or “dealt with”:

There’s no incentive to be tender and compassionate toward accident victims. The incentive is to keep the compensation down, as low as you can, you keep people from protesting, you keep them from linking up and organizing, and if you successfully do that, then that’s “good handling” of an accident. The word “handling”, chǔlǐ 处理, is what is done after an accident …. It’s a stand-in for “make it go away,” basically. [Source]

Lastly, Wei Chunliang (魏春亮), author of the WeChat blog 亮见 (Liang Jian, “Liang’s View”), responded to the latest video with an essay titled “Who Has the Right to Tell Qiqihar’s Parents to Control Their Emotions?” A portion of the essay is translated below:

“Control your emotions.” “Be patient.” Their children have died, and the sky is falling, but instead of sending someone to communicate with and comfort these parents, [the government is] asking them to remain rational as they endure the awful torment of waiting and not knowing.

Is this something decent human beings are even capable of doing?

[…] Yet at that place and time, the parents in the video were forced to suppress their most basic human instincts, to swallow their tears and muffle their grief, to remind themselves not to cry, not to make trouble, not to seem anxious, and to maintain control of their emotions.

All that, just to be able to see their children’s faces, to find out whether their children were alive or dead. [Chinese]


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