How missing CCTV footage turned a Chinese family’s tragedy into a national conspiracy


On Mother’s Day last Sunday, 17-year-old Lin Weiqi wished his mother – referred to only as Madame Lu in Chinese media – a good day. “Mum, enjoy your day,” he said to her that morning. He was Lu’s only child. Like most Chinese parents of the one-child generation, Lin was her pride and joy.

Late in the afternoon, before Lin had gone back to his school in the south-western city of Chengdu, Lu prepared snacks for him in case he was hungry in the evening. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary until an hour later.

Lin had fallen from a building and was dead, the school told Lu and her husband two hours after the incident. His body had been sent to the undertaker already, the police said, which meant the parents were not able to see their son for the last time.

The school said it had immediately called an ambulance but by the time it had arrived, Lin was dead.

Lu told Chinese media later that, that same night and through the early morning, she and her husband had first asked to see their son’s body, then the location of the alleged incident and the surveillance footage. “But to no avail,” she said.

Desperate and heartbroken, Lu took to the Chinese social media site Weibo on Monday morning, pleading for help. “We are law-abiding and reasonable citizens … as a mother, I just want to see my son. Where is he lying in the cold, who can tell me?” she wrote. “I’m sorry, son, your mother wasn’t able to protect you; cannot even ask for justice for you.”

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The post went viral within a few hours. Hundreds of thousands of Weibo users responded with outpourings of sympathy and criticism of the school, the police and “the system”. A related hashtag was created, which so far has been read more than 1.8 billion times.

“Why is footage missing?”

A man in a mask shot from below, with a tall multi-branched camera mast rising above him in the street
Surveillance cameras in China: supporters of Lu initially expressed disbelief that part of her son’s final moments had not been captured on camera. Photograph: Aly Song/Reuters

“As a mother, one can never accept that her son dies before her … the school doesn’t even allow parents to get into the campus. What are they hiding?” one said on Weibo. “This is horrible. The school should tell the truth,” wrote another.

Rebuffed by the school, Lu sat outside its gate, holding her son’s portrait and crying. One Weibo user pointed out that on the wall behind her was the school motto: “Seek truth from facts, pursue perfection from average”. “How ironic,” one commented.The photo has become the defining image of the tragedy.

Later that day, Lu posted on Weibo again, saying she had been told by local media that they couldn’t help her. “The water is too deep,” she said she was told. Lu also reported that she had now had the chance to inspect the footage but, “only that part [of the moment of his death] was missing.”

The plot thickened. Sympathetic Weibo commenters questioned why this was the case in a country where surveillance cameras are said to be near-ubiquitous. Some even compiled a list of similar incidents over the years. One remarked: “they [the school] only let you see the surveillance footage convenient to them.” This comment was liked by over 4,000 Weibo users.

Questions about the school – and a rash of conspiracy theories about how Lin had died so “mysteriously” – flooded Chinese social media. Anonymous commenters on Weibo claimed they knew the truth, but they were afraid to speak out for fear of reprisals. Some questioned why the school, pupils and teachers were all silent, suspecting foul play; others started to report experiencing online censorship, adding to the suspicion that something sinister was going on.

Subsequently, school officials spoke to the official Xinhua news agency to explain why they took the actions they did; the Observer’s repeated calls to the school and the local police station have gone unanswered.

“Truth, truth, truth”

A smartphone showing a Weibo post in Chinese, lying on a table
One of the Weibo posts about the death of Lin Weiqi. Photograph: Ng Han Guan/AP

In today’s China, this unusual incident reflects the frustration many citizens experience when seeking justice. It also offers a window into how a lack of trust between the authorities and their citizens plays out in a tightly controlled yet highly connected Chinese society.

Perhaps stung by the cascade of emotion, a high-profile official newspaper, Reference News, commented on its Weibo account: “Only when truthfully responding to the public’s concern can suspicion be dispelled.”

A few hours later, at 3.54am on Tuesday, local education authorities released the results of their joint investigation. They concluded that Lin had died by suicide, attributed to “personal issues”, and that there was no possibility of foul play.

But this did not dispel suspicions online. “Do you treat us like idiots?” one person asked. Another questioned why such an investigation was announced by the education authority rather than the police.

By then, developments in Chengdu had become a national media event. Less than five hours after the results had been released on Weibo, Lu and her husband were disputing the account, again urging the school to show “all the footage”.

Local police finally spoke that evening. At 7.43pm, they issued a statement saying that after carefully examining the surveillance footage and the postmortem examination, they had also concluded there was no criminal case. “It’s worth noting,” they wrote on Weibo, “that the family did not object to the outcome … We urge citizens not to spread rumours.”

Lu has now stopped posting messages on Weibo. Online, some said she and her husband had finally accepted their son took his own life. Others, despite the plea from the authorities, said they suspected they might have been silenced.

That evening, supporters gathered at the school, holding white flowers, chanting: “Truth, truth, truth.” Police soon intervened, dragging away some protesters, while other protesters urged: “Film it, film it!”

‘Relationship issues’

Camera footage showing a young man in a mask, just in shot, being broadcast on a television with the news agency's banner and captions at the bottom of the screen
After days of outcry, security camera footage showing the last moments of Lin Weiqi’s life were eventually broadcast on state TV. Photograph: CCTV

More state media weighed in: Chinese Central TV sent their correspondent. At noon on Thursday, in an “exclusive” report live from the local police station, a police officer narrated the Mother’s Day incident with a minute-by-minute commentary on the surveillance footage that the parents had demanded to see.

The video shows 17-year-old Lin first attempting to cut his wrists in a secluded pump house in one part of the school. He is then shown walking up to the fifth floor. In the next picture, he is seen falling.

The police revealed that, through interviews with Lin’s fellow students, they had found that he had had “relationship issues”. “We didn’t reveal this to the public before because we wanted to respect his privacy, and prevent his family from being hurt again,” the police said. “And the family had no objection.”

In the UK and Ireland,Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org or jo@samaritans.ie. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is at 800-273-8255 or chat for support. You can also text HOME to 741741 to connect with a crisis text line counsellor. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org



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