The friends and family of Chinese college student Zhao Wei do not know exactly what happened to him between 3am and 7:20am on Jan. 23 this year, but they believe authorities murdered him. So too do Chinese netizens; a Hong Kong media research group says it's "very possible."
His friend last saw him alive at 3am. At 8am Zhao’s parents got a call from police telling them that their son was dead.
The case has begun attracting attention on the Chinese Internet, and authorities have been fast in clamping down on the news’ spread.
Similar cases of mysterious deaths of young people—often later discovered to have been murders by the authorities—have in the past resulted in mass riots.
Zhao was a fourth-year student at the Hebei University of Technology, on his way home to Inner Mongolia for the Chinese New Year.
The 23-year-old boarded the train in Tianjin, and during the journey got into a dispute with a train attendant and train conductor over a change of seat.
He shifted from Car 12 to Car 11 to sit with a friend, and told his friend that he had “somehow gotten on the train conductor’s bad side,” according to a detailed appraisal of the case by the Hong Kong-based China Media Project.
At 3am the train conductor led Zhao away, and by 7:20am, according to a coroner’s report, he was dead.
The authorities said Zhao died after jumping from a building at the Daqing Railyway Station, where the train stopped at 6:21am.
The parents find this hard to believe. The police produced no evidence supporting the suicide narrative, claimed that the “crime scene” was off limits, that no photos were taken, and that no surveillance footage could show them when he got off the train.
After pressing the police, the parents managed to see their son’s body. It was bloodied and purple, with wounds that are not explained by a jump from a building. His clothes had been exchanged, his right eye was purple, and there was bloody cotton in his nostrils.
After a month of unsuccessful attempts to gain redress or an investigation, the family went public on the evening of Feb. 28. Their plea was published online along with photographs of Zhao’s corpse taken in the morgue.
The post on Sina’s microblog is titled “Railway Murderers: University Student Riding the 1301 Train Dies Violent Death” and links to a longer letter by the parents. One of the photographs accompanying the post has been forwarded 66,216 times and commented on 14,020 times.
The image shows a dead Zhao in funeral vestments (in an unusual move, quickly provided by the authorities) with a black eye and bruises on the face.
His right lower jaw was wounded, and his hip and buttocks were bruised; “there were five wounds in his right groin, and his scrotum had swollen up to the size of a pear,” the parents wrote in a statement. Marks on his wrist indicated that he had apparently been handcuffed, and there were streaks of blood on his coat, pants, and shoes.
“Could so many wounds possibly have come from jumping from a building?” the parents wrote.
Another report suggests that the younger brother and sister of Zhao wrote the note in their parents name, after the brother found it “hard to suppress his grief and indignation.”
China Media Project suggests Zhao was “very possibly murdered by railway authorities.”
Chinese netizens also seem to think so. “He was covered with wounds, he was obviously bashed to death,” one Sina user wrote on the equivalent of Twitter.
Only one newspaper in China, Oriental Morning Post, covered the case with original reporting, and their articles were soon taken offline.
A search for the case on China’s main search engine, Baidu , results only in a terse notice from Xinhua, announcing that the Railways Ministry will be conducting an “in-depth investigation.”
It is suspicious that the Railways Ministry should be the one doing the investigating when they are the authority accused of the crime, China Media Project notes.
That the story is being actively censored and the fact that the Chinese media are not covering it indicates that it is likely that there has been a propaganda directive by the authorities, according to China Media Project.
Cases like Zhao’s go to the heart of the discontent felt by average Chinese against the political system, and this is troubling to Communist Party leaders.
The violent death of a young person at the hands of Party or government functionaries has catalyzed many protests in recent years, sometimes of up to tens of thousands of people.
Two of the famous cases are the Weng’an incident of 2008 and the Shishou incident of 2009.
In Weng’an the son of the county deputy mayor and another youth raped and killed a 15-year-old female middle school student. Furious at the authorities’ attempt to cover up the news, tens of thousands of ordinary citizens rioted, smashing Party buildings and torching police cars.
In Shishou a cook was tortured and thrown from a hotel building by local Communist Party roughs. Reports said he had a nail driven into his head and that his genitals had been attacked. Tens of thousands rioted, and authorities dispatched 8,000 special police to put down the crowds.