On Sunday afternoon, which was Mother’s Day, Lin’s mother dropped him at school. An hour later, he fell to his death from a building on campus.
Lin’s mother said she wasn’t notified by the school until two hours later, when her son’s body was at a funeral parlor, or allowed on campus to speak with his classmates or teachers. And school officials initially rejected her request to check footage from security cameras.
But Lin’s death also touched on a number of broader issues that resonated deeply across China: the lack of transparency and empathy from authorities, the stifling of press freedom and the subject of school suicide.
A recurring pattern
To some, Lin’s death was not an isolated incident, but the latest in a series of campus deaths that have drawn public attention in recent years — and suspicion over their circumstances due to a perceived lack of official transparency.
In the other two cases, in the provinces of Hunan and Jiangxi, the parents also disputed the official conclusions of their children’s deaths.
The academic pressure on Chinese teenagers is notoriously high, as millions compete in college entrance exams closely tied to their future success. Experts have long called for more attention on students’ mental health, but in reality, many schools still lack the awareness or resources to provide adequate mental care.
The fact campus security cameras had missed the death in a nation with an increasingly omnipotent surveillance network was, for some, a reason for outrage.
“There are so many surveillance cameras around, and they work perfectly when targeting violators of traffic rules, dissidents and even close contacts of Covid patients. But every time a (controversial) incident happens, something would go wrong with the camera,” a Chengdu resident, who asked not to be named due to fears of retribution from the government, told CNN.
“Everyone around me is dissatisfied with how (the authorities) have handled this. There has long been pent-up anger, and this time it has exploded all at once.”
Chengdu No.49 High School has not returned CNN’s calls for comment.
An information vacuum
Before posting on social media, Lu said she tried calling media hotlines to seek help from journalists — but none wanted to cover the story. “Nobody dared to speak up,” she wrote.
Under Xi, the space for Chinese media outlets to conduct investigative reporting has been further squeezed. On social media, some comments lamented that even the country’s most respected investigative outlets had shunned away from looking deeper into Lin’s death.
In the absence of an official narrative, Weibo users filled the information vacuum with rumors and conspiracy theories. In one version, for example, Lin was pushed off the building by his chemistry teacher, who wanted her own child to take Lin’s fictional spot to study abroad.
The statement — which failed to address crucial questions such as the missing security footage — was met with a firestorm of criticism. Lu said there were “still many unanswered questions.”
Lu’s Weibo account has now gone quiet. She last posted on Tuesday morning, sharing a photo of her son holding up a prize certificate with three other students in front of the class.
“I haven’t gone home for several days, nor have I slept. This is a photo of my son I found in my phone,” Lu said.
CNN could not reach Lu by her mobile phone.
A rare moment of public anger
With Lin’s mother silent, nationalists started to push another conspiracy theory online — that the public anger over Lin’s death had been fanned by “hostile foreign forces” to undermine the Chinese government.
On Tuesday evening, as videos of the small protest outside Chengdu No.49 High School started to circulate on social media, the rumors quickly proliferated: some claimed the protesters were working for the CIA; others said they had been trained by the US consulate in Chengdu before its closure last year; some even warned the white flowers held by protesters were a sign of the “color revolution.”
While the protest videos were swiftly censored, many of the rumors were allowed to spread.
Then, on Thursday, several major state media outlets published reports on Lin — with the same findings. There was no security footage of his death, according to the reports, because that particular spot was not frequented by students and so not covered by cameras.
According to Xinhua, police had found suicidal messages sent by Lin to friends on messaging apps, as well as what appears to be a suicide note addressed to a female student in his pocket.
The reports also said it took the school a long time to notify Lin’s family because it had been difficult for teachers to identify him, due to the severe injuries on his head.
Many Chinese social media users appeared to accept the answers from state media, while others remained unconvinced, asking why it took the school so long to notify Lin’s mother.
But overall, many agreed the authorities acted too late in disclosing information about the case.
“One can only say this is a tragedy and the truth has arrived too late, because the school and the police did not address public concerns in time,” said one of the top comments responding to the reports.
“The (local) authorities and the school should be held responsible for (their failure in) dealing with public opinion. If they have paid enough attention to the questions raised by the public, the whole thing wouldn’t have escalated, and rumors wouldn’t have been everywhere.”