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From the file

School 49 | An explosion in China’s high-pressure education system

School 49: An explosion in China’s high-pressure education system

School 49: An explosion in China’s high-pressure education system

China’s transformation into an economic powerhouse has come at a cost to its children, under enormous pressure to succeed. Now the country is wondering if the price has been too high


Transcript

Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, narrating: A quick warning before we get started: this episode contains themes of suicide that some listeners might find distressing. 

In Chengdu’s number 49 Middle school, three thousand teenagers prepare for the gaokao – China’s university entrance exam. It’s the most important moment in the school calendar and the focus of China’s entire secondary education.

Chengdu is the capital of Sichuan province, in the southwest of China. It’s cold at this time of year – in the winter. 

It’s actually a place I used to know quite well. Around 20 years ago I worked in Number 22 Middle school – just across town from Number 49. 

Back then… Chengdu was a relaxed place. 

Much of life was lived on the pavements in front of people’s single-story dwellings. Walking down the streets you would see people playing cards, eating – and sometimes even cooking – the local spicy cuisine. 

None of that takes place on those streets anymore. 

Now Chengdu is a modern city. A grid of high rises. It’s a cultural centre with homegrown tech start-ups, electronic parks for Fortune 500 companies. It has a population bigger than London’s. 

Number 49 Middle school – where this story takes place – is in the northeast of Chengdu, just outside the second of the city’s six ring-roads. 

The school is surrounded by deep red walls and gunmetal electric gates. 

Inside a stone staircase leads up, around a flower bed to a glistening, glassy assembly building which is connected by a labyrinth of walkways to teaching blocks and dorms. 

To me, now living back in the UK, it looks more like part of a towering university campus. But in China it counts as an ordinary school, nothing unusual. 

Until May this year.

When – for a few days – Chengdu’s 49 Middle School became the site of something remarkable. 

[Clip: sound of voices in a crowd]

Poppy, narrating: It became the centre of a story that ignited empathy and outrage on China’s social media. 

Which then slipped from the internet to the streets around the school….  

[Clip: protestors shouting]

Poppy, narrating: Hundreds of people gathered outside the front gates of number 49 Middle School, and chanted: truth, truth, truth – each waving a white flower in the air. 

[Clip: police making arrests in the crowd and screams]

Poppy, narrating: Until the police began to arrest people and the crowd scattered. 

[Clip: police making arrests in the crowd and screams]

Poppy, narrating: But I’m getting ahead of myself. This story doesn’t start with arrests and protests. It starts with one woman and her post on Weibo, China’s Twitter. 

A mother who’s just found out that her 17-year-old son has died at Number 49 Middle School. 

Sue: There are a lot of cases like this. There have been several incidents before this one… but none of them have been reported. 

When we hear about China on the news – it’s so often about big politics, big economics. 

“Missile experts are worried tonight about China’s new missile capabilities….”  

CNN news clip

“China is the leading producer of steel, one of the world industries for the environment.”

BBC news clip

Stories of such scale that they’re often unrelatable. 

“I’m gonna take you straight to the White House, the president of the USA announcing new trade tariffs against China. Let’s listen in.”

CNN news clip

I’m Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, and in this episode of The Slow Newscast… I’d like to tell you a different type of story about China, a more personal story. 

It’s about one mother’s plight, the circumstances around her son’s death – and why her fight for truth unleashed an explosion of anger, and anxiety, on China’s social media. 

***

Poppy, narrating: It’s late afternoon on Sunday 9th May 2021 – it’s actually mother’s day in China. 

Lin Weiqi, a 17-year-old student at number 49 Middle School, returns to the dormitory where he sleeps. 

A few hours later – at 8.40pm – his mother, Lu, receives a call telling her she needs to get to the school. Now.

Once there… she discovers the worst. 

Her son is dead. He’s fallen from one of the school buildings. 

I don’t dare to imagine how Lu must have felt at that moment… but I know that any parent would need to understand exactly what had happened… they’d need to know how their child could die at school.

But that’s not what happens to Lu. 

Instead… she finds out that she was called two hours after her son had died. His body is no longer at the school… it’s already at the morgue. And she’s not allowed to enter the school to talk to her son’s friends. 

Manya Koetse: So my name is Manya Koetse and I’m the editor-in-chief of What’s On Weibo, which is a website reporting on the trending topics on Chinese social media. 

Poppy, narrating: Manya remembers Lu’s story vividly.

Because when Lu finally goes home after finding out that her son is dead – but seemingly not much else – she goes on to Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter. 

And in the early hours of the following morning she puts out a call for her son’s classmates to give her information. 

I don’t think she expects her message to go much further than the community around the school. 

But it does. 

Manya: Then the mother posted about it in the early hours of the day… and it very soon went viral. It went viral within 24 hours. It was re-posted 300,000 times already. 

For the people who are reading this story, what really resonates with them is this kind of powerlessness that this mother feels, right? And a story that nobody wants happening to them – that you get called late at night, that something happened to your child. And by the way, it happened three or four hours ago… nobody told you.

There’s nothing that she could do to help her child. So in the end, this enormous sense of powerlessness goes online where other people also feel that, and they want to find justice and want to help and want to do something about it.

Poppy, narrating: Online, people are suspicious that something untoward has happened, and that it’s being covered-up.

Rumours start to spread. There are two that really take off. 

One is that Lin died as a result of corporal punishment at the school – the other is that he was pushed off the roof of the school by a teacher whose son was in compeition with Lin for a place at university. 

An idea catches hold that because Lin is from an ordinary family – not rich, not powerful – the school is closing ranks.

Manya: What you see when a story like this comes out is that we all become armchair detectives, right? We think, okay. Well, let me see, let me write down. What’s the timeline?

Poppy, narrating: By Tuesday, two days after Lin’s death, the local district denies the rumours on their own Weibo account. 

They say Lin killed himself because of personal problems that had nothing to do with the school. And the school is cooperating with a police investigation.

But people online are still not convinced. 

The responses that receive the most likes are: “Do you think netizens – that’s online citizens – are fools?”

And they’re asking for proof, for CCTV footage of Lin’s fall to be released. 

Manya: I think that’s basically the core of this story. So much is recorded in Chinese society nowadays, there are so many surveillance cameras everywhere. That the moment, the story, you know… we have a few minutes missing from a story, and those are the most crucial minutes of the entire story. People feel immediately that there’s something bigger going on. That we are being fooled, we are being lied to. 

Poppy, narrating: Lin’s mother, Lu, posts again disagreeing with the official statement.

An hour later comes another local district statement, once more stating that Lin’s death was suicide, and now adding that Lin’s family have no objections.  

At this point, Lin’s mother’s Weibo goes quiet. 

But the rumours are still spreading. China’s social media is ablaze with the story. And the fire’s not going out. 

Manya: Every week you will see multiple stories where, you know, certain hashtags get millions of views. But, um, one of the hashtags related to this story received almost 2 billion views. And that is a lot, any story that goes beyond a billion views – that is that it really is a lot for Chinese social media.

Poppy, narrating: This isn’t the first case of an alleged suicide at a school in China that’s incited local suspicion and even protests. But it’s the first one that’s ignited the whole country’s social media in this way. 

And this is when something rare happens: the online fury and grief – springs from people’s screens – to the streets around the school. 

Sue is an independent journalist based in Chengdu who was following the story online at the time. 

With the whole country talking about a school nearby… she decides to go and see what’s happening herself.

Sue: When I was on the way, I thought – maybe there won’t be anything to see. But I found that the school entrance was already surrounded by a security line.

And there were already many police patrolling the area. There were a crowd of onlookers gathered around the entrance, and overall the atmosphere was very serious and tense.

Poppy, narrating: This might not sound like a big deal. It’s only a few hundred people. But spontaneous protests, or “mass incidents”, as they are known, are illegal in China. 

They do happen – often for issues that directly affect those involved. Maybe land rights, labour disputes, or pollution around people’s homes. 

But it’s unusual for a story that starts online to end up on the streets – partly because the sensitive issues that might trigger mass public dissent are usually censored before things could get to this stage. 

[Clip: sounds of protest]

Poppy, narrating: But then as night falls on Tuesday, more people join, and as the traffic dies down, there’s a clearing for people to gather in front of the school gates. And it starts to get edgy. 

[Clip: sounds of protestors shouting and starting to scream]

There’s a heavy police presence and soon a skirmish. I can see on the videos police grabbing people. Sue tells me that lots of the protestors were taken to the police station. 

She managed to track some of them down later: they say they were ‘re-educated’, or given a talking to, and then released. 

I asked Manya about people’s willingness to risk going out on the streets. I want to understand – why? Why this story?  

Manya: It’s a special story because there are so many angles to it. But every now and then on Chinese social media, you will see stories like this popping up. And that is what makes Chinese social media very interesting. Of course, especially these kinds of social stories where you see that so many people get involved because it just really resonates with them and it stirs their own fears and anxieties about this happening to their family or their friends or their children.

Poppy, narrating: The protests are a tipping point. The story’s become political. 

That’s why we’re not using Sue’s real name or voice. An actor is speaking her words instead. 

And it’s why we can’t talk to anyone from the school. It’s probably why my message to Lu has gone unanswered, why her phone is permanently switched off. And why she doesn’t post on Weibo anymore. 

But before we get there, we’re going to go back to something that happened a year before, and into the home of another parent who lost his son. To understand why the question of what happened to Lin, sparked so many people’s sympathy and rage.

***

Poppy, narrating: Xu Shihai is a painter-decorator, and red cross, flood volunteer in Zhengzhou – 1000 kilometres from Chengdu, in Henan province, in central China. 

[Clip: Xu Shihai showing Poppy around his home and speaking in Mandarin]

Poppy, narrating: We’re on video chat – he’s showing me around his home – and introduces me to his middle son who’s six, and to his wife who’s sitting on the sofa with their nine month old daughter. 

[Clip: Poppy speaking to Xu Shihai’s son in Mandarin]

Poppy, narrating: Xu, who is in his mid-forties, tells me about how he grew up in rural China in a simple way – quite remote. He didn’t even have a tv set. He left school at 16, moved to the city. 

Now three decades later, likes to watch Bear Grylls on television with his children. His favourite novel is Hemmingway’s The Old Man and the Sea.  

He takes me into what used to be his eldest son’s bedroom, and he shows me with great care his son’s drawings and paintings. They’re accomplished self-portraits, and Japanese-inspired animes. 

[Clip: Poppy saying “wow” as she is shown the painting]

Poppy, narrating: In June 2020, during lockdown, Xu Shihai was called one evening to volunteer with the Red Cross to try to recover the body of an elderly woman. She’d been dragged away by floods in China’s silty, Yellow River.

Xu: When I came back, he wasn’t sleeping; he was bathing. He said, “Dad, you’ve worked hard, I’m going through a hard time” and then poured me some water. He poured a cup and let me drink. Then, the next day, I called him to take him to a friend’s orchard to harvest there – picking fruit. 

By then, early in the morning, he was gone.

Poppy, narrating: Xu discovered that his seventeen year old son had killed himself. 

Xu Shihai knew that his son had been upset that he hadn’t got the grades to go to the same university as a close friend, and that they’d be separated for the next few years. 

He had watched his son work for hours at his desk to improve his grades, but however hard he tried… academics weren’t his thing. His grades just didn’t go up. 

But his son’s death came entirely out of the blue. Xu had never imagined his son would do anything like that. 

He needed to understand what drove his son to take that decision. 

Xu: I just wanted to see what he was always looking at on his phone, because every evening when he was asleep, he was always holding his phone. So he must have been looking at it for a long time. Then I just turned on the phone and looked at it, searched through his internet history, and there was a record of his chats with other people. I searched through it.  At the time, I was thinking that I might find some clues, some traces.

Poppy, narrating: With the help of his son’s school friend he unlocked his son’s phone.

But what he discovered, as well as a lot of nihilistic novels and anime, was that his son had joined an online suicide chat group. The idea that the group leaders were giving out to people was that ending their lives was the only way they could change their worlds.

Xu: There were so many things he never told us, but he told it all to these other children. I found out too late. If I had found out earlier, this certainly would not have happened.  

His friends are full of regret. They told me too late. A month earlier, he had told all of his friends. Then everyone hid it from us, and none of us knew.  His friends thought they could all handle it, that children could handle it. 

There are still times when I think that, if I had looked at his phone a little earlier back then, or looked at his diary, the child’s diary, I would’ve known everything and it would’ve been okay.  

Poppy, narrating: Xu was devastated and furious that people had encouraged his son to end his life, and were continuing to encourage others too. He yelled at the people in the group. He was quickly kicked out and blocked. 

It’s a shocking part of the internet…  not unique to China…  but Xu had found himself looking in on a rumbling problem. 

A rash of suicides were taking place inside schools, often unreported. It’s hard to know exactly the scale of the problem. Official data is disputed. 

But we know it was enough of an issue that in April 2020 a couple of months before Xu’s son died, China’s education ministry began to instruct schools to pay attention to their pupils’ mental health and to adjust the timetable to relieve some of the academic pressure.

Xu: I was really so angry that I couldn’t stand it. I was so angry I threw the phone. 

Poppy, narrating: But Xu told me he couldn’t stop  thinking about the chat group. A couple of days later he decided to go back, this time with a new account. 

He set himself up as a teenager, and tried to make make friends with some in the group who were feeling suicidal. 

He tried to act as a counterweight to the people encouraging them to end their lives. 

He admits he’s not a trained professional. Initially he didn’t know what he was doing. But by trial and error, he began to connect with some of the young people, and they’d open up. 

Every night from 10pm – 2am he lies in his son’s bed. He tells me that he hasn’t changed the sheets.

Xu: I lie on his bed, I cover myself in his quilt, it still smells of him. The room, you know… it’s the last traces of him.

Poppy, narrating: And he chats to young people online who feel desperate. 

Over the last year and a half he’s chatted to around a hundred young people contemplating suicide. He says he thinks he’s helped several dozen to leave these online groups. 

And from these conversations he’s gleaned a lot about what’s troubling some young people in China. 

He says it’s irresponsible to pin suicide or depression on any one thing. He says people he’s spoken to are sad about all sorts: from family breakdowns to bullying, problems in their love lives to pressure at school. 

This last point in particular has been a hot topic recently on China’s internet. 

The extraordinary pressure on school children, especially in the run-up to China’s university entrance exam. 

Xu: They study from about six o’clock in the morning to about ten o’clock in the evening. In the middle, they eat. They get a very short break. It’s basically all studying.     

They generally get up after five o’clock. They get up, do their morning exercise, and after they’re done, they eat. When they’re done eating, they go to class.

They have early class, early independent study, morning class, afternoon class, and in the evening, there’s late independent study.

Poppy, narrating: But to Xu Shihai… it’s not only this pressure that makes life tense for China’s young people. 

It’s also the fact that the round the clock study, the extra-tuition, takes over from all other possible parts of life. 

Xu says it means that young people have no preparation, or guidance, or resources, for life’s other challenges, or for the strange things they may encounter online. 

While working on this episode I spoke to an AI professor at Beijing University – one of the top universities in China – the dream destination for those who come first in the exam. 

She told me that among her undergraduate students – these people who’ve made it, who’ve won – she sees depression, self harm and suicide. 

She told me that outside of their studies, her students have no idea what they enjoy. 

She’s decided to send her own children abroad for their degrees, to avoid the stress – on the whole family – of China’s university entrance exam.

Xu: Speaking as a parent, the pressure in parents’ lives is also rather high. For example, with work and things like that, parents taking care of their own parents, taking care of the elderly, taking care of children… the pressure is all rather high. 

So the pressure on parents is high, the academic pressure on children is high. So then, communicating with each other is rare. 

Poppy, narrating: Speaking to Xu Shihai – and the AI professor – helped me to understand why Lin’ death captured the attention of so many on China’s social media. 

And why people seemed more persuaded by the idea that the school was guilty, and covering something up, over the explanation that it was suicide. 

Those rumours that took off – that he was beaten, or pushed by a teacher – it’s as though in the public mind… the anxiety is that Lin was killed by the pressure, or by the competition, within the education system.  

The way Xu Shihai describes this pressure reminds me of a word that’s been trending on China’s internet over the last year and half. From around the time of his son’s suicide to the time of the incident at number 49 Middle school. 

This word is “involution”. 

It’s quite a nerdy word for a social media hashtag. It’s an anthropological term – and it describes a spiraling inwards. 

It’s like the opposite of evolution. A place is moving forward, it’s developing… but in the process, society, people’s lives, feel like they’re stagnating. 

[Clip: theme song from A Love for Dilemma]

Poppy, narrating: This is the theme song from one of the most popular tv shows in China this year.  A Love for Dilemma. The dilemma is about how to educate your children, and whether it’s even possible to avoid the pressures of the system and still survive in it. It became a hit a few weeks before Lin died. 

Manya: There is a dialogue between two men, two fathers, and they say like, if you go to… It’s like in China, if you go to a cinema and there are so many people there and everybody wants to look at the screen, so some people stand up. And then the people behind them have to stand up and then others grab a ladder and then get even higher. And then everybody grabs a ladder. 

And that’s how they described them… how Chinese society feels like nowadays. And also saying that at the end of the day, all the people in the movie theatres are standing on ladders, you know, everybody’s way up. But it’s very crowded, so nobody can relax. 

But at the same time, they could just all sit down and watch the movie. And now nobody gets to see the movie. So the whole idea about involution is that people are just climbing over each other to get to the top, but nobody actually… it’s very hard to get to the top. So in the end what they’re just doing is trying to cling on to the social status that they have, but they have to invest so much energy and money and effort into staying where they are and not falling back on the social ladder. 

Poppy, narrating: In a way it’s like a souped-up version of what many of us, all around the world, feel. This sense of rush, the relentlessness of work, the stresses on our children, and the uniformity of daily life in 21st century capitalism. 

But it’s been felt particularly acutely in China over the last year. 

And you can see why, with these worries – but little time, or possibility, to do much about them – Lin’s mother’s plight grabs the attention of a nation who have already been asking themselves and each other… what will be the fate of my child in this system? 

Now the question is: what if this were me? 

***

Poppy, narrating: Back at number 49 Middle School… the mood is about to shift. 

It’s Tuesday – two days after Lin died at school. And now some of the protesters who turned up to demand the truth for his mother, have been arrested. 

And this is the moment where the story turns. 

Because the next day, Wednesday, the police in Chengdu reveal the findings of their investigation into Lin’s death. 

They confirm that Lin did kill himself. 

And they have proof. It happened outside the range of the school’s CCTV cameras… but they’ve found evidence from the CCTV camera on another building. And there’s footage from within the school showing how distressed he was in the minutes leading up to his death. 

Manya: I think that once you see the footage with your own eyes, it perhaps becomes a little bit clear that he was not doing well at that point. 

Poppy: So did you feel satisfied at the end of the story that, that the authorities were telling the truth? 

Manya: Oh, yes. I think, yeah. I think after looking at the video and reading about it in so much detail, I was quite convinced that it’s yeah. That this, this, that, this is what happened. 

Poppy, narrating: The police also found depressed and suicidal text messages to his friends on his phone.

They explain for the first time that the school had delayed contacting Lu, Lin’s mother, because his body had been so damaged by the fall that it had taken them a while to identify him.  

It was a totally botched communication effort towards a parent in grief, a complete failure by the school to deal tenderly with an unthinkable situation… but it was a suicide. There was no cover up.

Now… an online backlash begins.

Sympathy for Lin’s mother turns to anger. 

Sue: People felt like the mother was very pitiable. She was a victim. 

But after the officials publish the verdict online… everyone felt like this mother was a villain, that this mother was very bad.

Sue noticed how extreme the backlash against her was.

Sue: Really, beforehand, this mother’s Weibo had all sympathetic comments. But afterwards, after the official facts were made public, all the comments on her Weibo were scolding her. 

Poppy, narrating: The strength of this backlash doesn’t just come from the public.

It feels like it’s being stirred up. 

On Wednesday afternoon, three days after Lin’s death, Sichuan’s Cyber Security Defence Corps states that it will never “sit back and watch damage being done to national security and development interests”.

It blames “hostile forces” for attempting to undermine the stability of the country, and warns that it will not allow a colour revolution – essentially an uprising that threatens to overthrow the government – to happen within China.

This might feel like an extreme response to a protest outside a school. But to the government in China, that protest represents instability. And so it goes on the offensive.

This means that the tone of the story changes dramatically. It’s no longer about one mother and her son, and her need to understand what happened to him.

From this point onwards there’s a new rumour. That foreign forces – possibly even the CIA – have seized upon Lin’s story and amplified it around China’s social media in order to cause social unrest and public distrust.

Sue jokes – that by speaking to me – she is now speaking to foreign forces too. I reassure her that I’m not trying to stir anything up – just to understand. 

But I check whether she’s worried.   

[Clip: Poppy speaking in Mandarin]

Poppy, narrating: She says she’s okay. 

But we’re protecting her identity, because now anyone even talking about Lin’s death with the international media could be said to be collaborating with foreign forces intent on creating trouble in China.  

While reporting this story I have found nothing to suggest that “foreign forces” were promoting Lin’s mother’s post on China’s social media. To me, the initial public response seems to have been genuine.

And Sue agrees – but she also tells me that the later anger and suspicion that this story was stirred up by foreign forces was felt equally genuinely by lots of young people in China. 

Sue: This is connected to our education from the government. The overall trend in China now is… I don’t know.  It’s a bit anti-foreign. I don’t know how I should describe this kind of feeling.  Anyway, it’s strongly related to the government’s guidance.

Poppy, narrating: I have to admit, I find it confusing that the same people can start off furious on behalf of Lin’s mother… and then decide that they are furious with her for upsetting the social order, and that the whole thing was orchestrated by foreign forces. 

Sue tells me it’s because in China today people feel two almost contradictory things simultaneously. 

On one hand, young people feel quite hopeless about their own individual futures – but on the other hand they’re proud and excited about China’s future. 

It does feel ironic that a story about this fear, of a society of individuals pushing themselves so hard, that they feel like they’re spiralling downwards… then gets trumped by another overarching story: that in fact this hard work is collectively building to something spectacular. And that is China’s increasing power in the world… (that’s as long as foreign forces don’t get in the way).

Maybe it’s not contradictory. Maybe this is the ambivalence of a nation living under the rule of a decisive one Party state. Grappling with the advantages and disadvantages. 

But it worries Sue, she tells me, how far the state might go in provoking nationalism among China’s young people – to quell social unrest. 

In this case… it seems to have worked.  

Soon Lin’s mother’s posts, and all the comments, are deleted. The story disappears. 

Who knows whether Lin’s death played a role in getting the government to act? But since the summer China’s government has brought in several quite bold reforms to reduce the pressure on young people in China’s education system. 

“On Saturday Beijing passed an education law that seeks to cut the twin pressures of homework and off-site tutoring in core subjects…”

Reuters news clip

“Tutoring companies can no longer teach compulsory school subjects, teach during school hours, nor earn a profit…”

Al Jazeera news clip

Poppy, narrating: The government has even ended catchment areas, putting a pin in the property bubbles around good schools. 

Xu Shihai, the father you heard from earlier, thinks that the reforms are already making a difference. 

Right now, it’s too early to really know. 

What these reforms do show is how China’s government can pull the plug on an entire industry – such as ed tech º for the sake of the public good. 

“… but many say China’s tutoring industry that was once worth an estimated 140 billion dollars is now decimated…”

Al Jazeera news clip

Poppy, narrating: But this context of the pressure in the education system is only part of what resonated with people about this story. 

There’s another aspect to this story that meant it went wild – and that’s public distrust. 

Outrage at the sense of a cover-up. 

The injustice of an official institution being too sparing with the information they gave to family who needed it, to whom it belonged. 

Sue: It’s not only that the authorities deal with things first and only after that let out the information… It’s that they didn’t tell that boy’s mother straight away. That’s what really rankles the public.

Because in China, familial love is a very important thing. This kind of feeling between mother and child, father and child… it’s maybe the most important thing. Anything that gets in the way of this kind of love will really outrage people.

Poppy, narrating: I was a journalist in China for 5 years. And as a reporter I used to feel like I came across so many different Chinas. Some people lived their lives without ever coming up against the state in any way. 

Their experience of life in China is so different from people who might – simply going about their days – run into something that means they find themselves on the wrong side of the authorities. These people cross a line into a very different, and more frightening, China. 

I’m thinking about – for example – Gao Yaojie. A gynaecologist who, 20 years ago, was just doing her job – trying to inform people about an HIV outbreak in Henan province. But she was put under house arrest because the outbreak began in a contaminated blood bank, and the local authorities didn’t want to be held responsible for it. 

And I’m thinking of another doctor, more recently…

“Well we know that some warnings were ignored or silenced…”

BBC news clip

… Dr Li Wenliang from Wuhan…

“Let’s focus on this doctor. He was working at Wuhan Central Hospital. He noticed seven cases that he thought looked like SARS. And in December he posted a warning about a potential outbreak in a chat group with fellow medics shortly afterwards he was summoned by police and accused of making false statements and being told he’d severely disturbed the social order…”

BBC news clip

Poppy, narrating: The step change – with the Covid-19 story – is that the information he was punished for spreading was information that everyone in. 

It was information that people quickly realised should have been in the public domain. 

When Li Wenliang died of Covid, in February 2020, his name was viewed 1.5 billion times on Weibo. By the next morning the hashtag “we want freedom of speech” was trending… before it was deleted by censors

In Hong Kong, people took to the streets – holding white flowers to signify grief. 

Just as protestors in Chengdu did after Lin died.   

For me… the reaction to Lin’s mother’s post is an aftershock, an expression of the fear and frustration of what it’s been like to live in the place where Covid began. Where vital information was being concealed rather than communicated.  

In China there’s a phrase – neijing, waisong.

It means: keep the tension internal, to keep the society calm. It’s become a way of describing a Chinese bureaucratic practice of sealing information until a plan has been worked out internally, a story been straight, rather than alarm the public and cause chaos.  

But now with social media – it seems that the more Chinese authorities hold onto information, the more nervous it makes the public. 

Manya: The reason why social media is so big in China, the reason why Chinese netizens are among the most active social media users in the world, is because there is a distrust of traditional media. Many people do not trust the state media – that’s why they go to social media to look for alternative news sources. So this idea of looking for the truth is something that you often see on Chinese social media, where people are often very much aware of censorship and how information flows are being controlled online. 

Poppy, narrating: While China’s government is listening to its people about the problems of involution and is working to reduce the pressure on the education system. It’s not clear that they’re doing much about official cageyness, and control of information. 

It feels like they’re nowhere near reconciled to the idea that Chinese people increasingly feel that information vital to their lives, health, family members, does belong to them. 

Where the Covid story in China –  began as a story of withholding information. 

“An investigation by The Associated Press concluded that Chinese health officials not only withheld information about the outbreak they also delayed distributing the Covid-19 genome by several days…”

Al Jazeera news clip 

Poppy, narrating: It’s now become a story of national triumph. China’s Zero-Covid policy is something that a lot of Chinese people are pleased about. 

“After its initial faltering steps China eventually hit this virus hard, shutting its whole economy down. And while there is some doubt about the details of the official figures it’s clear the government believes the trend is going in the right direction…”

BBC news clip

Poppy, narrating: So just as the Covid-19 story began as one of frustration and grief about a cover up, and has ended as one of national pride,  the story about Lin’s death at Chengdu’s number 49 Middle school has had the same arc. 

I think it’s interesting that in Lin’s mother’s initial post on weibo about her son’s death she wrote about herself in political terms.

She wrote: “I am just a regular mother and have always been a dutiful, good citizen. I believe in the government, in the Party and I believe even more in our people. Now my son is gone, yet it’s as though I’m mute with the words I’m trying to say.”

It’s as though she’s aware that she’s now crossing that line, into that other China. 

What’s crucial about this story was that for a few days in May this year so many people in China were prepared to join her there, just for a moment, until they were all corralled back to the safe side of the line.

Now Lin’s mother is silent, she’s left with grief, the loss of her son. 

It’s a pain that Xu Shihai knows well. He says he’s going to do things differently for his two younger children. But he’ll never recover from the death of his eldest son. For now living in his son’s old room, and helping other young people like him online is how he gets through. 

Xu: After a family loses a child so suddenly, it’s like the sky has fallen. From that point, the family will never be complete again. When you sleep at night, you’ll dream of him. When you go out to have fun, going down the street, you’ll think, “Oh, I brought my child to this place. I brought my child to that place.”  

Everything you see, you’ll think of him. So, to say this kind of pain is extraordinarily big… 

There’s no way to describe this kind of pain. It’s really impossible to describe this kind of pain.

Poppy, narrating: It’s a reminder, that although the story of Number 49 Middle School has turned out to lead us back to those big China stories – Covid, propaganda, China’s place in the world – it’s also about one family, one mother’s grief. And a nation worrying whether they might be next. 

If you’ve been affected by the subjects discussed in this podcast then the Samaritans are available to help – 24/7. You can call them for free on 116 123 or visit www.samaritans.org to find your nearest branch.

Thank you for listening. This episode was written and reported by me, Poppy Sebag-Montefiore. It was produced by Claudia Williams. Sound design is by Karla Patella.