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China: Parents not told why teenage son died at school

“Dad, happy Father’s Day! Don’t smoke and drink so much. Everything is fine with me,” Zhang Ning, an 18-year-old high school student, wrote to his father on June 16.

He sent the message shortly after 10 p.m. from the campus of Zhecheng High School in Shangqiu, a city in the central province of Henan, where he lived.

His father, Zhang Jianshe, never imagined that this would be the last message from his son.

The next morning, at around 5 a.m., Jianshe received a phone call from his son’s class headteacher, informing him to come to the school because Ning had been in an accident. Jianshe and his wife were extremely anxious.

It wasn’t until they arrived at the school that they were informed that their son had been sent to the hospital because “he was in bad shape.” The couple rushed to the hospital, but by then, Ning’s body had already been taken to the morgue.

They saw their son in a morgue’s freezer and broke down in tears of grief. Ning’s mother was unable to accept the reality of her son’s sudden death. She asked the headteacher how her son had died, but the teacher only said that he died right after he had been found, and she doesn’t know anything else.

No answers from the school, police intervene

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To find out their son’s cause of death, Ning’s parents, accompanied by some of their relatives, went to the school. To their surprise, they found the school’s gate closed, and the school administration turned them away, refusing to discuss the matter.

Out of desperation, the group of relatives began crying outside the closed gates. Soon, the police arrived. But they didn’t come to help them solve the case of their son’s death. Instead, they forcibly snatched phones from family members and onlookers to prevent them from taking photos or videos. Even old recordings, stored on the Zhang family’s cellphones, were deleted.

Video: Family members stand in front of the school and denounce the government’s failure to help them solve the case of their son’s death.

On the morning of June 18, more than a dozen members of the Zhang family returned to the school again, where they were met by 30 police officers. The police also blocked off the traffic at the nearby intersections.

At around 9 a.m., the school allowed three family representatives to enter the school for “mediation.” But what the Zhang family never expected was that not only did the school and police not mention Ning’s cause of death, but even ordered them to stop crying outside the school since “it was against the law.” The police threatened to arrest them if they continued “to make trouble.”

Left with nothing again, the family, including Ning’s grandmother, wept under the scorching summer sun outside the school’s gate.

Video: Zhang Ning’s grandmother in her seventies was weeping in grief on the ground outside the school.

Some bystanders started filming the scene, but a group of police officers soon surrounded them, threatening to “take immediate action” against them if any videos or photos were posted online. The officers then forced the Zhang family members into police cars.

Ning’s sister managed to film what was happening, but seven or eight officers immediately attacked her, seizing her phone. The officers rudely shouted at them that filming police was against the law. Jianshe’s two nephews were hit and threatened to be beaten to death for “assaulting the police.”

Video: Members of the Zhang family were forced into police cars and taken away.

Police actions spark public indignation

Onlookers of the scene tried to shame the police, saying: “Their child died, and the parents weren’t even allowed to cry.” The people were shocked that the police arrested the relatives of the deceased boy instead of helping them to find out the cause of his death.

“With the evil Communist Party in power, people have nowhere to turn for answers even in cases like this,” the onlookers commented. “The Communist Party controls everything the way it wants, and people just have to suffer and bear injustice.”

Even though 18-year-old Ning died at his school, and the cause of his death was unknown, the local government not only didn’t launch an investigation, but on the contrary, tried to prevent the family from finding out the truth. The family still doesn’t know how their son died and why the authorities tried to cover it all up.

Seeking for justice means ‘provoking the state’

People’s attempts to safeguard their legitimate rights and interests in China — especially when it involves the national government and institutions — are increasingly dealt with as “a disturbance” or “a provocation,” and are often suppressed.

In March, hundreds of parents who complained about moldy food at the cafeteria of Qizhong Experimental School in Chengdu, the capital of the southwestern province of Sichuan, were pepper-sprayed and taken away by the police.

Meanwhile, the company that was the cause of the food contamination was protected; even incident-related posts online have been deleted. The government released test results stating that the “food met safety standards.”

Zhang Xuezhong, a human rights lawyer and constitutional law expert, commented on such cases

“When I see the constant stream of news about our children being maltreated at school or being injured by bad vaccines and toxic foods, I’m not surprised at all,” he said.  

“Every time something like this happens, the government doesn’t focus on dealing with the evildoers and perpetrators, but rather on the parents who seek an explanation.”

This article is from the online magazine Bitter Winter.

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