On May 2, right in the middle of a tiny train station lounge, with dozens of bystanders watching and surveillance cameras shooting from at least three different directions, a policeman gunned down a man in front of his 80-year-old mother and three young kids.
Almost two weeks have passed and the entire country still has not fully figured out what exactly happened in this supposedly well-recorded and easy-to-reconstruct incident. The collective pursuit of truth involves angry editorials from the nation’s most powerful propaganda machines, scores of investigative journalists sent to the site by the most elite media outlets, courageous and determined citizen journalists, anonymous whistleblowers, and an army of relentless netizens using their search-engine savviness to dig out the most obscure details. In the process, hundreds of millions of Chinese people got to know the trivial personal details of Xu Chunhe, the farmer that got killed; a deputy county chief from Qing’an, where the incident happened, got suspended for corruption charges; the entire Qing’an county government apparatus almost got paralyzed by corruption investigations and media inquiries.
Tragically, this near-epic quest for truth in the end failed to deliver what participants hoped could settle down fundamental disputes over what exactly happened. The situation leads observers to lament about the “disappearance of authority” in this country that can serve as the final arbitrator of truth. “Every tiny fact has multiple facets. If you want, you can infinitely challenge the minute details. Without authority, there will be no truth.” But the loss of a final arbitrator is probably not the only reason why truth proves so hard to find. In many ways, the fact about the Qing’an incident is like an allegorical bullet shooting into a powerful force field of public opinion that ultimately bends its ballistic trajectory.
Narrative acts like gravity. When it is reinforced by repeated occurrences, it turns into a gigantic black hole in the universe of public discourse: people can’t resist being drawn to it.
From the very beginning, the interpretation of the shooting is profoundly shaped by the popular narrative that often defines the encounter of China’s law enforcement forces (police, urban administration, etc.) with its subjects. The memory of landmark cases such as the Xia Junfeng case of 2009, where law enforcement forces brutally handled unarmed, marginalized members of the society, lays the foundation for a deeply-rooted mistrust in the minds of ordinary Chinese. So when news came out on May 2, with scant details that a man was shot dead after clashing with the policeman at Qing’an railway station in Heilongjiang province , suspicion immediately ensued. It only intensified after websites released photos from the scene showing an old woman sitting mournfully in front of the man’s dead body, and a young kid clinging to her helplessly.
The man is a Qing’an farmer, Xu Chunhe. The old woman is his 82-year-old mother, Quan Yushun. And the girl is his 7-year-old daughter. At the time of the shooting, Xu’s two sons, one 4 years old and the other 5, were also present. Such a combination of family members, old and young, is sure to draw sympathy for the dead man. Another story of “bad cop killing innocent people” is about to be nailed on the Chinese wall of horror. The revelation of Xu’s previous “petition and complaint” (shangfang) experience adds to the suspicion that the killing might be of a more sinister nature. Could he be killed for wanting to visit higher level authorities to petition for something? After all, petitioners are among the most downtrodden communities of the Chinese society. Their poignant experiences full of beating, interception and detainment are testaments to the dysfunction of China’s judicial system.
This new revelation brings the wrath of Chinese netizens to the point of boiling. The force field of “police brutality” starts to block out information that challenges the initial reading of the event. For instance, a detailed May 4 report by the official news agency Xinhua trying to reconstruct the scene falls short of making a dent on that perception. The Xinhua journalist, who reportedly had the privilege to review the recording of surveillance cameras, provides disturbing details of the scene: Xu lifted his own daughter overhead and THREW her on the ground; he also grabbed the policeman’s baton and hit the policeman even after the latter pointed the gun at him. Both new details are damaging to Xu, who has been imagined by many as the suppressed and disadvantaged. And attacking the policeman makes the shooting more justifiable. But the Xinhua report only provokes more intensive questioning. It has become obvious now that the authority is in possession of the full surveillance video. Then why don’t make it public if what it shows truly makes a case for the policeman? This is a question that bugs even the most pro-government minds. The Global Times’ Weibo editor becomes visibly angry by scolding the Qing’an local government for procrastinating on releasing the surveillance video: “Why wait until your credibility is completely bankrupted? Why can’t you learn from previous lessons?”
Well, the whole country has to wait a few more days for the video to come. And while everyone is waiting, shrewd Chinese netizens come up with a plan to force the hand of the local government. You don’t publicize the video. OK, I will dig up any dirt I can find about the county until you oblige. This vigilante-style online blackmailing campaign has the potential to be one of the most memorable episode of government-netizen interaction on the internet in years to come. It is not only full of bitter irony, but also powerful enough to make other local governments quiver in the anticipation of possible future campaigns against themselves.
The first to fall victim to the netizens’ tactic is Qing’an’s deputy county chief, who, in the wake of the incident, made an unwise decision to publicly praise the policeman for his “bravery in front of the mobster.” Incensed netizens “gang-searched” him on the internet, yielding tons of embarrassing results: his resume was shown to have been falsified, his residence registry was manipulated, and his wife was found to be enjoying a government salary without actually doing the job. On May 12, ten days after the railway station shooting, Deputy County Chief Dong Guosheng was suspended from his duties.
No matter whether the tactic actually accelerates the release of the video, it clearly helps to keep the issue in news headlines. What it also does is further complicating public perception of the incident: now that we know the county government is corrupt, it is even more difficult to break free from the pulling power of the temptation to think that something sinister is behind the incident.
Almost at the same time of the suspension of the deputy county chief, Caixin Weekly released its exclusive report of the shooting, which adds yet another spin to the story. This time, it is the moral weaknesses of the protagonist that are under scrutiny. Caixin interviews fellow villagers of Xu to find out that he has a reputation for being “lazy” and is frown up for drinking profusely. He spends much of his leisure time in an Internet cafe. From his mother’s recollection, he downed a full cup of Chinese baijiu and half a bottle of beer before entering that fateful train station on that afternoon. He had no intention of petitioning anybody. Caixin’s report is not the most damaging for Xu’s (postmortem) reputation. There are also netizens who turn their search savviness to the same direction. One of them finds out early on that Xu’s irresponsibility is already a matter of media attention way before the shooting. As early as 2011, a Dalian newspaper reported about Xu’s mother begging on the street with the three kids, a result of her son’s tardiness and alcoholism.
Just because this guy is an irresponsible loser, he deserves to be shot dead in a train station? While part of the online discussion moves readily towards that direction, Tsinghua University political scientist Liu Yu insists that mixing one’s morality with one’s procedural rights is a sign of China’s pre-modern immaturity. And moral judgment also influences one’s reading of the incident, especially with regard to the victim’s motive. So far no one has got any clear idea about why Xu clashed with the policeman in the first place. And depending on one’s moral leaning, public opinion oscillates between “self-defense against police violence” and “malicious provocation under the influence of alcohol.”
It seems that only the surveillance video itself can dispel all the man-made mist over what happened on that afternoon. Even Xinhua News Agency joined the chorus of voices calling for its publication. Apparently, its own verbal re-creation of the video does nothing but further mystifies the issue. The Qing’an county authority itself might also be secretly craving for a closure: the national spotlight has proved to be too glaring for an otherwise backwater town. Thirsty journalists and netizens are following every lead they can find of scandals in that county, which is quickly increasing. So here it comes. At 11:00 sharp on May 14, CCTV News aired the EDITED version of the much expected surveillance video.
Viewers of the video would be shocked to find a drunken Xu Chunhe stumbling his way into the station. After sitting for a while, he started to harass other passengers and turned many of them away at the security check point, for no apparent reason. At this point, the policeman came to intervene. He grabbed and twisted Xu’s arms to allow other passengers to enter the station. But Xu resisted and hit him with a water bottle. Curiously, without cuffing Xu up, the policeman let go of Xu and rushed back to his office. Xu chased (!) him to the office and kicked violently at the door. When the policeman re-emerged into the camera, a nasty street-fight-style struggle ensued. His police baton did not scare Xu. It was in the middle of this fight that Xu did something horrible: he tried to throw his own daughter at the policeman. The video did not record sound from the scene, but at that split second, one can almost hear the banging of the kid’s head on the cement ground. That inaudible sound eliminated whatever sympathy most people still had for Xu.
The rest of the video is well known. Xu grabbed the baton from the policeman. Despite being pointed at by a gun, he did not stop his attack until hit by the bullet. He collapsed on the bench. And then the camera recorded a moment that crystallized probably the most unfathomable human expression: Xu’s mother, the old woman, picked up the baton slipping from the hand of his dying son, and hit him twice, as if disciplining a petulant child.
By then most people would consider the policeman’s use of gun not completely unjustifiable. But the fact that CCTV plays the role that should have belonged to a prosecutor or an independent fact finding commission makes some people feel icky. What’s even ickier is the video being edited before showing to the public. For those critics, key questions remain unanswered: what provoked Xu to block others from entering the station? How to make sense of another leaked video from a bystander’s mobile phone which shows the policeman brutally beating Xu up for 30 seconds with his baton, something that is not reflected in the CCTV version?
These questions probably will never get answered. Even they do, they will not alter the basic facts of the incident: Xu violently attacked a policeman on duty. But the ultimate difficulty of even reaching to this conclusion, collectively, shows just how tortured the process is for any official position to be recognized by the public in those controversial cases. Paradoxically, it seems that now more than ever, the authority eagerly wants to win over public opinion on such issues. Instead of resorting to a restraint and detached judicial body for the arbitration of controversial cases like this, the authority relies on mass media outlets such as CCTV and Weibo, to settle them. It acts as though it was dealing with a billion-member grand jury, and would do anything to sway its verdict on issues ranging from police brutality to celebrity using.
Insomuch as this approach of judicial populism “respects” public opinion, it has the fatal downside of poisoning the well of public discourse. To influence a grand jury of that scale, you have to deploy advocacy “nuke bombs” such as centralized propaganda machine. What it leaves the country with is the irreversible erosion of the credibility of authoritative institutions and the force field that becomes ever harder for truth to penetrate.