Focus topics

The death of a student and the distrust in the authorities

A 15-year-old boarding school student was reported missing on October 14, 2022. Both the school and local police in Qianshan in east China’s Jiangxi province said they tried everything they could in their search for him. In truth, the search was likely more perfunctorily. Three months later, Hu Xinyu was still nowhere to be found.

His parents had reported their son’s disappearance on the Internet early on and asked for help. But it was a conspiracy theory that helped attract national attention: Hu may have been abducted and killed by an underground network that harvests and sells organs to people who are in need of transplants. Local officials and even members of the school were rumored to have been involved.

No evidence was provided to support this terrifying hypothesis. But netizens kept spreading it.

This case is an example of a serious problem that the Chinese government has brought on itself: a lack of credibility.

Surveillance cameras are installed at every street corner all over China. The government seems to be able to find and catch anybody who the authorities deemed even remotely dangerous for the government. How could they not find a high school student, if they really wanted to? For the public, that could be either because the authorities did not want to put any effort into the search for an ordinary student from the countryside, or worse, because something truly evil is happening inside the government.  

Organ trade was real (or still is?)

China has indeed a dubious track record when it comes to the supervision of organ transplants. A former vice health minister, Huang Jiefu, admitted that the organs of criminals had been used for transplant without consent, but the practice had been stopped since 2015. All transplanted organs have been from voluntary donors, he said.

But this has not dispelled public concern that the practice still exists. Whenever there is news of a young man who went missing, somebody would say that the unfortunate guy might have been butchered for his liver or kidneys. 

While public attention to Hu’s case was increasing, an article commemorating a retired senior government official further fueled the rumor about organ harvest. Gao Zhanxiang, a former vice cultural minister, died in December at the age of 87 shortly after the country lifted Covid lockdowns. The article praised Gao for his optimism toward life “despite having received multiple transplants”. 

While discussion about Gao heated up, somebody dug out old social media posts about former finance minister Jin Renqing. Jin, who died in 2021 at 77, was said to have received a heart transplant. The organ reportedly came from a 28-year-old man. 

Party and government officials enjoying luxury medical service is an open secret in China. The bulk of the country’s public spending on health care goes to incumbent or retired politicians and bureaucrats, who claim to be the servants of the people.  

The people don’t believe the police

On January 28, Hu’s body was finally found in a yard not far from the campus. He was announced to have hung himself with a shoestring. The local government held a press conference, presenting the final investigation result: Depression resulting from academic pressure was most likely the reason for the suicide. Text and voice messages by Hu were presented as evidence.  

However, this conclusion did not silence the questions. Shortly after the conference, quite a few videos of experiments testing the strength of shoestrings emerged on social media, challenging the official narrative.

Also, Hu’s family members did not show up for the press conference. The press conference, like most government press conferences in China, had all the indications to be choreographed. All questions seemed to be pre-assigned to cooperative journalists.  

Li Lianying, Hu’s mother, has been the major voice for the family. After the press conference, all her social media posts were deleted, with no explanation. No more comments were heard from Hu’s family and classmates, prompting rumors that their communication with the outside world is tightly controlled and the family might even be living under house arrest.  

Hu’s family was silenced

This is also the typical way how China’s governments deal on all levels with any incident they deem negative: They exert control. Deep in their minds, they know chances are there is something in the government that could not stand up to scrutiny and investigation. So their instinct is to always cover things up, hoping to solve them without anyone noticing. When this is not possible, they would start to control information and control people who could speak out against the will of the government.  

The world has seen the practice in the government’s management or mismanagement of the information related to Covid, both at the beginning of the disease’s outbreak and at the end of the pandemic.  

The authorities assume that with time and a certain level of control, people will lose interest in any bad events will fade. In the best-case scenario, would erupt and divert public attention, such as a war or earthquake somewhere in the world. If this does not happen, a scandal involving a Chinese film star or entertainer could be trotted out on purpose to do the job.

This approach often works. Public debate over Hu’s case, for example, has indeed gradually diminished. But the tragedies and the government’s handling of them remain in the memory of some. Skepticism lingers. When the next big incident happens, the whole process will simply repeat itself.  

So the government’s credibility is always doubted, except in one specific area: nationalist propaganda over issues such as Taiwan or some malicious foreign countries.  


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