Tragic Deaths and Media Cover-Ups, from 1994 to Today

By Isabella Tianzi Cai

Earlier this month, the story of a dead Chinese college student circulated the Internet under close monitoring by Chinese press authorities. The 23-year-old man, Zhao Wei, was a college student making his way home by train. He traded his seat with a passenger in another car so as to stay close with his friend. Somewhere during this exchange, he got on the bad side of his train conductor. He was led away by railway police and mysteriously died.

An initial autopsy report ruled that Zhao’s death was due to his jumping off the train. His body suffered many injuries, with signs also showing that he had been handcuffed. Unconvinced by the findings, Zhao’s bereft parents have been trying to petition the authorities to investigate further. As stated by official Chinese news channels, the case will be properly handled by the railway police, which, ironically, may have also caused the death.

Zhao’s tragic death and its murky aftermath echo the December 8, 1994 fire incident in Urumqi, which is explored in a powerful documentary, Karamay, by Xu Xin. In both these incidents, ordinary young people were victims. The Karamay fire raged in a theater where roughly 1,000 students and teachers gathered to perform for a visiting delegation of government officials. Because of inadequate fire escape routes and instructions, 323 people, including 284 children, were killed, while nearly all the officials, who were the first to be evacuated, left unscathed.

As the details of Zhao’s horrifying death have leaked into China’s public sphere, they have triggered concern over public safety issues. Upon learning of Zhao’s death, people have reason to think that if such police brutality can happen on a train, it can happen elsewhere as well. The Karamay fire also had this effect on those who learned the facts of the matter. The victims’ parents had all intuitively treated the theater as a safe public venue for their children, but were tragically let down.

As distressing as Zhao’s death is the apparently futile quest for justice by his parents, whose efforts have proven powerless against a giant state apparatus. The parents of the Karamay incident suffered a similar fate. As described in Xu Xin’s epic investigation, their years of tireless efforts to demand an official apology have resulted in nothing. They have had to put up with not only the the trauma of their personal loss, but the apathy and indifference of the authorities.

Another similarity between the two incidents is the media blackout that surrounded both of them. Since the Karamay fire, only upbeat news reports about the fire circulated in the public, paying lip service to the victims while assuring that new safety measures will prevent such a tragedy from happening again. Seventeen years have now passed. One may judge how much China’s media landscape has evolved from the excerpt of an article by David Bandurski below:

The fact that the Zhao Wei story is still being actively scrubbed from the Internet, combined with the fact that no other mainstream media have touched the story, strongly suggests there has been some sort of directive from press authorities on this story that either defines it as off-limits or sends the signal that coverage is risky.

Many thanks to David Bandurski for bringing the story of Zhao Wei to greater attention. David is editor of the Chinese Media Project, and also the producer of films directed by Zhao Dayong, including Ghost Town and Street Life, both distributed by dGenerate.

Karamay will screen on Sunday April 3 at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, as part of the series Fearless: Chinese Independent Documentaries.

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