The most disheartening story in China over the weekend was how a now 8-year-old boy has been allegedly detained for about 4 years in a “black jail” in Jinwan in the city of Zhuhai, Guangdong province, and has changed from a “genius to a mentally-disabled.” All is because the boy’s parents are what local government labels as “illegal petitioners.” But as Chen Fengqiang, the boy’s stepfather, is making waves online, doubts about the truth behind the story arise.
A “black jail” is a widely-existent yet technically illegal system in China where local governments hold petitioners that they see as trouble makers. The boy was said to be detained because his parents have been petitioning, both locally and in Beijing, about the seizure of their land by local government since 2002.
In May 2010, the boy’s stepfather, Chen Fengqiang, was sentenced to 3 years in prison for disturbing social order in Beijing. In the meantime, his biological mother was said to be detained by local authorities in Zhuhai, Guangdong province. That was the time when the boy was allegedly taken by local police and put into a “black jail.”
The story went viral on Sina Weibo, China’s most dynamic microblog service, almost instantly, with thousands of netizens praying for the boy and calling for justice to be done. However, a public announcement by Jinwan government added an interesting twist to the story.
According to the announcement, Chen has a total of 3 kids, the boy and another two with his previous partner. Chen asked his two brothers to take care of the kids after being sentenced to 3 years in Beijing. But not long after, the two brothers brought all 3 kids to local police, saying that they were beyond their means to keep the kids. Local community workers then took over the responsibility of taking care of the kids. Two of Chen’s older kids continued their school. The boy, however, is born with cerebral palsy. He was, according to the announcement, given the utmost care 24/7. In the course of 3 years, local government claimed that they have spent more than 198,000 RMB on living and educational expenses for the 3 kids.
After Chen was released in 2012, the announcement claimed, he took home only his two older and normal kids but left the disabled boy to the care of local government. Local authorizes have tried to sent the boy back to Chen’s care ever since, but Chen either refused or ignored the request, saying that he had no intention to take care a disabled kid who is not his.
To this point, Chen, the disable veteran who has been fighting for his own rights for years, and the local government in Jinwan have offered two opposite versions of what happened to the boy in the past 4 years. Usually in a case like this, Chinese netizens would undoubtedly choose to side with the seeming “oppressed.” After all, like one netizen SilentWar commented: “The government has but negative credibility.”
This time, however, many netizens seemed to buy into the official explanation. One netizen 有秋意 commented: “This [the government announcement] sounds more reasonable.” Another netizen 长亭树下 agreed: “I think this [the government announcement] is telling the truth.”
Careful netizens who have been closely following the story also raised doubts about Chen’s integrity. For example, since Chen started to use social media to fight for his rights in 2012, he hasn’t mentioned a single word about the boy until very recently. Netizen 腊月酷暑 asked: “I did some research. He only started to talk about the boy since May 5, 2013 after opening his Weibo account in 2012. This is not normal.” 北京厨子, a popular Weibo celebrity, had the same doubt: “Chen Fengqiang, can you explain why there wasn’t a single word on your disabled boy in the first 60 Weibo posts under your current account name?”
More interestingly, diligent netizens dug out a post by Chen on popular online community Tianyan in early May. In the post, Chen said that the boy was born with developmental problems and blamed local government for trying to push the boy to his care.
There are, of courses, netizens who thought the government’s version of the story was too good to be true. For example, netizen 七七麒麒 asked: “Will a government that cannot even do their own jobs well go as far as taking care a disabled boy abandoned by his family? I don’t buy it.” Another baby-miSsL had the same thought: “I don’t buy it. If the government is so good, why there are so many homeless kids on the streets? Why did the government only take good care of this particular boy 24/7?”
At the end of the day, evidence speaks, like netizen波浪的海1982 commented: “One side wants to blackmail the government. The other side wants to shift the blame. The best way now is to show us evidence. Chen needs to prove that the boy was indeed detained in a ‘black jail.’ Jinwan government needs to prove that they indeed took care of the boy instead of abusing him.”
The most significant change in the case is Chinese netizens’ attitude towards such a story. Gone are the days when people buy into everything the government says. Gone, too, are the days when people automatically buy into stories depicting an “evil” government.
The proliferation of social media in China, Weibo in particular, has brought to people’s attention many news that they had no way to learn about in the old days through tradition media tightly controlled by the government. Needless to say, these otherwise unknown news are more about the dark side of the society. There is a saying that one day on Weibo needs to be balanced out by five days of CCTV (China Central Television) news.
There was a time when everybody would overwhelmingly side with the “oppressed” in a story like Chen’s. But as people become more adapted to various online exposé, they start to question such stories just like how they would question government propaganda or official rhetoric. Like netizen 可不可以不要昵称 pointed out: “All we care about is the truth.”