The shooting death of a man inside a train station by police has touched off debate over citizen's rights and the costs of maintaining stability in China.
On May 2, a police officers approached Xu Chunhe at Qing'an train station in the northern province of Heilongjiang after he reportedly prevented people from entering the station, which had refused to sell him tickets. The situation soon escalated between Xu and the police and ended when one of the officers shot him. Photos of Xu’s body on the station floor – his child standing over it – quickly circulated around the Internet in China, followed by allegations of police brutality.
Xu, a peasant living in northeastern Qing'an county, had done part-time labor to earn a living before he broke his leg in a traffic incident. According to a report in Chinese media outlet Caixin, Xu's wife suffered mental illness, and the family struggled to make ends meet. Xu's 82-year-old mother wanted her three grandchildren to enter a welfare home and started her petition journey to big cities, but she ended up begging in the streets with her three grandchildren in Beijing. In February, local authorities took them back to their village after a Beijing newspaper reported on their grievances.
Police initially downplayed Xu's shooting death, saying he had attacked the police and tried to grab the officer's gun, adding that Xu appeared drunk. But many cited the incident as a typical case of state violence in its efforts to maintain stability at all costs.
In response to public skepticism, China's state television broadcast an edited version of the train station's surveillance footage 12 days after the shooting. In it, Xu can be seen fighting the officer. As an officer hits Xu with his baton, Xu at one point picks up his young daughter and throws her at the officer. Xu and the officer continue to struggle and Xu eventually takes the officer's baton. As Xu swings at him, the officer fires, hitting Xu.
China’s Xinhua News Agency said an investigation by Harbin Railway Police found that the police acted properly. But the family’s lawyer, Xie Yanyi, alleged the video shown on national television was edited to defame Xu morally and filed suit against CCTV accusing the network of distorting fact and broadcasting a biased report.
The release of station surveillance footage seemed to alleviate some of the public's concerns, but not completely. Some argued that Xu using his own daughter as a weapon against the officer proved he deserves no sympathy. But others have questioned why the officer seemed to shoot to kill, instead of wound, why the video was released after so many days, and even if Xu really attacked the officer to begin with.
Many believed that the train station refused to sell tickets to him because the authorities had tried to stop him and his family from petitioning in Beijing, a concerning development if true because the government has recently vowed to protect citizens’ petitioning right. In China, petitioning is a system for ordinary people to appeal to the provincial or central government to investigate abuse of power or corruption committed by local authorities. Many petitioners end up in Beijing and some become beggars so that they can continue to petition in the capital. Because of their persistence, petitioners are labelled as paranoid or mentally ill. Local authorities often “kidnap” the petitioners, send them back to their hometown and stop them from traveling out again.
The case garnered widespread attention on Twitter-like Weibo, with Xu seen as representative of China's ordinary people. A commentary on Beijing Times criticized the police's impartial investigation:
Beijing Times: “Qing'an incident cannot end with the police investigation on the shooting.” Why did Xu Chunhe stop other travelers from departing on the train? In the police investigation, Xu's intention was ignored. If it were appropriate for the police officer to shoot, why did the local authorities sign a compensation agreement with his family? Why did the railway police withhold the surveillance footage for so long? The truth is incomplete.
He Weifang, a famous law professor, criticized CCTV report:
Public trust depletion syndrome: CCTV’s footage seems to justify the police’s shooting. But doubts still exist. Why did Xu suddenly block the entrance? Why was he furious about the police intervening? State television didn’t say a word. How could the conclusion convince the public when the investigation has been undertaken by the security department?
The post was quickly removed. A censorship order was issued demanding all media outlets, online and offline, not to “follow up on or hype the Qing’an shooting incident” and to “take note and delete negative, harmful Internet commentary”. The Weibo account of Zhang Xuezhong, a well-known dissident and law expert, was deleted after he wrote an article criticizing state violence to maintain societal stability:
Xu Chunhe was another scapegoat of the stability control system, which is another term for despotism. […] due to his ordinary status, Xu was deprived of the right to buy train tickets and was shot to death in front of his mother and children.
Sun Liping, a famous sociologist, believed Xu was killed by the hostility of the system against petitioners:
Some call the shooting murder, but I don’t think so. I’d rather attribute it to the systemic hostility against petitioners. After years of defaming petitioners, officials have gradually formed a mindset: they are just troublemakers, they are disposable freaks.
The public strongly demand the authorities to release the surveillance video of the shooting. It’s certainly important because it not only confirms the police’s shooting accountability, but make sure that a dubious shooting doesn't become a secret. However, I feel what’s more important is beyond the video. Does the tragedy arise from Xu being blocked for his previous petitions? If it is, this shooting would be a bloody case caused by misgovernance in maintaining stability, no matter what details the videos reveal.
Wang Zhi’an, an investigative journalist, argued that the allegation of Xu assaulting the police officer doesn't justify the shooting:
It’s wrong for police to shoot and kill whenever assaulted. Attacking police includes many things like slapping, punching or stabbing. Should police kill them all? Should police just directly open fire on protesters of mass incidents [massive protests] with machine guns even those the incidents could lead to violent act and police assaults? Police open fire only if they face real and urgent dangers. There should be a standard laying out the procedure in advance, and afterward there is an investigation. It should be the exception, the result of extreme caution, for police to kill a civilian without a trial.
Xu had participated in local Christian activities and built an online talk group, which remains active with nearly 200 disciples. Wang Yi, who is a Christian, expressed a strong feeling of compassion towards Xu:
I have to admit that Xu Chunhe is one of my most humble, miserable and poor brothers in this day and age. I wouldn't do better nor endure longer if I were living in his conditions. Christians have been named saints not because of their virtues but because they want to let Jesus’ blood cover their failures. I’ve been called to work for these people for I myself belong to them.