China has vowed to crack down on campus bullying following the death of a 14-year-old schoolboy in the southwestern province of Sichuan this month, while insisting that he killed himself as opposed to being the victim of a bullying homicide.
"Campus safety concerns the healthy development of millions of students and the happiness of their families," Premier Li Keqiang told a meeting of China's cabinet, the State Council, earlier this week.
"Schools ... should also be the most secure places when it comes to safety," he said.
Li said schools must employ the "necessary personnel" and use closed-circuit TV to keep a close watch on potential dangers and safeguard students' safety.
He called for an effective mechanism to be established to curb bullying, especially acts of violence, by disclosure, intervention and prevention, saying officials should respond to public concerns by disclosing the results of investigations in a timely manner.
Official media linked his comments to "a number of incidents of campus violence and bullying," including the April 1 death of Zhao Xin, whose bruised body was found at the foot of his dorm building at Taifu Middle School in Sichuan's Luzhou county.
"The incident aroused suspicions among members of the public that the boy had been beaten to death by five other students, who were believed to have bullied him," the China Daily newspaper reported on Tuesday.
Local police have flung a tight security cordon around Taifu since Zhao's death, which has drawn repeated protests local residents said at the time were spontaneous.
"There is a lot of anger about this incident," a Luzhou resident surnamed Lin said. "But the police will detain anyone who looks particularly determined to protest."
He said "hundreds, perhaps thousands" of armed police had been deployed to the town to quell the protests, and that hundreds of people have been detained.
"These are spontaneous protests from people who want justice, who want their views known on the matter, but the police threaten them, saying they are inciting crowds to disrupt public order—that's how they deal with them," he said.
"They have detained hundreds of people in all ... the authorities are suppressing us by force, even though local people aren't causing trouble and have mostly stayed around the vicinity of the school," he said.
Township under lockdown
Zhao's death follows a string of deaths in recent years linked to the offspring of powerful figures in China, many of whom have gone unpunished amid widespread public anger over the behavior of the children of officials.
In Luzhou township, more than 100 police officers were dispatched to the funeral home to remove Zhao's body in a bid to cover up any dissenting narratives soon after his death, residents said.
"Anyone who saw the body has now been detained or placed under close surveillance," a resident surnamed Yi told RFA. "The whole township is under security lockdown, with military vehicles dispatched here."
"Nobody can get in now," Yi said. "Anyone who won't subscribe to their version of events will be beaten up and locked up, so nobody dares to try and find out the truth now."
Yi said local controls on the internet have been stepped up, with the town's connection frequently cut off or interrupted, and social media users blocked from sending any updates.
"The police now has full control of the internet, and they have imposed an information blackout," Yi said. "We can't send anything, text or video."
"I have tried to call a number of journalists from various newspapers, but none of them will touch it," he said. "If the government has the story right, then why not put out its version, rather than preventing any news from getting out?"
Police said Zhao had likely committed suicide, saying there was no evidence to indicate homicide, but online posts said Zhao had been bullied to death by five classmates including the children of high-ranking local figures.
The reports sparked mass protests after they alleged the bullying had previously been reported to police, who did nothing to stop it.
China's powerful propaganda machine swung into action on April 2, ordering all media to delete any reports around Zhao's death, while state news agency Xinhua said it had faced huge obstacles when trying to get to the bottom of the story.
Local sources have told RFA that many of Zhao's immediate family are being held under tight surveillance or house arrest amid continuing anger that the children of powerful people are often seen as above the law.
Four people have been detained by Lu county police on suspicion of "incitement to severe disruption of public order," and face punishment for spreading what police say is "fake news" about Zhao's death.
Local residents said that three of the five alleged bullies have yet to be identified publicly.
"Out of the five murder suspects, they have identified three of them," an anonymous resident told RFA on Wednesday. "They are the son of the township mayor, the son of the head of the local police station, surnamed Tian, and the son of the school principal."
The source said local authorities have waged a campaign to prevent anyone from speaking out about the circumstances surrounding Zhao's death, insisting that everyone say it was a suicide.
An official who answered the phone at the Luzhou municipal government declined to comment in the wake of the incident.
"Please rely on the formal announcements on the Luzhou municipal government website," the official said. "The police are currently in charge of the matter, so you can call and ask them."
"The information you have is just hearsay," he said.
While the propaganda ministry directive leaked online and translated by the U.S.-based China Digital News website ordered all websites to run only official news items on the incident, journalists backed by the ruling Chinese Communist Party said they were denied access to the story too.
The information blackout has resulted in some unusually outspoken reporting from state media.
Articles from Xinhua and party mouthpiece the People's Daily have criticized local officials for preventing official media from speaking to Zhao's family, saying that police ruled out murder just a day after his death.
In October 2015, the chief of police in the northern city of Taiyuan came under fire amid allegations by a whistle-blowing blogger that his son beat up a traffic cop in front of onlookers, and that local authorities stopped the news from getting out.
In the best-known case outside China, a court in northern Hebei province sentenced the son of a high-ranking police officer involved in a hit-and-run road accident to six years in prison in January 2011, despite calls for a much harsher punishment after he caused the death of a female student.
Li Qiming's case brought him nationwide notoriety because of his defiant outburst to officials and angry witnesses to the incident: "Go ahead, sue me. My father is Li Gang!" he reportedly told them.
Reported by Wen Yuqing for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Yang Fan for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.