“Promptly delete harmful contents that are speculative, provocative or accusatory in nature. Every malicious or sensationalising weibo account must be closed without exception.”
These were the instructions issued by the State Council Information office in the wake of a deadly arson attack on a bus in the southern city of Xiamen on June 7, according to the Hong-Kong based website China Digital Times.
Forty-seven people – including the arsonist – died in the explosion and subsequent inferno, with another 37 injured, Xinhua reported.
But what the news agency didn’t mention was the reason for the attack. The arsonist was an elderly petitioner who has spent two years doing battle with the local authorities to get access to his pension.
Chen Shuizong was either 59 or 61 years-old. He thought the latter: his gripe, according to Shanghai-based Oriental Morning News, was that officials had made a mistake on his date of birth, preventing him from retiring when he turned 60.
The newspaper quoted local police as saying that Chen used petrol to start the blaze as the bus was travelling along an elevated expressway. The vehicle was quickly engulfed in flames.
Online reaction was mixed. While many were disgusted at Chen’s act, a surprising number empathised with his reasons.
“The Xiamen bus case is hateful but it shows normal people can’t tolerate things anymore,” wrote one weibo user whose post was later deleted. “In his own way, he is brave man. I wish the government could care about such things to prevent them happening again,” wrote another.
For others the fire was a metaphor: “Remember society is just one big public bus. If one person feels desperate, others would not be safe. We must take care of weak groups to make sure we are all protected,” argued one popular post that was forwarded thousands of times.
Petitioners – people seeking to appeal against the rulings of their local authorities – have become an increasingly common sight in China’s main cities, often as the result of land grab cases (WiC first wrote about them in issue 62).
Xi Jinping’s new government has pledged to crack down on such grabs, as well as ordering that petitioners, many of whom have ended up in so-called “black jails”, now be treated “kindly”.
Last month – in a legal first – seven men from the central province of Henan were sentenced to up to two years in prison for illegally detaining 11 petitioners as they tried to travel to Beijing.
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