Chinese teenager’s suicide puts cyberbullying and unethical journalism in spotlight

Society & Culture

A 17-year-old student launched an online campaign to find his biological parents after his adoptive parents died. His quest for belonging ended in tragedy.

Liu Xuezhou

Content Warning: This article contains mentions of suicide.

If you or anyone you know is having thoughts of suicide or self-harm, there are people who want to help: In the U.S., the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at 800-273-8255. In China, the Beijing Suicide Research and Prevention Center can be reached at at 800-810-1117 or 010-8295-1332. Also, there is a list of suicide and emergency helplines around the world with links to more detailed hotlines.

Liú Xuézhōu 刘学州, a 17-year-old college student from Xingtai, Hebei Province, took his own life on January 24 after his recent reunion with biological parents — and the subsequent family feuds — were widely covered in the media, resulting in a deluge of unwanted attention and vicious vitriol that he struggled with publicly. Now Chinese internet users are demanding justice for the teenager — and in the process, they’re raising awareness of the dangers of cyberbullying and of unethical practices of journalists.

In the early morning hours of Monday, Liu’s body was found at a beach in Sanya, the southernmost seaside city in the island province of Hainan. Hours before his death, Liu posted a lengthy article (in Chinese) on Weibo, writing that he “had suffered enough” and “was ready to start a new journey.”

Although police in Sanya launched a search for Liu immediately after they were made aware of the 10,000-word suicide note, they were too late to stop the teenager from overdosing on antidepressants. Liu was rushed to the hospital when his body was discovered, but doctors were unable to save him. Liu was pronounced dead at around 4 a.m. on Monday.

In his final words shared on Weibo, Liu opened up about a long string of misfortunes that had accompanied his short life and addressed a whirlwind of events that led up to his suicide, including his fraught relationship with his biological parents, which had made him a target of cyberbullying.

The story of Liu, who was orphaned at the age of four when his adoptive parents died in an accident, first came to national attention when he launched a social media campaign soliciting help to find his biological family. In a video posted on December 6, Liu claimed that he was sold by his birth parents to a human trafficker when he was three months old. After his adoptive parents passed away, Liu said he had been mostly raised by his adoptive grandparents and had moved around a lot, staying with different relatives.

According to Liu, as a second-year student at a vocational school in Shijiazhuang, Hebei Province, he had to work several jobs to pay for his studies and was barely scraping by despite saving by living in a dilapidated house.

As his search for his parents gained traction online, police from his home region decided to get involved and successfully found his biological father through DNA testing. On December 27, Liu met his birth father at a reunion organized by the police. About a week later, Liu found his mother, who he said was “overjoyed” to see him and even invited him to spend the Chinese New Year with her. In interviews with various news outlets, the parents, who had broken up and started new families, confessed that they gave up Liu for 27,000 yuan ($4,264) so that the father could pay the bride price demanded by his ex-wife’s family.

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However, the heartwarming moments that Liu shared with his birth parents turned out to be fleeting. In a surprise turn of events, Liu wrote on January 17 that both of them had cut off communication with him, forbidding him from visiting their homes and telling him to stay away from their families.

Then things turned ugly. When talking to the Beijing News, Liu’s biological parents claimed that the teenager tried to guilt-trip them into buying or renting an apartment for him, a request that was beyond their financial ability. “Wouldn’t you stay away if he were your child and was being so defensive that he even recorded your conversations?” the mother was quoted as saying. “He tried to force us to buy him a home, but we are not well off enough to do that.”

Although Liu later denied the accusation, saying that all he wanted was a “complete” family and a safe place to live, the article published by the Beijing News unleashed a torrent of hate and vitriol towards Liu, with outraged critics calling him “a scheming liar” and “a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” among many other negative labels.

In his suicide note, Liu revealed the extent of online bullying he had to deal with, saying that his direct messages on social media were flooded with cruel comments telling him to kill himself and attacking his appearance. Liu wrote that after getting bullied by his classmates when he was little, enduring sexual harassment by a male teacher at middle school, and being “abandoned by biological parents twice,” he had seen enough of “the dark side of humanity” and “was too tired to live on.”

As with almost every cyberbullying case that eventually led to a tragic death, the tide of public opinion has sharply turned following Liu’s suicide. Online, a growing number of social media users blamed internet trolls for driving Liu to suicide and urged Weibo to beef up its anti-bullying tools. “What kind of sick individual sends mean messages to a 17-year-old teenager who is basically homeless and whose entire life is a series of unfortunate events? These keyboard warriors are monsters,” a Weibo user wrote (in Chinese).

Others took aim at the Beijing News, saying that it was irresponsible for the newspaper to publish the parents’ accusations without hearing Liu’s side of the story. “You have blood on your hands,” one person wrote (in Chinese). The criticism has apparently grown so intense that the newspaper had to disable comments on its official Weibo account, but it has yet to release a statement addressing the situation.