China’s Ministry of Public Security says it will investigate the fatal shooting of a man at a railway station in northeast China, following an online and media outcry at an alleged cover-up by local officials. Meanwhile an official who praised the police officer who carried out the shooting has been suspended, after angry Internet users revealed that his university degree and other credentials were fake. 

The case, which is the latest reminder of the potential influence of online public scrutiny in China -- something about which the government is increasingly concerned -- was originally portrayed as a simple one. Initial press reports said that, on May 2, a policeman in Qing’an county, Heilongjiang province, had shot dead a man who had tried to prevent passengers from entering the local railway station, and had then tried to grab the officer’s gun.

The man, 54-year-old Xu Chunhe, was shot after injuring the officer and ignoring his warnings, police said. At a time when Chinese police have been on heightened alert after a series of attacks -- some blamed on separatists from northwest China -- at railway stations,  there was therefore nothing particularly surprising about the deputy head of the local government, Dong Guosheng, visiting the policeman the next day, and praising him for protecting lives and public property.

However some of the details of the case -- including the fact that Xu was at the station with his mother and three small children, and the accusation that he had “picked up his daughter and thrown her at the police,” aroused the suspicions of some Internet users. Media investigations soon revealed that Xu was known to the authorities as a ‘petitioner,’ having repeatedly called on the local government to house his mother, who was in her 80s, and his three young children. Xu had heart problems and said he could not afford to care for them, while his wife had mental problems. Having failed to achieve his aims, Xu had been planning to travel to Beijing to appeal to the central authorities -- as his mother had done in February, when she had been interviewed by a Beijing newspaper about the family’s case. 

Xu’s family and lawyers say police at the station tried to prevent him from boarding the train to Beijing, fearing that his trip would cause the local government further embarrassment. (Chinese local governments routinely seek to prevent people from their areas from going to the capital -- where there is a national ‘petitions office’ -- to air their grievances, out of fear that this will reflect badly on local officials.)

Xu’s family says a policeman then attacked him with a stick, and when he tried to grab the stick, he was shot. As online calls for the police to release surveillance video of the incident grew, footage surfaced online apparently showing a police officer beating Xu with a baton. This led to demands from a range of Chinese media, including the official Xinhua news agency, for a full investigation. A commentary in the official China Daily, for example, said that “people can hardly imagine how the man could endanger the life of the police officer, who had a handgun and baton and the assistance of some workers at the station." 

On Tuesday, 10 days after the incident, China’s Ministry of Public Security announced that it had sent investigators to Qing’an, and that railway police and public prosecutors were also participating in the investigation.

Since the shooting, Xu’s children have been taken to a welfare center, and his wife hospitalized. Xu’s mother, who has been rehoused in a nursing home, last week rejected an offer of compensation of 200,000 yuan (around US $32,000). Her lawyer has called for a criminal prosecution of the police officer involved, in what he described as a case of intentional homicide.

China’s official news agency reported that Qing’an County government deputy head Dong had also been put under investigation, after Internet users accused him of having a fake university degree and using a false date of birth on his ID card; they also revealed that Dong’s wife had been on the local government payroll for almost four years, despite not working at all during that time, apparently because of poor health. The information was published online several days after Dong’s visit to the policeman involved in the case, which had led to some criticism from Internet users.

The provincial prosecutor also announced an investigation into the head of the local prosecutor’s office, after one of his staff accused him of malpractice, local media reported.

The case has raised concerns about the ability of China’s police, most of whom have not routinely carried guns in recent years, to use them correctly. One Chinese legal professor told Caixin Media that police are “woefully trained in how and when to use their firearms,” particularly in more remote areas of the country. He also said that public reaction to the incident revealed a “lack of trust” in the police.

The case also emphasizes the continuing potential influence of media and Internet scrutiny on national affairs in China, despite recent official attempts to rein in public debate. The Public Security Ministry, for example, was quick to point out that its investigation into the case was in response to the public concern. And not only was information about the case revealed online, some Internet activists are also reported to have helped the Xu family’s lawyer to find eyewitnesses to the shooting. 

Officially the Chinese government says it welcomes such public scrutiny, and the leadership under President Xi Jinping has repeatedly stressed that it seeks to promote the rule of law. However, the government has also accused some whistleblowers of ‘spreading rumors’ over recent years, and has introduced laws to punish those who do so. And in a further sign of continuing controversy over the role of the Internet, China’s army newspaper on Wednesday published a strongly worded attack, accusing “hostile forces” from abroad of trying to use the Internet to overthrow the Chinese government.

The Liberation Army Daily said there was currently a “desperate ideological struggle” online -- and accused hostile forces of using the Internet to spread Western ideology, create a “cultural cold war” and nurture a “fifth column” in China. As a result, it said, some people in China now routinely criticized Marxism and Communist Party rule, and belittled those who defended these. It also accused some party officials of not daring to stand up to such behavior.

Some Internet users praised the article as a timely warning, while others said it read like something written in the 1980s. It’s another reminder of the growing tensions between some members of China’s young generation, who have more liberal opinions and are accustomed to the greater freedoms that the Internet has brought them, and some in China’s official system, who feel that such freedoms -- and the public scrutiny they have brought -- have gone too far.