Police suggested that a years-long land dispute between Ou and the neighbors was the motive for the slayings. But media reporting and a search of Ou’s social media posts offered a slightly different narrative, one in which the 55-year-old fisherman lived in a run-down shack after he apparently failed to get help from local authorities in resolving the conflict.
Ou’s situation drew widespread sympathy, with many seeing him as having suffered from local government neglect until he was seemingly pushed over the edge. Others used his case to criticize the treatment of underprivileged Chinese, particularly in rural areas, by the authorities and a lack of transparency in the country.
The Washington Post could not identify an attorney for Ou.
About 40 percent of China’s 1.4 billion people live in the countryside, where owning a multigenerational family home is a widespread aspiration. But rural residents face many challenges, and reports of houses being forcibly demolished to make way for private developments or government-sponsored projects are not unusual. The residents often receive scant compensation.
Even when someone has the permission and resources to build a home, there is often wrangling over the precise boundaries of a land parcel, because many land transactions are not enshrined in written contracts.
Earlier this year, Ou wrote on Weibo, a microblogging service similar to Twitter, that he had pleaded with a local official for help breaking ground on a new home. He said that he had received permission to tear down a dilapidated structure in 2017 but that a dispute with neighbors had stalled the project.
“Repeated requests for help from various government agencies produced nothing,” he reportedly wrote in a post, which has since been deleted from the platform. “Leaders definitely do not wish to see the lives of vulnerable villagers devastated.”
Ou’s account resonated with many Chinese Internet users. “His entire life is an indictment of government corruption and legal injustice,” one Weibo user commented. “We cannot forgive or forget the tens of thousands of Ou Jinzhongs in the lower rungs of our society. Who’s to promise there won’t be a second Ou Jinzhong holding a knife? Who cared about them?”
Sympathy for Ou grew further after an Internet user said the fisherman had saved him from drowning 30 years ago. The man, now in his 30s, said he was “heartbroken and sad” when he heard Ou was wanted in connection with the slayings.
Chinese authorities moved to tamp down some of the support for Ou. “It’s understandable for people to sympathize with ‘the bullied,’ but that sympathy cannot become an endorsement for violence,” the Chinese state broadcaster CCTV wrote in a commentary.
But debate over Ou’s case has not ended. Those distrustful of local authorities’ account of his death are calling for police to release video footage of the encounter.