It began as a feel-good story for China’s modern age that played out in the bright glare of social media. Liu Xuezhou, a teenage teacher in training who had been adopted as an infant, found his birth parents after posting a video about his search. In a remarkably short time, police found them and organized a meeting.
On Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, Liu shared photos of the reunion dinner, his birth father beaming beside a police officer, as well as a screenshot of his birth mother asking for an address to send winter clothes.
But within weeks, the story of a happy homecoming unraveled into tragedy. The parents, both now remarried with other people, fell out with Liu after he publicly claimed he had been sold, not given away. Liu asked for financial support. His birth mother blocked him on the messaging app WeChat. As the fight played out on social media, commentators took sides and piled on, many accusing Liu of being selfish.
Before dawn on Monday, Liu died of an overdose of anti-depressants after being rushed to a hospital in the seaside town of Sanya, according to Chinese media interviews with the emergency department staff.
Like his hunt for his parents, his suicide was first flagged on social media. In a letter over 7,000 words long, posted at 1:02 a.m. on Monday, he responded to online attackers and relayed his experiences of childhood loss, bullying, molestation and depression.
“Thanks to all those who cared for me and sorry that I failed you,” he wrote. “Wish there were fewer dark and malicious people in this world.”
When his death was confirmed by Chinese police, it triggered an outpouring of grief and nationwide soul-searching over cyberbullying, mental health and abandoned children. By Tuesday night, a hashtag of his name had been viewed 2.4 billion times on the microblog Weibo, as many asked how Liu could have been let down so frequently and utterly by society.
The case “reflected reality for the underclasses,” wrote Slave Society, a social commentary blog on WeChat. “It began from child trafficking, to losing his guardians, to school bullying, to molestation, to cyberbullying to suicide. It reflects how society treated this child over 15 years [and there were] gaping holes in legal and social support structures.”
Widespread scrutiny of how Liu’s case was handled by authorities and social media giants comes at a time when the pandemic, a slowing economy and a government campaign to promote “common prosperity” have drawn attention to the plight of China’s rural poor. Even after officials declared that extreme poverty had been eliminated, millions of people live on 1,000 yuan ($155) a month.
Some of the details of Liu’s birth and adoption, including his exact age, are disputed. (His birth father says he is 15, but his official identity card put him at 17.) And the account Liu gave in his social media posts, as well as Chinese media interviews with parents and guardians, sketches a life of Dickensian misfortune.
In Liu’s telling, as relayed to him by his adoptive family, his parents gave birth to him sometime between 2004 and 2006 in the countryside of northern Hebei province. They were unmarried and decided to sell the baby.
At the time, strict enforcement of China’s one-child policy combined with many families’ preference for male children exacerbated the illegal trade of newborn boys. Liu’s adoptive family told the Paper, a Shanghai-based outlet, that they paid about $4,200 for the baby, most of which went to a middleman.
In 2009, Liu was orphaned after his adoptive parents died in a fireworks explosion. Their extended family took over guardianship. In his suicide note, Liu said he was bullied and molested at school.
Liu was studying to be a teacher in the northern city of Shijiazhuang when he began searching for his parents. After his first video, police encouraged him to use a DNA database set up by authorities as part of a campaign to curb child trafficking and reunite families with children who were kidnapped, adopted or otherwise lost contact with their birthparents.
But unlike the tearful meetings of other high-profile cases, Liu’s birth parents appeared to view the reunion as more of a socially mandated duty, rather than a cause for celebration. Shortly afterward, Liu accused the two of selling him to pay the bride-price that his father owed his mother’s family — a common requirement for weddings in many parts of rural China. He also asked for financial support to help him find a place to live.
His parents, who could not be reached for comment, have not publicly addressed Liu’s claims. In an interview with Beijing News, his birth mother, identified only by her surname, Zhang, said she had cut off contact with Liu because she wanted to return to a “quiet life.”
In the article, Zhang said she was harassed and threatened after Liu published audio recordings of one of their phone calls, and she claimed that he asked her to get divorced and said he wanted a house. “Parents are also human, and I felt scared,” she said.
The fallout between Liu and his rediscovered parents split opinion on Chinese social media. While some argued that Liu deserved support from his parents, others accused him of cynically playing the situation to his own advantage.
“Trolls and bullies were his last straw,” said Liu Haiming, a media studies scholar at Chongqing University, adding that cyberbullying — and social media platforms’ failures to police it — played an important role in Liu’s suicide.
When the request for compensation was disclosed, it made him an easy target for trolls. “The perfect victim became imperfect and even unreasonable in the eyes of many,” the professor said. “He acted tough, but after all he was a teenager.”
As if as a reminder of that fact, one of the last things Liu Xuezhou shared on social media in the days before his suicide was pictures of himself in flip-flops on Sanya beaches, staring out to sea or horsing around with school friends. Across multiple posts, he had spelled out, in English, the word “rebirth.”