Jun 29, 2018 12:14 AM

Livestreamed Suicide Raises Painful Questions in China

The scene of a teenage woman’s suicide is seen from the 10th floor of a department store in Qingyang, Gansu province, on June 20, when the woman jumped to her death from the eighth floor. Photo: Sun Liangzi / Caixin
The scene of a teenage woman’s suicide is seen from the 10th floor of a department store in Qingyang, Gansu province, on June 20, when the woman jumped to her death from the eighth floor. Photo: Sun Liangzi / Caixin

After fighting for a year to have her claims of sexual assault taken seriously, 19-year-old Li Yiyi was ready to give up.

On June 20, she climbed to the eighth floor of a department store in her hometown, in Northwest China’s Gansu province. She sat on the ledge, staring down at the ground or at her phone.

As police and firefighters arrived in droves, so too did onlookers. Several began filming her. Some even yelled for her to jump to her death.

So she did.

Li’s suicide has prompted several questions in the city of Qingyang, and in China’s social media landscape: Why was the accused man — Li’s high school teacher — allowed to continue working after the allegations of misconduct came to light? Did prosecutors mishandle the case? How did a three-hour rescue operation fail to save her? And what ails a society in which onlookers taunt someone into suicide while livestreaming it to millions?

It is also the latest in a string of sexual harassment cases in China that have emerged in the wake of the global #MeToo movement.

Allegations of assault

Li’s pain had eaten away at her over the last two years. She had tried to kill herself three times, including one attempt to leap off a building at her former school, Qingyang police said during a news briefing Monday.

She and her father had spent nearly a year seeking punishment for Wu Yonghou, her former head teacher, who Li alleged forced himself upon her on Sept. 5, 2016.

On that day, she had complained about a stomachache and was sent to rest in her dorm room. Late that night, Wu came to check on her. Though weak, she managed to sit up to greet him, according to a letter Li left behind that was viewed by Caixin.

“Then, he frantically jumped on me, locking me in his arms and kissing me on the cheeks and the mouth, biting my ears while his hands tried to unbutton my clothes,” she wrote. The assault stopped only when Li’s class supervisor arrived, according to her letter.

Caixin could not reach the supervisor, identified only by the surname Luo in a police file.

Li’s letter, which outlines the claims against Wu, was shown to Caixin by Li’s father, Li Ming. Its authenticity could not be independently verified.

Li Yiyi alerted the school about the alleged assault, and management agreed that she could be transferred to a different class or school, but refused to remove Wu from his post, she wrote. She was also forced against her will into a face-to-face meeting with Wu, she claimed.

Li’s letter said that Wu apologized to her. The school itself never did, however. In fact, it offered Li 350,000 yuan ($53,000) in compensation if she agreed not to pursue legal action against Wu — a deal she and her father rejected.

The pair reported the case to police in February 2017, and Wu was detained for 10 days. But the family was disappointed with the handling of the case and filed criminal charges against him in July with Qingyang’s Xifeng District People’s Procuratorate.

Wu was then arrested briefly on suspicion of molestation, but was released in August after prosecutors determined that there was “no direct link between (Li Yiyi’s) health issues and what Wu did.”

The Xifeng district prosecutor’s office acknowledged that Wu had acted improperly, but the offense was deemed “light,” a ruling that was upheld by the Qingyang city prosecutor’s office.

Wu was demoted and transferred to another post within the school in July 2017. He served there for another year until the district stripped him of his teaching credential this week — after Li’s suicide.

Failed rescue

An attempt to coax Li from the ledge stretched from 4 p.m. to 7:15 p.m. on June 20. Over 50 police officers and firefighters were sent to the department store, according to Xu Jiwei, head of the Xifeng district firefighting department.

But each time they maneuvered to rescue her, she threatened to jump.

Three times they started, and then paused, to blow up an inflatable jump-cushion. They hesitated to deploy the fire truck’s rescue ladder, according to Xu.

Xu himself was only 1 foot away from Li when suddenly she decided to jump. He missed her at the last second, he said. “She told me to let her go because it’s too painful to live her life,” Xu said.

Qingyang police said that they have detained at least two locals who were seen on video encouraging her to jump.

The videos of her death — many since deleted — were reportedly seen by thousands.

Contact reporter Li Rongde (

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