A tale of two car thefts has transfixed China, sparking a new bout of soul-searching. It's generated far more attention online than the ongoing legislative session in Beijing, despite leaked orders from the local government restricting official coverage.
In two different countries, two grey SUVs were stolen with babies still inside, while the parents popped into supermarkets. There's an uncanny similarity between the two cases, even though one happened in Changchun in northeastern China, the other in the Bronx. But how the cases played out is very different.
Baby Haobo. For many netizens in China, this pixelated image of the infant who suffered a grisly death is a stark reminder of disturbing changes in the country's values system. The picture has spread quickly across Chinese websites.
In the American case, which happened last month, as The New York Post puts it, "The silver Jeep was found abandoned just over an hour later with the child unharmed — after the perp phoned in the car's location to police."
In China, news of Baby Haobo's disappearance went viral online, with millions of netizens waiting anxiously for news. Monday morning, his parents had left him in their car with the engine running while they went into a supermarket they own to turn on the heating. When they came out, the car was gone with Haobo inside. The Xinhua news agency reported that 8,000 policemen took part in a manhunt, combing residential communities and parks, but in vain. Almost 36 hours after the car was stolen, a man named Zhou Xijun gave himself up at a police station. He admitted to strangling the baby and burying its body in the snow. According to the official Xinhua news agency, the baby's body hasn't yet been recovered.
The grisly fate of 2-month-old Haobo has led to an outpouring of shock and grief online. "The difference between China and the U.S. is not just the crime rate," commented a young writer named Sun Yuchen, who works for the outspoken Southern Weekly newspaper, "The fractured Chinese reality has made people lose their basic morality. We are becoming a nation with no bottom line, no humanity."
A post by a writer named Sarah Ji said: "While people mourn the dead infant and denounce the killers' lack of humanity, it's also not hard to see how bad our public security is, when someone dares to steal in a car in broad daylight. To strangle a baby and bury it in the snow for a car worth 200 thousand yuan [$32,000] shows how backwards people's lives are here."
Celebrity television host Zhu Dan, who has 5.5 million followers, said, "Child, we owe you a future."
The official media have printed photos of spontaneous mourning vigils for Haobo that were held Tuesday night, after the news of his death emerged. For many netizens, the picture of the bonny, chubby baby in his padded jacket — with his eyes pixelated — stands for much that is wrong with China's value system today.
(NPR's Louisa Lim is based in Beijing.)