For three months, the disappearance of Hu Xinyu gripped China.
The whereabouts of the 15-year-old, who vanished from a boarding school in southern Jiangxi province in October, was for months among the most discussed topics on the Chinese internet.
It prompted numerous questions, speculation and round after round of exhaustive police searches – including one joined by thousands of residents earlier this month.
Then, on Sunday – more than 100 days after Hu went missing – local police said Hu’s body had been found in the woods near his school.
The discovery was made by a member of the public on Thursday. The body was wearing clothes matching those Hu wore when he went missing, prompting police to summon his family and their lawyer to the scene.
DNA tests later confirmed the body to be Hu, police in Shangrao city said in a statement.
A voice recorder found near the body had been sent for analysis, the statement said.
But rather than bring closure, the discovery has only raised more questions as to the circumstances surrounding his death.
Hu’s death was the top trending topic on China’s Twitter-like Weibo on Monday, with several hashtags raking up hundreds of millions of views.
Many comments questioned why the extensive police searches – complete with sniffer dogs, drones and thermal imaging equipment – failed to discover the body in an area so close to the school.
The woodland where Hu was found is only five minutes’ walk from the school, separated by a campus wall about two meters high, China National Radio reported.
An autopsy has been conducted, but the results have not been released, according to The Paper, a state-run news website.
It is not rare for children and teenagers to go missing in China, but the disappearance of Hu is one of the most high-profile cases in recent years. According to the Zhongmin Social Assistance Institute, a Beijing-based nonprofit, a million people went missing in China in 2020 – an average of 2,739 per day.
On Chinese social media, some questioned why, in a country known for its ubiquitous security cameras and high-tech surveillance, a 15-year-old boy could seemingly disappear without a trace.
Hu had just started studying at the Zhiyuan High School, a private boarding school Yanshan county where he was admitted with a scholarship in September, when he suddenly vanished.
He was last seen on security camera footage walking down a hallway in his dormitory at dusk on October 14, about 15 minutes before an evening studying session was due to start in the classroom, according to police.
Hu disappeared somewhere between the dormitory and the teaching building, in an area that was not covered by security cameras, state media reported.
Hu’s family was notified by the school of Hu’s disappearance about six hours later, the family said in a missing person notice. Hu left his smart watch and cash in the dorm, carrying with him only a digital voice recorder and a school card used to pay for meals on campus, according to the notice.
Hu’s parents could not be reached by cellphone on Monday.
As the investigations and searches failed to lead to any progress, baseless speculation swirled online, underscoring the deep-rooted public distrust in local authorities.
In response, police released a detailed statement on January 7 making clear they had found no evidence that Hu was murdered, or had been involved in an accident inside the school. Hu likely left campus on his own, the police said.
The statement also detailed extensive police search efforts, covering nearly 40 hectares of woodland near the school, 200 kilometers of river, 22 kilometers of rail tracks, and 72 ponds and 3 reservoirs.
The search continued after January 7, involving thousands of people, including local residents who volunteered to join, state media reported at the time.
On Sunday, the website of People’s Daily, the flagship Communist Party mouthpiece, published an opinion piece calling for local authorities to address public concerns, including why they had failed to find Hu’s body in more than 100 days.
It also called for the public to remain patient for the official results.
“The Hu Xinyu incident has attracted the attention of the whole country. No one dares to fake anything, and no one can fake it,” the article said. “If there is any mistake, the consequences will be disastrous.”
Help is there if you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts or mental health matters. In the US: Call or text 988, the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline. Globally: The International Association for Suicide Prevention and Befrienders Worldwide have contact information for crisis centers around the world.