A honeymoon in Western Tibet came to a tragic end in October when the newlyweds crashed their car on a mountain road after suffering altitude sickness.
Sitting in the passenger seat, 27-year-old Yu Yanyan from Shanghai was badly injured.
Despite being transferred to a local hospital, rapid haemorrhaging and a lack of adequate blood stocks meant that she was unlikely to make it.
But drawing on the couple’s network and connections, Yu’s husband was able to secure blood donations from local civil servants and members of the public in that area of Tibet that helped to stabilise his bride.
Yu’s father then arranged a chartered plane to fly her to a larger hospital for more advanced surgery.
The operation to save Yu’s life was a remarkable effort in China – where many lack access to quality healthcare – especially in remote regions, such as Tibet.
Some also said it was unbelievable.
Success stories meet a sceptical Chinese public
Bai Xinhui, who is also from Shanghai like Yu, began to follow the story after a now-recovering Yu posted a video about her near-death experience.
“It was really beautiful to hear how so many people worked together and contributed to saving her life,” Bai, a 26-year-old UX designer, told Al Jazeera.
At the same time though, Bai was left wondering whether ”a regular person could get so much help”.
“Maybe her husband and her have very good connections or come from very rich families,” Bai said.
“Maybe it’s all true, maybe it’s only half true,” she said, suspicious that some of the details of the rescue might have been altered to make public officials appear in a more positive light.
“It is sometimes difficult to know what to believe and who to believe in China these days,” she added.
Bai is not the only one who has pondered the circumstances and details of Yu’s ordeal.
When the story gained national media attention and went viral on Chinese social media in November and December, people started to ask questions.
“How were they able to involve so many people to help her and how were they able to do it so fast?” asked Li Xueqing, a 31-year-old marketing specialist from Suzhou.
“Chinese healthcare is very bad in many places, so I don’t think Yu’s story shows how patients in her situation are normally treated,” Li said to Al Jazeera.
Yu’s survival has shifted from the story of a dramatic rescue to symbolising entitlement and privilege in contemporary China, with some referring to her as the “Shanghai princess” in Tibet.
The story became so prominent that it resulted in Chinese authorities and media looking into signs of wrongdoing regarding the resources mobilised to save Yu.
So far, there is little evidence suggesting that any abuse of positions or power played a role.
Around the same time that Yu’s rescue was being dissected by a sceptical online community in China, another story about overcoming incredible odds began trending on Chinese social media.
It too was met by equally cheerless responses.
A lottery player in the central Chinese city of Nanchang won the equivalent of almost $31m from the state-run Welfare Lottery in early December.
The winner had reportedly spent a sum of $14,000 on nearly 50,000 sets of identical lottery numbers that each won him approximately $625.
Additionally, his total winnings were tax-free due to the relatively small prize money on each individual bet.
The circumstances instantly raised suspicions.
“He probably had help from someone on the inside,” one user on the Chinese social media platform, Weibo, speculated.
Both China’s healthcare sector and the state lottery have previously been plagued by stories of embezzlement and corruption.
“There is a lot of money taken and bribes given in many sectors in China, so of course we are suspicious,” Li from Suzhou said about the incredulous effort to rescue Yu in Tibet and the unprecedented lottery win in Nanchang.
The outpouring of public scepticism also suggests a lack of alignment between successes in life and the experiences of everyday Chinese people, said Jodie Peng, a high school teacher from Shenzhen.
“Most people haven’t won big in the lottery or experienced a whole community helping them during a medical emergency,” she told Al Jazeera.
Peng also had her own faith in China’s healthcare system tested in recent years.
Her grandfather died last year from COVID-19 in a crowded public hospital before overworked medical staff had a chance to properly tend to him. Peng also fell victim to medical fraud in connection with post-surgery treatment she received a few years back.
“So, of course, it was nice to hear about the lottery winner in Nanchang and the successful rescue of the Shanghai woman in Tibet. But those things don’t happen in the Chinese world that I live in,” she said.
China’s party-approved ‘positive energy’ stories
According to associate professor Yao-Yuan Yeh, who teaches Chinese studies at the University of St Thomas in the United States, stories that circulate in China’s media and online often reflect the desired narratives of the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) more so than the lived experiences of the public.
“The Chinese internet is filled with stories backed by the Chinese state,” Yeh told Al Jazeera.
China’s leaders have repeatedly called for the media to disseminate stories with “positive energy” to lift up and inspire people.
With the internet heavily surveilled and regulated in China, stories and commentary that do not support the mandates of the government can be quickly removed by censors without warning or explanation.
So, when public data showed that Chinese youth unemployment was hitting a record 21.3 percent in June, China’s censors shut down critical discussions about the figures online and removed negative comments about the state of the Chinese economy.
The following month, the publication of China’s youth jobless data was suspended.
Combatting ”negativity” has also resulted in the authorities targeting individuals.
When a Wuhan-based doctor, Li Wenliang, began to warn colleagues in early December 2019 about the emergence of a virulent respiratory illness that would later come to be known as COVID-19, he was arrested by police for “spreading rumours”.
Li would succumb to the virus a few months later.
The lengths that some are willing to go to stifle bad news in China drew ridicule online last year when a student at a college in Nanchang discovered a rat’s head in his cafeteria rice meal, which canteen staff, the school and a local food supervision bureau all claimed was duck meat.
The catering company then threatened legal actions against anyone “spreading rumours” about their food, while students were told by school staff not to discuss the rodent’s head in the rice.
“When those in power even try to cover up a rat head, it is difficult to trust anything you hear or see in the media,” Li from Suzhou said.
Peng from Shenzhen concurred.
“There are so many problems in China right now with the economy, with corruption, and with many other things,” she said.
“You can’t hide it all behind some positive stories,” she added.
“We should be able to openly discuss China’s problems otherwise the lack of trust is just going to spread.”