Did Ma Jiajue snap under the pressure? Or was he pure evil?
Ma Jiajue was the brightest boy around. Despite growing up the son of impoverished parents in a remote village in southern China, his future looked promising.
So promising that, after he’d committed murder, Jiajue’s family refused to believe he was capable of such savage violence.
‘Can you see the cruel side of him?’ his father asked, pointing to an old black-and-white photo of his son in middle school.
And, on the surface, it was difficult to understand why a young man on the verge of graduating with a degree in Biochemistry would murder four of his friends in cold blood.
Jiajue had always been academically gifted. Top of his class in junior school, he won second prize in a national physics competition.
However, in middle school, the teenage Jiajue stopped studying as hard, and his grades soon dipped.
Panicking that he wouldn’t pass the national college entrance exam, he ran away from school.
Perhaps this was the first sign of a tendency to crack under pressure.
The police found him several days later, after which – desperate to make up for his failures – Jiajue studied hard, passing the exam with flying colours and winning a place at Yunnan University – the best in the province.
Jiajue was praised by the school and local government officials. He was the pride of his family, becoming the first in generations to progress to higher education. And his parents were counting on their son to get a good job and pull the family out of poverty.
Only, for all his superior intelligence, Ma Jiajue was a very complicated, depressed young man. According to his teachers and peers, he was an introverted bookworm who had an inferiority complex due to his impoverished background.
When Jiajue took his place at university in the big city, he was surrounded by even smarter students with even better grades.
He was no longer considered ‘special’.
Instead, in the eyes of his peers, he was no more than a peasant.
Jiajue struggled to afford shoes, regular meals and clothes. He was shunned and humiliated by wealthy students, who flashed their new mobile phones and motorcycles.
Jiajue soon became discouraged, bitter, jealous.
Over the next four years, he made little effort to socialise, and picked rows with classmates.
He did make some friends who, like him, were poor. But Jiajue was still poorer.
In the winter, they’d pay him a pittance to wash their dirty clothes. Under financial pressure, starving Jiajue would agree.
Then, in February 2004, he hit breaking point.
During a card game, one friend, Shao Ruijie, accused him of cheating. He ridiculed Jiajue, calling him a misfit.
Jiajue’s resentment boiled over, sparking a murderous rampage. The next day, he bought plastic bags, tape and a sledgehammer, and invited another student, Tang Xueli, to his room.
As Tang read a newspaper, Jiajue bludgeoned him to death before stuffing his body in a wardrobe.
In a police report, Jiajue is quoted as saying, I struck hard with the hammer at the back of his head. He fell down, blood gushing out.
The next day, he invited Shao Ruijie and Yang Kaihong over, and killed them both. A day later, his best friend Gong Bo met the same bloody fate.
With his dormitory wardrobes stuffed with bodies, Jiajue fled. The grisly remains were found eight days later.
There was little question who the killer was. Jiajue, then 23, was friends with all four of the young men, and the roommate of one of them. He’d since disappeared, and someone looking like him had emptied a victim’s bank accounts.
It emerged that Jiajue was a Kung Fu fan who loved violent movies and often surfed the net for information about murders and attacks on police.
A reward of 200,000 yuan (around £23,000) was offered for information leading to Jiajue’s capture.
He was caught 21 days later on a beach on China’s Hainan island.
By 24 April 2004, he’d been convicted and sentenced to death. Yet some students didn’t totally blame him.
‘I kind of sympathise with him,’ a senior said. ‘Because of a lack of money, he couldn’t socialise with other students – say, go to the movies.’
This, coupled with university pressures, had pushed him over the edge, they suggested.
The case sparked a national debate on the gap between rich and poor, and the importance of colleges looking after the psychological health of students.
But, whether Jiajue’s motivation had been his personal demons, poor mental health or deeper issues, he showed no remorse.
Two months on, on 17 June – around the time he should have graduated – Jiajue was executed.