You are not logged in. LOG IN NOW >

Chinese Netizens Use Digital Initiative to Gain Media Attention for Unsolved Poisoning Case

BY Jessica McKenzie | Wednesday, May 15 2013

Screen shot of the signatures on the Chinese netizens' petition to the Obama administration

Last month a medical science student at a Shanghai university died from poisoning, allegedly murdered by his roommate. The specifics of the crime echoed a case from the mid-1990s, in which a 19-year-old student was poisoned with thallium. That case has once again been thrown into the media spotlight, but after 18 years the media has changed and the spotlight means a trending hashtag on Sina Weibo or an online petition addressed to the president of the United States.

Zhu Ling, a sophomore studying physical chemistry, was sick for days before her symptoms were finally identified — with help from the early Internet — and an antidote was administered, but the talented and promising young student was left paralyzed and almost blinded from the attack. The only suspect was a roommate, Sun Wei, the granddaughter of a senior government official. Police held Sun Wei for eight hours before releasing her, but the case was never solved. Many believe she got off because of her political connections. Now Chinese netizens have taken to social networks to demand Zhu Ling's case be reopened.

ChinaFile reports: "Hundreds of thousands of Internet users sympathetic to Zhu are now pursuing their version of justice through online vigilantism—by exposing personal information of the suspect, [and] by tweeting and commenting on the case on China's microblogs."

In May, the phrase "Zhu Ling" was censored on Sina Weibo — even the word 'thallium' is flagged. No matter, Chinese netizens found another way to make some noise: petition the U.S. Government. Sun Wei now lives in the U.S. — or is believed to live in the U.S. — with a new name, and the petition, submitted through the We the People portal, asks for her to be deported back to China. (It appears that the petition creator is located in Miami, but many of the signatures do not have U.S. locations and are in Chinese characters.)

This is not the first time this case has reemerged in public consciousness over the last 18 years. An article in the New Republic reports that in 2005, “someone appearing to be Sun Wei ended up testifying in the court of online opinion.” In a post on Tianya, a popular Chinese bulletin board site, Sun Wei denied culpability and claimed to be a victim of online persecution.

As always, Internet opinion varies as to the efficacy of online activism.

Emily Parker, the author of the New Republic article, writes:

Of course, it would be far better if this pursuit took place through the actual legal system, rather than on the Internet. The silver lining is that intense interest on weibo is yet another sign of increasing rights awareness among ordinary Chinese, as well as a collective desire for a fairer system. From the beginning of the Zhu Ling drama, the Internet has helped ordinary citizens form networks to solve problems. It helped to save Zhu Ling’s life, and now it is ensuring that her case is not forgotten. Nor is this online activism in pursuit of an abstract notion of justice. If we don’t stand up for Zhu Ling, people reason, who will stand up for me?

Andrew J. Nathan, a Political Science Professor at Columbia University, has a less rosy view of the phenomenon. “[W]hat jumps out at me is the usefulness for the authorities of letting these kinds of small fires burn in social media, as a safety valve for popular frustration.”

Whether letting off steam or gaining critical mass, the Obama administration will have to acknowledge and respond to the Chinese netizen community: their petition has nearly 146,000 signatures.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network for its generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.