The recent poisoning case at Shanghai’s Fudan University revived people’s memory of the thallium poisoning case of Zhu Ling 19 years ago. The roommate of the victim of the Fudan case already confessed to poisoning and said it was an April Fool’s joke. However, 19 years has passed and no one has yet been held accountable for Zhu Ling’s tragedy. While we’ve already covered how China’s education system and unique only-child culture have contributed to the Fudan case, Zhu’s case, in the eyes of many netizens, raises a bigger question about China.
In 1994, Zhu Ling was a sophomore in physical chemistry at Tsinghua University, one of China’s most prestigious higher education institutes. She was remembered to be a girl that was pretty, attractive, intelligent, and as a member of the university’s folk music club, talented in music. She was first poisoned by thallium at the end of 1994. But after a short period in the hospital, Zhu made it back to school. The following March, however, she was poisoned again with the same deadly chemical, presumably, in much larger quantity. That time, she wasn’t as lucky.
Her doctors at the time ruled out the possibility of thallium poisoning because both Zhu herself and her university confirmed that she had neither access to nor contact with any thallium. Her middle school classmate Bei Zhicheng, who was then a student at Peking University, posted an SOS letter on a Usenet newsgroup. Pouring responses from around the world proposed that Zhu was suffering from thallium poisoning. The case was later recognized as China’s first telemedicine case.
Though Zhu was ultimately saved, she is now almost completely blind and permanently paralyzed with severe neurological damage to her brain.
Zhu’s roommate Sun Wei was the only suspect interrogated by Beijing police at the time. Detailed investigation results were refused to be released by authorities, even to Zhu’s parents. But information shared online, both then and now, showed that Sun was the only acquaintance of Zhu’s who had access to thallium from university lab. Zhu’s mugs, bottles and lunch boxes “mysteriously” disappeared after her roommates were informed that there would be an investigation. A series of hacked email communications between Sun and Zhu’s other roommates showed that Sun has guided them in how to defend her innocence. All information points to Sun and the other 2 two girls, Jin Ya and Wang Qi, who were also under the same roof with Zhu when she was poisoned.
19 years ago, Sun was retrieved by her parents after only 8 hours of interrogation. And the case was closed afterwards. However, Tsinghua University refused to grant Sun her bachelor’s degree upon graduation, and she failed to obtain a passport or visa to go to the US for years until she changed both her name and her birthday to get a new ID.
More than just a cold case
Sun, who is now rumored to live in the US, comes from a well-connected and powerful family. That’s party why the case received so much attention nationally both 19 years ago and now. Netizens suspected that Sun’s family played a key role in blocking investigation and prosecution of the case. Sun’s uncle Sun Fuling was deputy mayor of Beijing from 1983 to 1993 and Vice Chairperson of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, China’s major political advisory body. Sun’s grandfather Sun Yueqi, was a senior leader of the Revolutionary Committee of the China Kuomintang that now rules Taiwan, and also am important member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. Most importantly, rumor has it that Sun Yueqi was a good friend of Jiang Zemin, then China’s president, and has asked his old friend a little “favor.” Even at the end of his Baidu Wiki page, there highlighted that his family has used their influence to block police probe into Zhu’s case.
We probably will never know that whether Sun’s family used their power and influence. The only thing that matters to the entire discussion now is that most Chinese netizens believed so – they don’t believe Sun deserves the benefit of doubt in this case. The resolution of the case, in the minds of many netizens, will be a test of China’s rule of law, or the lack of it.
Like 谁是谁非任评说, Zhu’s lawyer and popular columnist, ccommented: “The most difficult part of the case is that Sun set up a standard. Numerous corrupt officals and those who are guilty hope that they can be exempt from punishment, too, by the same standard. They form a very close coalition.” Another netizen 读雨耕晴 also sighed: “What has prevented Zhu’s case to be solved? It all comes down to the powerful influence of Sun’s family. In the face of those in power, what else can us ordinary people do than to be an onlooker?”
Making waves on Weibo
Zhu Ling is now the second most searched word on Sina Weibo’s social keywords’ list (China’s Twitter). And Sun Wei the fifth. Grass-root Weibo celebrity 一毛不拔大师 with more than 1 million followers is Zhu’s friend Bei Zhicheng who set up the SOS Usenet to help diagnose Zhu. A few posts of him mentioned Sun directly as the poisoner. Other hugely popular opinion leaders like Yao Chen or Kai-Fu Lee, both with millions of followers, also shared Zhu’s case analysis. Calls for a re-investigation are everywhere.
Even People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the Chinese government, voiced support for a re-investigation: “Zhu Ling is 40 years old now, completely paralyzed, almost blind and with the intelligence of a 6-year-old. What exactly happened 19 years ago? Who was behind the poisoning? The biggest wish of Zhu’s family is to solve the case and disclose investigation results.” The Weibo post, to everyone but also no one’s surprise, was already deleted, or, censored by “a mysterious force”, like one netizen commented.
On the Weibo page of Ping An Beijing (literally “Peace Beijing”), the official account of Beijing police with some 4.8 million followers, calls to re-investigate Zhu’s case were left after every single post. Like one netizen 任恒营 commented: “I’m here to call for a re-investigation of Zhu Ling’s case every day. It’s to protect the dignity and fairness of law.” So far, no response of any sort.
Netizens on the move
Seeing the lack of official response, Chinese netizens, both in and outside of China, were mobilized. On Tianya, a dynamic online community where Chinese netizens share, discuss and debate about all kinds of news and gossip, Sun’s old posts in which she defended herself were dug out and analyzed word by word. Those from Huaren and MIT BBS, two most popular online communities for oversea Chinese, have worked for weeks to track down where Sun and the other two roommates are today (Sun and the other girl are said to live in the US now).
So far, Sun’s new name, new ID number, home address and employer information are all disclosed online. So are the same information for the other two roommates of Zhu. The point is to use the power of “the people” to make life miserable for the “thallium party”, a term coined by netizens to refer to Sun, the other two roommates and those involved in the case.
Many netizens hope that their voices can be heard by someone powerful enough to challenge the influence of Sun’s family. By someone, netizens are looking at China’s new President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang. After all, Sun’s family is rumored to have close relationships with Jian Zemin, a lingering shadow over China’s political scene even 10 years after he handed over power. Like netizen 李佳佳Audrey commented: “Many of China’s new leadership have a law background . I’d love to believe that such a leadership can work to improve the country’s rule of law, social equality and the protection of human rights. What is a Chinese dream? This is a Chinese dream.” The hope of another netizen 无名羊 was much simpler: “It seems true that Sun’s family has gradually lost its influence. May justice, however gained, be return to Zhu Ling.”
Will authorities re-open the case? Will new progress be possible for a 19-year-old case even if it’s re-opened? No one knows at this point. But China’s active online population are pushing things forwards, just like what they’ve been doing for other injustices happening in every corner of the country.
Relationship map of the “thallium party” put together by netizens