If you can’t trust your own government—who do you turn to? For Chinese seeking justice in an almost two-decade-old poisoning case, how about appealing to the White House?
That’s what has happened with the May 3 launch of a petition on “We the People,” an online site run by the administration of President Barack Obama. The petitioners—seemingly mostly Chinese—ask the U.S. government to “investigate and deport” a Chinese woman allegedly now living in the U.S. who “had the motive, and access to the deadly chemical,” used in the 1995 poisoning of a Beijing university student.
With more than 130,000 signatures, the online entreaty has handily surpassed the threshold at which the White House is pledged to respond—100,000 signatures within 30 days. A separate petition warning of potential health dangers from a planned oil refinery plant in Kunming, China, has nearly 5,000 signatures, while another alleging the likelihood of voting fraud in the just held Malaysian general election has more than 200,000.
“Hello, Comrade Obama, chairman of the National Office of Letters and Calls! [China’s state petition office where citizens can file their grievances.] Requests on the Zhu Ling [the poison victim] case have already reached 100,000. We hope Chairman Obama answers the Chinese people for the sake of the autonomy of the Chinese people!” wrote a blogger called Zhang Xian on Sina Weibo, China’s largest micro-blogging site, according to a translation posted on the website of the University of Hong Kong’s China Media Project. Accompanying the post: a picture showing Obama dressed in a Chinese revolutionary outfit, standing in front of crowds clutching Mao’s Little Red Book before Beijing’s Great Hall of the People. (The original post has been deleted.)
The circumstances surrounding the still-unsolved case go like this: Zhu Ling, a chemistry student at Beijing’s elite Tsinghua University fell mysteriously sick in late 1994 and then again in the spring of 1995. Later it was discovered she had been poisoned with thallium. Although she survived, she was paralyzed and is being cared for by her parents.
Suspicion fell on her roommate, Sun Wei, who was questioned by authorities and quickly released. Many Chinese suspect the dropping of the case against Sun may reflect her high level family connections; she is related to a former deputy mayor of Beijing and is also the granddaughter of a senior political figure rumored to be a close friend of former president Jiang Zemin.
“Many netizens have pointed out that the case was mysteriously shelved after years of investigation by Beijing police due to the political connections owned by Sun’s family,” said a May 6 article in the English edition of the Global Times, a paper controlled by the party mouthpiece, the People’s Daily. “Sun was also found to have changed her name and allegedly entered the U.S. by marriage fraud in the 1990s.”
Concern about the dormant case flared again following media attention focused on an unrelated poisoning in April of this year. The latest incident resulted in the death of a 28-year-old graduate student at Shanghai’s Fudan University; the deceased student’s roommate is now being held as a suspect. Over the last few days, the unsolved Tsinghua case has become one of the most popular topics on the Chinese net. Beijing’s Internet censors responded by initially blocking searches on the topic and deleting comments. This seems to have stopped and postings are again prevalent.
Some Chinese connect the case to earlier incidents: “Wang Lijun ran to the American embassy, Fang Lizhi ran to the American embassy,” a person identifying herself as Flora wrote on May 7 on Sina (SINA) microblogging site Weibo. (Wang is the former Chongqing chief of police who worked for disgraced princeling Bo Xilai and who last year took temporary refuge in the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu; Fang is the Chinese dissident astrophysicist who spent more than a year living in the American embassy in Beijing after the 1989 Tiananmen incident, then took asylum in the U.S.)
“For [readings on] PM 2.5 [the ultra-fine air particulates that are most harmful to health] we rely on the American embassy reports, and the blind man [lawyer Chen Guangcheng] seeks salvation in America. Today to get justice in the case of Tsinghua student Zhu Ling, we also have to appeal to the American government,” the blogger continued. Since Chinese police do not have an active investigation in the Beijing poisoning case, the petition amounts an online effort involving the U.S. president to pressure authorities to reopen the case.
The situation seems to have sparked some establishment soul-searching. “Obviously, it is impossible for officials to respond to every question, but we believe that officials should come forward to respond to Zhu’s case and satisfy the public via information disclosure,” said a May 7 editorial in the Global Times. “The White House cannot be the foreign ‘petition office’ of China. However, embarrassments in the Internet age need not be covered up. We have our problems, and we will do our best to solve them.”
—With Jasmine Zhao in Washington