A 1995 mysterious poisoning case grips China and moves to White House

May 8, 2013Jing GaoOne Comment, , , , , , , ,

An unsolved 18-year-old attempted murder case in China has been brought to the White House’s We the People site. So far, the petition to the U.S. government demanding the deportation of the suspect back to China has garnered more than 130,000 signatures within in four days as the public fury over the possible foul play that might have perverted the course of justice continues to boil in China nearly two decades later.

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Zhu Ling, the victim, narrowly escaped death in 1995 because of the Internet, even though it was only in embryo in China back then. 18 years later, it was the internet again, this time with all-out support of a much larger online population, that came to her aid. But the growing sense of social injustice in the past few years and total lack of trust in Chinese judicial system turned netizens’ attention to the White House, which they believed is more likely to address grievances in China than the Chinese government.

At the time, Zhu was a sophomore majoring in chemistry at the prestigious Tsinghua University. In December 1994 and March 1995, she was twice hospitalized for severe pain in abdomen, limbs, extreme hair loss, facial paralysis, respiratory dysfunction and eventually, in the case of the second hospitalization, a five-month coma.

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Photo of 20-year-old Zhu retrived from CCTV

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Zhu Ling agonizing in hospital bed.

According to multiple Chinese media reports, including the state broadcaster China Central Television, the police later determined that Zhu was poisoned with thallium, an extremely toxic and deadly and yet rare chemical substance, to which only a handful in the entire university had controlled access. The perpetrator clearly made two separate attempts. Seeing Zhu was able to recover from the first poisoning attempt, the perpetrator significantly increased the dose three months later in an effort to kill her.

The case was a landmark in that it is the first medical diagnosis in China reached through international crowdsourcing. For over a month since the second poisoning in early March of 1995, doctors at the best hospitals in Beijing were unable to determine the cause of or find treatment for Zhu’s inscrutable ‘disease’.

In a desperate attempt to save Zhu, then struggling in great pangs of pain between life and death, Bei Zhicheng, a high school classmate of Zhu then studying computer science at Peking University, thought about seeking help on the Internet, which, in 1995, was only available to a few research institutes in China. He sent out an SOS email detailing Zhu’s symptoms to a number of Internet usenet groups.

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Screenshots of the email correspondence between Bei Zhicheng and medical experts overseas

Of the thousands of email replies he received from 18 countries, about one-third inferred Zhu was suffering from thallium poisoning and suggested trying Prussian blue, an industrial dye also used as the antidote to thallium in medicine. In the end, Chinese doctors followed the advice and saved Zhu Ling’s life, although she had already sustained irreversible neurological damage and is left with permanent intellectual and physical disabilities.

Internet discussions and Zhu’s parents quoted by the Chinese media say that the prime – some say the only – suspect is Sun Wei, Zhu Ling’s dormitory roommate at the time. Sun was both Zhu’s good friend and a fellow contender for a spot in the university orchestra. Because of her advisor’s research interest, she was the only student at Tsinghua University to have access to the chemical. But she was never arrested or charged, and the police indefinitely suspended investigation of Zhu’s case after the questioning of Sun, citing lack of evidence.

It is never known why exactly the police neither prosecuted Sun Wei nor pursued the case further, but rumor has it that Sun’s family with powerful political connections to Jiang Zemin, then top leader of the Communist Party, obstructed investigation and even pressured the police to release Sun. The primary investigator, Li Shusen, reportedly told Southern People Weekly in January 2006 that investigators had in fact reached some important conclusions regarding the case, but that the information was ‘too sensitive to be released’.

The unanswered questions about the tale of intrigue and betrayal have kept it alive in the past 18 years, although the topic was only sporadically discussed in internet forums. Every thread about Zhu’s case inevitably ended with dismay over the dark side of China that set the perpetrator on the loose.

However, in April, an entirely unrelated murder on the campus of Shanghai-based Fudan University, in which a postgraduate medical student poisoned his roommate to death out of jealousy, sent shockwaves around the country and refreshed the nation’s memory of Zhu Ling. Images of a 200-pound near-blind Zhu Ling drooling like a two-year-old and unable to move or speak properly circulated like a wildfire on Sina Weibo, the Chinese Twitter. “The Fudan murderer is now brought to justice. What about Tsinghua’s Zhu Ling?” Many wondered aloud.

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Zhu Ling before and after the poisoning.

In the U.S., where many of Zhu Ling’s contemporaries, including her former classmates, have settled down, discussion is equally heated. On China Gate, the largest overseas Chinese-langauge web portal, a special web page was devoted to all threads related to Zhu Ling.

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Chinese internet censors that swooped in the next few day added even more fuel to the public anger. Tweets about Zhu Ling were deleted. Searches of related terms, such as “Zhu Ling”, “Sun Wei” and “thallium”, were blocked. Several Chinese media stories that quested for the truth were taken down. All these fed the wide speculations that politics have done the dirty on Zhu Ling.

The suppression of the information was lifted Sunday, but many Chinese netizens no longer pinned their hope on the Chinese authorities and resorted to the White House petition, because they learned that if 100,000 signatures can be collected within 30 days, the White House may review the petition and respond.

According to the grammatically flawed petition authored by an anonymous Chinese expat, Sun Wei entered the U.S. years ago by changing her name and committing a marriage fraud. “To protect the safety of our citizens, we petite [sic] that the government investigate and deport her,” it reads.

“If a country as large as China fails to uphold justice for this vulnerable woman, this is shame on the country. If 1.3 billion fellow countrymen fail to provide aid and support to Zhu Ling, this will be the moral degeneration of all of us,” a widely circulated appeal for donation and petition says.

Montesquieu once said, “An injustice committed against one is a threat made to all.” He would have never known that more than three centuries later in the campaign for Zhu Ling, this quote of his has become the wake-up call for Chinese and has been shared by more than 42,000 Weibo users.

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1 comment to “A 1995 mysterious poisoning case grips China and moves to White House”

  1. Calvin | May 11, 2013 | Permalink Reply

    Great article. Would love to see more frequent postings. Well researched and written. Thanks

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