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    Why Is China's Internet Turning to Obama To Solve a Decades-Old Poisoning Mystery?

    Written by

    Alex Pasternack

    Founding Editor

    As a sophomore at Tsinghua University in 1995, Zhu Ling was the victim of an unsolved thallium poisoning


    According to thousands of postings on the Chinese internet, Zhu Ling's story begins with her mysterious poisoning, twice, in 1995, while she was a successful, charming sophomore at Beijing's prestigious Tsinghua University. And it ends with the Boston bombing, accusations of government abuse, and the swift activation of what's known on China's internet as the "human flesh search engine," a crowdsourced vigilante manhunt that knows few bounds. 

    Last week, the hunt went international. On May 3rd, an anonymous Chinese expat based in Miami posted a petition on the White House website demanding justice for the woman who many believe is responsible for Zhu's poisoning. In six days the page, written in poorly-translated English, has collected over 140,000 signatures, well past the threshold of 100,000 signatures in thirty days that qualifies it for an official response from the White House. 

    Zhu was a talented and by many accounts beautiful student in Tsinghua's chemistry department before she began to suffer from a mysterious illness in the spring of 1994. At first it was acute stomach pain. Then her hair began to fall out. Her illness subsided for a few months, but then came back with a vengeance. Her face slowly became paralyzed. Eventually, she became unable to breathe on her own and had to be placed on a respirator. All along, Zhu and her professors insisted she had never been exposed to thallium, the likeliest culprit.

    Doctors in Beijing were baffled. In April 1995, a friend of Zhu's at nearby Beijing University turned to usenet for help, posting about her symptoms in a message titled "SOS."

            This is Peking University in China, a place of those dreams of
    freedom and democracy. However, a young, 21-year old student
    has become very sick and is dying. The illness is very rare. Though
    they have tried, doctors at the best hospitals in Beijing cannot cure
    her; many do not even know what illness it is. So now we are asking
    the world -- can somebody help us?
            Here is a description of the illness:
            The young woman -- her name is Zhu Ling -- is a student in
    the chemistry department. On DEC. 5, 1994, Zhu Ling felt sick in
    her stomach. Three days later, her hair began to fall out and within
    two days she was completely bald. She entered the hospital, but the
    doctors could not find the season for her illness. However,
    after she was in the hospital for a month, she began to feel better
    and her hair grew back. Zhu Ling went back to school in February,
    but in March her legs began to ache severely, and she felt dizzy.
    She entered XieHe(Harmony) Hospital - the most famous hospital in China. 
    On March 15, her symptoms worsened. She began facial paralysis, central 
    muscle of eye's paralysis, self-controlled respiration disappeared. So `
    she was put on a respirator.
            The doctors did many tests for many diseases including	anti-
    H2V, spinal cord puncture, NMR, immune system, chemical drug
    intoxication ANA,ENA,DSONA,ZG and Lyme, but all were
    negative, except for Lyme disease(ZGM(+)).
            The doctors now think that it might be acute disseminated
    encephalomyelitis(ADEM) or lupus erythematosus(LE), but the
    data from the tests did not support this conclusion.
            The doctors are now treating Zhu Ling with broad-spectrum
    antibiotic of cephalosporin, anti-virus drug, hormone, immun-
    oadjuvent, gamma globulin intravenous injection and have given
    her plasma exchange(PE) of 10,000 CCs. But Zhu Ling has not
    responded -- she reamers in a vegetative state, sustained by life
            If anyone has heard of patients with similar symptoms -- or
    have any ideas as to what this illness could be, please contact us.
    We are Zhu Ling's friends and we are disparate to help her.
            This is the first time that Chinese try to find help from
    Internet, please send back E-mail to us. We will send more crystal
    description of her illness to you.
    	our email is: caiqq at mccux0.mech.pku.edu.cn
                                                            Thank you very much
                                                            Peking University
                                                            April 10th, 1995
      Please foreword this message to  your freinds if you think they can help
    us ,Thanks in advance!
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    The author of the email, Bei Zhicheng, was using one of the few university internet connections in the country; the diagnosis that ensued would become known as the first large scale effort in "tele-medicine." Many of the 1,500 responses that rolled in from doctors around the world suspected that Zhu was indeed suffering from thallotoxicosis. 

    Thallium is a metallic element, no. 81, that is used to produce electronics, pharmaceuticals and glass. It's also extremely toxic, which is why, for decades after its discovery in 1861, thallium was available as rat poison. Because it is water soluble and nearly tasteless, author Heather Hasan writes, thallium eventually gained notoriety, along with arsenic, as "the poisoner's poison" and "inheritance powder." Since at least the 1950s, when over 100 people were treated for thallium poisoning, it's been the culprit in a number of criminal incidents in China and in other countries.

    By the time they tested her, doctors discovered that Zhu's blood contained 10,000 times more thallium than normal. She was given the only known antidote, a distillation of the dye Prussian blue, in time to save her life, but she suffered serious brain damage and permanent physical impairment. Today Zhu is 40 years old, overweight, paralysed, diabetic and almost blind. She also has the mental capacity of a six year old.

    A screenshot from Bei Zhicheng's usenet post. Courtesy Ministry of Tofu

    By the time she had been correctly diagnosed, the Beijing police had moved on. They ruled out the possibility that the poisoning was self-inflicted, and closed the case over a lack of evidence. No arrests were made, but one person the police brought in for questioning, Zhu's roommate Sun Wei, piqued the interest of the victim's family and friends. Many believed she was the only undergraduate student who had access to the deadly chemical. Sun, who has denied this, has never been charged. 

    The case would remain mostly dormant until the end of 2005. That December, someone named "skyoneline" left a message on Tianya.cn, a popular blog platform, that questioned Sun's innocence and pointed to her family's role in blocking the investigation. Sun, the post argued, had been protected by her powerful connections: her grandfather is Sun Yueqi (孙越崎) who was an important member of the annual Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference; her first cousin once removed, Sun Fuling (孙孚凌), was deputy mayor of Beijing from 1983 to 1993 and Vice Chairperson of the CPPCC from 1998 to 2003. 

    On December 30, 2005, Sun Wei resurfaced online, releasing a statement proclaiming her innocence. She also criticised Tsinghua’s labs for not managing its dangerous chemicals properly, pointing out that her brother, in a demonstration for the police, had been able to easily infiltrate the labs where the thallium was stored. By that point, she had reportedly relocated to the US, possibly to Boston, and was said to have changed her name to Sun Shiyan (孙释颜) or Jasmine Sun. The following month, in January 2006, the case's primary investigator, Li Shusen, told a correspondent from Southern People Weekly that investigators had in fact reached some important conclusions regarding the case, but that, according to the South China Morning Post, the information "was too sensitive to be released to the public." In 2007, Zhi's story would earn a short documentary on state-owned CCTV's news magazine Oriental Horizon.

    The Zhu Ling petition on WhiteHouse.gov

    The case of Zhu Ling isn't simply a juicy internet mystery. It's stoked popular demands for social justice and accountability at a time of deep suspicion of China's political elite. As ChinaFile's Sun Yunfan described it yesterday,

    If there is a “Chinese Dream” that the Chinese people have believed in faithfully for thousands of years, it would be something very close to the Chinese proverb: “A book holds a house of gold,” i.e., a good education ensures the brightest future and holds the promise of upward mobility. The intelligent, diligent, multitalented, and beautiful Zhu Ling... represents every Chinese parent’s dream and is every young Chinese student’s role model. She deserved a successful and happy life. For 19 years many people in China have believed that her dreams were shattered by someone with a powerful family, and that justice could not be served because the “ruling class” was above the rules.

    The story lingered in the Chinese internet's imagination for years until last month. On April 15th, local media reported the death of Huang Yang, a doctoral student at Fudan University, who apparently died after drinking poisoned water in his dorm. One of his roommates was later arrested and charged. The story resurrected Zhu Ling's saga, just as Weibo was reckoning with the death of another successful Chinese student, Lu Lingzhi, who was one of three people to be killed by a bomb at the Boston Marathon.

    That tragic coincidence, along with American media's coverage of the bombing and the efforts by Reddit and 4Chan users to identify the bomber, touched a nerve in China, where the police handling of student deaths has been a matter of controversy even before Tiananmen Square.  "Three hours after Boston bombings: all cameras rolling, no bans on content . . . It spares us the suspicious speculation," one Weibo user wrote in praise of Boston's media. "All worth learning from." 

    Weibo and a number of bulletin boards (including pages on Facebook) began to buzz again with calls for justice for Zhu. A grassroots online campaign ensued, unofficially re-opening the case and demanding the alleged poisoner be brought back to China, in a blistering demonstration of China's internet vigilantism, often called the "human flesh search engine."

    A YouTube video posted by the Help Zhu Ling Foundation, which was established by some of her former classmates

    For two weeks however, the torrent of posts on Weibo that referred to Zhu were subject to swift deletion. While criticism of the country's censorship regime (along with calls for collective action) is often strictly off limits on China's social media, netizens' reaction to the deletions was similarly swift and hard to ignore. As of today, the deletions and blockages of Weibo search terms like “Zhu Ling” and “Sun Wei” have mostly subsided. In a post shared more than 4,000 times on Weibo by Monday night and spotted by the Hong Kong-based China Media Project., Wang Ran (王冉), the founder of China eCapital Corporation, ruminated on the government's change of course.

    “Zhu Ling” can now be searched [on Weibo]. There is no way for us to know how exactly the winds changed. But one thing is clear: the screening of searches about her ran up against the basic threshold of conscience in our society. There are more and more cases in China of blockings and deletions drawing more fire, having exactly the opposite result of that intended. I hope we can move quickly from here along the long road to becoming a nation of rule of law.

    By Monday, the number of signatures on the Zhu Ling White House petition had surpassed 100,000 after just three days. “To protect the safety of our citizens," it reads, "we petite [sic] that the government investigate and deport [Sun Wei],” 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.

    "We hope Chairman Obama answers the Chinese people for the sake of the autonomy of the Chinese people!" Zhang Xian (张弦), a media professional in Hefei with more than 153,000 followers, joked on Weibo. The post came with an image of a heroic Obama in Maoist garb, smiling in front of the Great Hall of the People. The original post with the photo later disappeared.

    The state media has broken its silence on Zhu, with various stories describing the case in vague terms and questioning the tendency toward vigilantism. In one mysterious editorial at the right-wing Global Times, an editor seems to admit that connections to high-level officials can put a halt to criminal investigations—but not in this case. “Sun's family background was not distinguished enough to prevent security organs from investigating the situation at a top university in China,” it read. In an internal propaganda directive issued by the Party’s Propaganda Department yesterday and translated by China Digital Times, the government sought to stem the rumors about a cover-up:

    If producing reports concerning the thallium poisoning of Tsinghua University student Zhu Ling, all media and website coverage must without exception accord authoritative information from the relevant Beijing municipal departments. Do not challenge [the information from the authorities] and do not sensationalize the story.

    Sensationalization aside, of course there is a risk to the vigilantism that Zhu's case has inspired. Crowd-sourcing may be useful for diagnosing a disease, but as America's failed attempt to crowd-source the Boston bomber's identity demonstrated, it's not necessarily a very good way to solve a crime. As someone claiming to be Sun Wei wrote in a two line post on Tianya.cn on April 18, “For all these years, I have been waiting for truth to emerge like many others." She then quoted a Chinese poem: "It’s up to other people to laugh at or attack me."

    Indeed. Because it lacks a free media, it has fallen to "other people" in China to do the work of journalists, police and courts. In the wake of crimes like the Boston bombing, Americans can speculate about the power of the crowd to do that sort of thing; in China, sometimes there's no other option. 

    Zhu Ling, before her poisoning and today

    And unlike Redditors, China's internet activists also face an active censorship regime, which inspires yet more public anger. That peculiar editorial at Global Times summarized the tensions the poisoning has raised, albeit in simplistic terms. "People tend to become emotional online over issues like this due to a lack of credibility among officials," it read. "Officials find it tough to deal with these kinds of questions online. Often, they stay silent because they don't know how to respond."

    Hence, China's netizens are turning to the U.S. for help. In 2011, the American embassy in Beijing began publishing its own pollution data for Beijing, raising the ire of local authorities. The White House's petition site now also includes an entry citing potential health dangers from a planned oil refinery plant in Kunming, in western China (nearly 5,000 signatures) and another alleging the likelihood of voting fraud in the just held Malaysian general election (it has more than 200,000 signatures).

    The Zhu Ling case may be the first time that the White House has been petitioned by Chinese citizens en masse, and it won't be the last. But while it pledges to respond to any petition that gets over 100,000 signatures, the website's promise to inject "Your Voice in Our Government" doesn't exactly hold true for Chinese netizens, who are likely to find Washington wary of wading into another Chinese "internal matter."

    "The White House cannot be the foreign "petition office" of China," the editorial in the Global Times cautioned its readers. "However, embarrassments in the Internet age need not be covered up. We have our problems, and we will do our best to solve them." As of Wednesday, the Chinese version of the article had been deleted.