The plot involves former students of Tsinghua University, a suspect with high-powered connections in the Communist Party, a possible cover-up including an identity change and illegal entry to the United States, massive censorship of the Chinese blogosphere, and a few celebrities thrown in for good measure.
Except the victim didn’t die. In 1995, budding chemistry student Zhu Ling was hospitalized with odd symptoms: She felt sick and all her hair had fallen out, but doctors were at a loss to explain why, as reported by U.S. magazine New Republic.
Zhu’s friend, Bei Zhicheng, put out an online plea for help to hospitals and universities overseas, listing her symptoms and test results. Responses quickly poured in saying that she needed treatment with Prussian Blue, an antidote for heavy metal poisoning. The antidote worked, and Zhu began to recover.
However, the poison had already damaged her brain, and she was left blind and paralyzed; she is now 40 years old, in the care of her septuagenarian parents.
Zhu’s roommate, Sun Wei or Jasmine Sun, was widely suspected as the poisoner, but Beijing police cleared her name following a four-year investigation, saying conviction was impossible due to deterioration of forensic evidence.
Zhu’s drinking ware and lunch boxes had “mysteriously” disappeared after two other roommates heard of the investigation, and hacked emails between them and Sun revealed collusion to defend her, according to Offbeat China, a blog. Netizens now refer to the trio as “the thallium party.”
It turns out Sun’s grandfather, Sun Yueqi, was a senior official in the Kuomintang, and close to the father of former Party leader Jiang Zemin. Her uncle, Sun Fuling, was ex-deputy mayor of Beijing and vice chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, a high-level advisory body to the Communist Party.
Sun is rumored to have changed her name to Sun Shi Yan, and escaped to the United States by marriage fraud.
Zhu Ling’s case was brought into the spotlight recently after a university poisoning incident at Shanghai’s Fudan University last month, involving a promising medical student believed to have been killed by his roommate using a rare research chemical in the dorm’s water dispenser.
As the topic gained fresh attention, celebrities like “Iron Man 3” actress Fan Bingbing and her justice-seeking colleague Yao Chen stepped in to give their support to solving the mystery. Netizens responded with such fervor that online censors began blocking the search terms “thallium poisoning,” “Zhu Ling,” and “Sun Wei.”
Undeterred, Chinese again sought online help overseas, this time exercising the First Amendment. A White House online petition started on Friday has already attracted over 115,000 signatures, meaning President Obama’s office now has to provide an official response.
Hefei media professional Zhang Xian posted a message on Weibo to his over 153,000 followers, with a picture of Obama in a mock Chinese revolutionary outfit with a red armband that says “guard.”
“Hello, Comrade Obama, chairman of the National Office of Letters and Calls! Requests on the Zhu Ling case have already reached 100,000,” Zhang blogged. “We hope Chairman Obama answers the Chinese people for the sake of the autonomy of the Chinese people!”
New York-based Chinese lawyer Hai Ming told the state-run China Daily that President Obama cannot deport anyone, and any investigation would have to be made by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Even state mouthpiece Xinhua made an official online comment via its Perspectives channel, asking why the calls for investigation by Zhu Ling’s family had been “fobbed off,” noting that the public suspects “powerful people exerted some sort of inappropriate ‘interference.’” Xinhua added: “Only with the emergence of the truth will there be trust in the judicial system.”
The commentary was promptly deleted, however, emphasizing the political sensitivity of the case—even mouthpiece media misstepped.
Wang Ran, a well-known investment banker in China, remarked on his Weibo account: “Searches for Zhu Ling are allowed again. We’ll never know which way the political wind blows, but one thing is clear: Blocking results about the victim touched the moral lowpoint of this society. I hope there are more and more cases where the attempts at censorship will backfire like in this case, and I hope that this incident gives the country a sharp push forward on its long journey to the rule of law.”
With research by Ariel Tian.