Why Is a 1995 Poisoning Case the Top Topic on Chinese Social Media?

Why Is a 1995 Poisoning Case the Top Topic on Chinese Social Media?

A ChinaFile Conversation

With a population base of 1.3 billion people, China has no shortage of strange and gruesome crimes, but the attempted murder of Zhu Ling by thallium poisoning in 1995 is burning up China’s social media long after the trails have gone cold. Zhu, a brilliant and beautiful sophomore attending one of China’s most prestigious colleges at the time, is now bed-bound and nearly blind. The only suspect questioned by police was Zhu’s roommate, whose family is rumored to be politically connected. Police quickly released her and she now reportedly lives in the U.S. Zhu’s case has been brought to the Chinese public’s attention again because of . (That case was quickly solved).

Hundreds of thousands of Internet users sympathetic to Zhu are now pursuing their version of justice through online vigilantism—by exposing personal information of the suspect, by tweeting and commenting on the case on China’s microblogs, and even, by .

Zhu Ling, pictured before being poisoned (above) and now

The case inflamed passions because it touched on the question of judicial independence in China—many assume that the suspect got off because of privilege and connections. The censors blocked the search term “Zhu Ling” on Sina Weibo on May 6, but perhaps realizing that the move only further fanned anger at political interference in the case, Sina unblocked the search term about a day later. Soon afterwards, China’s Party-controlled mainstream media outlets also published interviews and investigative reports on the case.

Some Internet users are taking the mainstream coverage of Zhu’s case as a sign that the authorities will heed the Internet users’ call to re-open this case. However, even if the case is re-opened, accusations of manipulation and interference may continue. As was true in the cases of and Li Gang, calls for justice for Zhu Ling have become an outlet of popular anger against China’s privileged class, whom many believe can act above the law. The only path to judicial fairness in China, according to many Internet users, is to make their voices heard online.

The Zhu case certainly proves that online vigilantism works, at least as far as getting mainstream media attention is concerned. However, it also demonstrates a Catch-22 for those waiting for justice to be done in China—making a splash online may be the only way for victims of crime to get the attention of the public, but online vigilantism could take on a life of its own by reaching a foregone conclusion without the benefit of a full investigation. And that could ultimately cloud the truth.

Rachel Lu is the co-founder and co-editor of Tea Leaf Nation, an English-language online magazine that synthesizes and analyzes Chinese social media. Tea Leaf Nation is a partner site with The...
Andrew J. Nathan is Class of 1919 Professor of Political Science at Columbia University. He is also chair of the steering committee of the Center for the Study of Human Rights and chair of the...
Susan Jakes is Editor of ChinaFile and Senior Fellow at Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations. From 2000-2007 she reported on China for Time magazine, first as a reporter and editor based in...
Dorinda Elliott is Editor at Large at ChinaFile. In her “day job,” she is Global Affairs Editor at Condé Nast Traveler, where she spearheads coverage of global issues and corporate social...
Born and raised in China (Shaanxi and Shenzhen), Sun Yunfan has lived in the U.S. for the past decade. She studied painting at the School of Visual Arts and received an M.F.A. in Fine Arts from Pratt...
Xiao Qiang is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of China Digital Times, a bilingual China news website launched in 2003 to aggregate, organize, and recommend online information from and about China. He...
Jeremy Goldkorn is the Founder and Director of Danwei, a research firm that tracks Chinese media and Internet. Danwei has been publishing a popular website about Chinese media since 2003. After...
Shai Oster is an award-winning Hong Kong-based Reporter-at-Large for Bloomberg News. Over nearly two decades as a journalist in China, Europe, and the U.S., he has covered a broad range of economic,...





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