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 a recent poisoning case in another elite Chinese college . (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 petitioning the White House.
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 Yao Jiaxin 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.