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 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.

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 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.


I have no clue why this particular case flared up at this particular time, but what jumps out at me is the usefulness for the authorities of letting these kinds of small fires burn in social media, as a safety valve for popular frustration. A fascinating recently scholarly article by Gary King and his collaborators showed that the censors in China allow even very sharp expressions of criticism and dissatisfaction, but systematically take down posts that seek to mobilize action. It is a sophisticated propaganda strategy that helps the regime to stay in power, and we see it operating in other media as well— print, broadcast, and so on. The idea that social media would undermine authoritarianism turns out to have been simplistic.

But Andy, why limit the question to whether social media will undo authoritarianism? Even if you don’t think social media will bring on the revolution, there’s plenty of room to think it might deliver some of the social goods that an authoritarian state fails to provide or deliberately withholds and that this might change the nature of life under authoritarian rule in pretty important ways. In Zhu Ling’s case, it sounds like she’d have probably died if her friends hadn’t crowd-sourced her medical diagnosis using social media to contact scientists abroad. And even if the roommate didn’t get tried, she has been driven out of the country, for better or worse, and that seems unlikely to have happened without the Internet campaign. The reason that the censors go after mobilization campaigns is because social media is good for networking and mobilizing people in ways that force various agents of the Chinese state to behave—sometimes—in more accountable, adaptable and perhaps even less authoritarian ways.

The really mystifying part of this to me is the Global Times editorial, which indirectly admits that connections to high-level officials can put a halt to criminal investigations. (Best line: “Sun's family background was not distinguished enough to prevent security organs from investigating the situation at a top university in China.”) The editorial also talks about government officials lacking credibility. Can anyone shed any light on what this means? If the Global Times is a propaganda mouthpiece, then is this a little window into one faction's attempts to be more open? Or what? The Chinese version has already been removed from the website, so there clearly is some debate ongoing about what the editorial says.

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, who was attending Tsinghua University in Beijing—China’s MIT—when she was poisoned in 1994, 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.

Why has Zhu Ling’s case resurfaced now? Partly because a similar case was solved last month at Fudan University in Shanghai. Perhaps the case resonates with the title of Chinese artist Cai Guoqiang’s 2008 retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in New York—“I Want To Believe.” Maybe Chinese social media discussion of Zhu Ling’s case also is inspired by recent dramatic “international petitions” of the U.S. government by embattled Chinese such as the blind activist lawyer Cheng Guangcheng, who holed up in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing before relocating to New York, and Wang Lijun whose foray into the U.S. consulate in Chengdu helped topple Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai.

Zhu Ling’s case indeed resurfaced into Chinese social media sphere after the poisoning death of a Fudan University student last month. In the first two weeks, Sina Weibo censored related posts swiftly. But the repression in this case generated much stronger public opinion, on weibo and other Internet forums, mainly because of the increasing demand for social justice and accountability from ordinary citizens, in the context of the pervasiveness of the privileged being above the law in Chinese society.

The state media has now been forced to acknowledge the attention the public is paying to this case, but the government is still trying to “guide public opinion.” Here is a latest internal propaganda directive from the Party’s Propaganda Department, translated by China Digital Times today.

Central Propaganda Department: 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. (May 7, 2013)

I think Yunfan correctly identifies the reason that this case continues to cause such passionate responses in China—Zhu Ling was living the Chinese dream of being a “diligent, multitalented, and beautiful" student at one of China's most prestigious universities.  (I agree with Yunfan that being a top student at top university is the real Chinese dream, as opposed to Xi Jinping’s knock-off Thomas Friedman dream, which is vague and phony.)

But I would go one step further: Zhu Ling also was someone who played by the P.R.C.’s rules. She was not a dissident, a vocal critic of the government, or a poor peasant farmer whose land was stolen by a local government official. Until she was poisoned, she lived the kind of life that the government encourages citizens to live: hard working, high achieving, and completely apolitical. And yet she was poisoned, and the investigation either was covered up by malicious forces or bungled by official incompetence. For many urban Chinese graduates, especially those of Zhu Ling’s age who are the vanguard of the chattering classes, confident and at home on social networks, Zhu Ling is an example of how the darkest forces in Chinese society can destroy anyone, anyone at all. If you are an ordinary citizen without connections to the powerful, there may be nothing at all you can do about it. 

China’s pressure-cooker schools turn soft children into sharp-edged scholars. Or cracked killers.

In May, a 13-year-old was convicted of dismembering her prettier and more popular friend. This April a Shanghai University grad student was suspected of poisoning his roommate.

Thalium’s a bit of thing in China. China Daily says Zhu Ling is the country’s first recorded case of Thalium poisoning, but others followed.In 2007, a student at the China University of Mining and Technology confessed to poisoning three classmates—according to reports, the third reported case.

The inspiration has traveled overseas. The widespread coverage of Zhu Ling’s case helped reveal the cause of the death of a Chinese man in New Jersey in 2011. According to local press reports, a nurse who remembered Zhu Ling’s story thought a man dying at her hospital had symptoms similar to thallium poisoning. His wife, a chemist trained in China, was later charged with her husband’s murder.

Perhaps thallium is just an inventive response to strict gun control laws.

Regardless, the Zhu Ling case remains a cultural touchstone in China and in the overseas Chinese population in the U.S., where there’s even a foundation to help her and a White House petition to deport her former roommate. Chinese newspapers have periodically revisited the case, suggesting that the investigation was stymied by family connections.

In today’s climate of increasing anger at the privileges of the connected elite, the suspicion that Zhu Ling’s poisoner was protected resonates more than ever. Aiding the case’s continued relevance is how the Internet played a role in her diagnosis. Doctors were aided by an on-line appeal for help. In a way, Zhu Ling was China ’s first Internet celebrity.