Until a few weeks ago, the person most associated with the poison thallium was novelist Agatha Christie, who introduced it in the plot of The Pale Horse, published in 1961.
The book has been popular enough to be credited with saving at least two victims of thallium poisoning in real life, after its symptoms were recognised from the story.
But now there are two more women being linked to thallium, this time in China where a case that has intrigued the Chinese for years has suddenly taken on an international dimension.
The story has more twists than even Christie could have imagined: a murder and an attempted murder, both by poisoning, but 19 years apart at two of China’s most respected universities; the unexpected appearance of the White House, after tens of thousands of people signed a petition demanding that a Chinese national be deported from the US to face trial; and a sense of public anger in China that justice has been ignored, due to some of the family connections of those thought to be involved in the case.
The furore began after a case of thallium poisoning this year at Fudan University in Shanghai in which a medical student admitted to killing his roommate. But it’s an unsolved case from Tsinghua University in Beijing that has captured more of China’s attention. In 1994, a promising chemistry student called Zhu Ling survived two bouts of thallium poisoning, although they left her with the mental faculties of a small child. No one has ever been charged with the crime.
In fact, the two cases aren’t the only instances in which thallium, an odourless toxin, has been used in poisonings at universities. There was another instance at Tsinghua in 1997 when a student was jailed for 10 years for trying to kill two classmates. Ten years on something similar happened at the China University of Mining and Technology in Xuzhou, when three students survived another murder attempt. And although WiC is inclined to agree with the China Daily that it’s best not to jump to “sociological conclusions” from a relatively small number of cases (there are seven million students in China each year), there is no mistaking the wider public interest in Zhu’s case, as well as the anger at how it has been handled.
In fact, the internet has shaped Zhu’s story from the start: hundreds of international responses to an online SOS in 1994 helped to diagnose her condition. But the latest twist is another internet appeal to the outside world, this time from thousands of people that want Sun Wei, Zhu’s roommate at the time, to be brought back to the country to face trial (Sun is thought to be living in America).
The request, made in the first week of May on a petitioning site run by Barack Obama’s White House, had picked up 146,000 signatures by Wednesday, easily surpassing the 100,000 threshold required to trigger an official response from the Oval Office.
That puts Washington in an awkward position, not dissimilar to its discomfort when Wang Lijun arrived so dramatically at the US consulate in Chengdu last year seeking protection against his enraged patron Bo Xilai (see WiC138).
The plea to the White House also rubs uncomfortably against China’s own tradition of petitioning, in which applicants have sought redress from local leaders or extended appeals to a higher authority (in cases in which they have felt poorly served by local officials). Historically that led many petitioners to approach the imperial court, although more recently they have travelled to ministries in Beijing (see WiC62) in hope that their voice will be heard. The accusation is that many have been poorly treated and the Southern Metropolis Daily reported this month that a count of those who turn up in the capital will no longer feature in promotion assessments for provincial leaders (implicit recognition that some local officials were locking up or beating those seeking to go to Beijing).
Li Chengpeng, an outspoken voice on weibo with 7.2 million followers, says that netizens are now turning to Washington for redress, even if only in symbolic form. The White House petition proved two points, said Li: “One is that we are not turning blind to justice but are looking for it elsewhere; the other point is that justice is boundless, no matter whether it exists in China or in the United States. Obama has been jokingly referred to as the head of China’s petition office. I am not sure whether he is proud of that, but it is embarrassing for the Chinese. To build up an image of a great country is to build up an image to pursue justice.”
Anger at Zhu’s poisoning also draws on public sentiment that the scales of justice are tipped in favour of the politically connected, with Sun widely believed to have been sheltered from prosecution by her family. Her grandfather and uncle are both said to have enjoyed close ties to the ruling elite of the time. She is then thought to have changed her name and moved to the United States shortly after the investigation into the poisoning was closed.
Sun has said little publicly, apart from rejecting the allegations in an online posting of her own eight years ago. “On the internet, even though everyone is just a virtual ID, one should still be rational, objective and responsible for their own words and actions,” she requested.
But the allegations have never disappeared from the public eye, especially after a lead investigator told Southern People Weekly seven years ago that progress had been made in identifying the responsible parties but that the information “was too sensitive to be released to the public”.
Now the student poisoning at Fudan is stirring things up again, with questions reaching even the weibo pages penned by the state media. “Zhu Ling is a 40 year-old now, completely paralysed, almost blind and with the intelligence of a 6 year-old. What exactly happened 19 years ago? Who was behind the poisoning?” asked the People’s Daily.
The message was soon deleted and online searches for Zhu and others were blocked too. But the ban was ineffective, as more prominent weibo voices chose to discuss the case too, including Wang Ran, chief executive at China eCapital, a local investment bank.
“At first the speculation surrounding Zhu L was just speculation,” Wang told his three million weibo followers, using the abbreviated version of the victim’s name. “We just kept emphasising the need for evidence, kept emphasising the criminal investigative process and kept emphasising the legal principle of presumed innocence… But then as of yesterday it was no longer possible to search for her. The victim has become a sensitive topic. As a result we can finally confirm that the basic rumours were true.”
Other opinion leaders like Yao Chen or Lee Kai-fu, both with tens of millions of weibo followers, have also shared analysis of Zhu’s case, while the Beijing police’s own site has been mobbed with visitors demanding that the investigation be reopened.
In light of the massive interest in Zhu, the restrictions have since been lifted, although a few of the state newspapers have tried to argue against the public mood. Prominent among these is an editorial in the Global Times that warned that a perpetrator could only be arrested if the evidence supports it.
That sounds reasonable enough, although it was the newspaper’s insistence that Sun’s family background couldn’t have counted in her favour that stood out the most in the editorial.
Favouritism could be ruled out, the Global Times was sure, because Sun’s family “was not distinguished enough” to prevent an investigation from happening.
As an attempt to draw a line under the discussion, the state-owned newspaper had only confirmed what many already suspected: if you are connected to the rich and powerful, you really are above the law.
Keeping track: there have been a number of legal verdicts relating to cases we wrote about last year. First off, a court in Inner Mongolia has finally found an executed teen innocent – 18 years after he was wrongly convicted of the rape and murder of a woman. We featured this case in WiC264, pointing out that some viewed it as a litmus test for President Xi Jinping’s new emphasis on promoting the rule of law. Qoysiletsu, then 18, was found guilty in 1996, and his parents have been trying to have the verdict overturned in the light of another man subsequently admitting to the crime. The court apologised to the parents and gave them Rmb30,000 of “condolence” money. Separately a student from Fudan University who admitted to poisoning his roommate with thallium (see WiC193) was given the death sentence. Some netizens looked at this verdict in a somewhat tangential light – asking why student Lin Senhao got death while Gu Kailai, wife of fallen princeling Bo Xilai, got only a suspended death sentence for poisoning and murdering Neil Heywood. Finally, a court sentenced action star Jackie Chan’s son Jaycee for illegal drug possession. Last week he was given six months of jail time. Jan 16, 2015
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