More questions than answers for poison victim Zhu Ling 18 years after case closed

'The grass-roots-style trial will never stop until the official trial begins,' says a blogger

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 30 April, 2013, 11:57am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 07 May, 2013, 11:44am

When 21-year-old Zhu Ling, a talented and versatile senior at China’s prestigious Tsinghua University, suffered from what later turned out to be poisoning by thallium in 1995, the case won her and her family national media attention and sympathy.

It’s been almost 19 years since Beijing Police closed the case without arresting any suspect, citing inadequate evidence. But now an online campaign is under way to force police to reopen the cold case and bring the culprit, or culprits, to justice.

The deadly chemical, which was twice placed into Zhu's drinking water, didn’t kill her, but some claim it might as well have. After years of medication and therapy, the now 40-year-old Zhu Ling has turned into a  200-pound, paralysed, diabetic, almost-blind woman with the mental capacity of a six-year-old.

Zhu’s parents, both retired intellectuals now in their 70s, have devoted their lives tending to their disabled daughter. They said they stopped hiring help at one point, realising no one could take care of her as well as they could. But the future weighs on them as they get older.

For the Zhu family, it seems everything that could go wrong has.

Zhu’s elder sister died in 1989 in an accident during a field trip. She was a student at Peking University, a major rival of Tsinghua.

A well-reported quote by Zhu’s father captured the family’s pain and dilemma: “When our time comes, we’d like to bring Ling Ling with us,” he said in an interview with the Chinese media.

Despite short attention spans, China’s media and online community have somehow adamantly clinged to Zhu’s unsolved case for the last 18 years. The story has even been labelled a “period” topic, referring to its ability to “come back”  time after time, on, China’s most influential gossip mill and online forum.

But what saddens and angers the Chinese even more than the suffering of the Zhu family is that people have been dwelling on nothing but rumours for the past two decades. The official investigation was closed allegedly after interference by the family of Zhu’s well-connected roommate.

The roommate, surnamed Sun, was brought in for questioning by Beijing Police in 1995. A person of interest, she was found to be the only undergraduate student at Tsinghua with access to thallium, said reports. Sun was released after being detained for eight hours. A police report later said there was not enough evidence to make an arrest.

But that was far from the end of the story. The moment authorities relinquished their investigation in 1998, Zhu's sympathisers across China and overseas launched their own campaign for justice.

Rumours and theories, some bolder than others, surfaced accusing Sun and her other “jealous” roommates of "plotting" against Zhu, who was allegedly disliked for her academic and artistic achievement as well as an arrogant attitude towards peers.

The sympathy, anger and discontent peaked a few weeks ago after Huang Yang, a doctoral student at Shanghai Medical College at Fudan University, died after drinking from poisoned water in his dorm. One of his roommates was later arrested and charged. The latest murder case has once again brought Zhu’s case under the national spotlight.

But it’s different this time, according to some anxious observers. Even party mouthpieces like CCTV and the People’s Daily have joined the media coverage. But, like their readers, they have more questions than answers. Ping An Beijing, the official Weibo account of the Beijing police, has been flooded with comments - and slurs - urging them to re-examine the Zhu case to re-install “justice”.

Frustrated by the officials’ lack of action and reluctance to answer questions, the online community has again taken the case into their own hands, resorting to notorious “human flesh searches”.  Overnight, happy pictures of Zhu's former roommates, their spouses and children were posted on forums and circulated on weibo, contrasted with pictures of a disabled Zhu attended by her ageing parents. The roommates' addresses and employment information were leaked and reposted. 

"Everyone is playing Sherlock Holmes now," commented a blogger. "Despite their motivations, we should know these people might be innocent."

The online discussions took a turn when a blogger found that the husband of one roommate works for a fund management company in Guangzhou. The blogger promptly declared war against the company, urging people to withdraw their investments in a bid to pressure the firm into firing the husband, who was branded as an “accomplice”.

Many online users questioned such tactics, but millions of others, at home and abroad, have applauded and embraced the actions, calling them a “necessary evil”.

“The grass-roots-style trial will never stop until the official trial begins,” said a blogger.

Beijing police did not respond to the South China Morning Post's request for an interview on Tuesday.

To find out how to help Zhu Ling's family, including ways to donate, visit the "Help Zhu Ling" Weibo account, set up by her friends.