Zhu Ling

Poisoning, death of Fudan student recalls disturbing case of Zhu Ling

Papers recall the disturbing case of Zhu Ling, a Tsinghua student poisoned 18 years ago; suspect was relative of senior cadre

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 April, 2013, 4:56am


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The strange and tragic death by poisoning of a postgraduate student - possibly by his room-mate - at a prestigious university in Shanghai last week prompted editorials across the nation.

The incident not only saddened the public, but drew attention to the mainland's education system and a similar incident at a Beijing university almost 20 years ago.

Huang Yang, a doctoral student of Shanghai Medical College at Fudan University, died on Wednesday from multiple organ failure. He drank water from a dispenser in his dormitory on April 1 and was critically ill within hours. A few days later, investigators established Huang had ingested N-Nitrosodimethylamine (NDMA), a toxic compound that is the by-product of a number of chemical processes. His room-mate, another medical student who had written several papers on NDMA, was detained and is the only suspect.

Huang, 28, came from a poor family in rural Sichuan. He was academically gifted, winning a number of university scholarships, and, according to his peers, kind and hard-working. He had volunteered in Anhui and Tibet during his studies, and was preparing to return to Tibet at the time of the tragedy.

Huang had even emptied the water out the drinking machine and cleaned it after he sipped the strange-smelling water, to save his room-mate from drinking it. Even the suspect, also a gifted student, gained a measure of public sympathy.

Many media reports drew parallels with the case and that of Zhu Ling, who was poisoned 18 years ago at Beijing's Tsinghua University. The 19-year-old woman student was poisoned twice with thallium, an acutely toxic element. Thallium poisoning is hard to detect, and Zhu was in hospital for days until a middle-school classmate sought help online and confirmed the poisoning.

One of her room-mates, the granddaughter of a senior government official and the only student of Zhu's acquaintance with access to thallium, was detained for eight hours as the only suspect before being released. The case was never solved.

Paralysed, almost blind and with the mental capacity of a child, Zhu is cared for by her elderly parents. Her plight continues to draw sympathy from internet users, year after year.

"Like the Zhu Ling incident, attention has been drawn once again to how poisonous chemicals can end up in the hands of the poisoners," Nanfang Daily wrote. Even though universities strictly regulate the supply of dangerous chemicals, such substances can be obtained from university laboratories or even purchased online, newspaper said.

Guangzhou Daily called on public security authorities to solve the Huang case in a transparent way to avoid sparking further anxiety over the Zhu Ling case.

"The unsolved Zhu Ling case has given rise to rumours and suspicions of underhanded dealings to stop the investigation. The Zhu case remains a scar on the rule of law and we hope those handling the Huang case draw lessons from it," the newspaper wrote.

The paper added that such cases demonstrate how intelligent people can become emotionally unstable and capable of killing over trifles. Moreover, it said China's education system, with its emphasis on examination results, did little to help students with character flaws.

Commenting on the Huang case, Beijing Times lamented the loss of two talented young students - both of whom had just finished eight years of medical training - not only for their families but for society. It questioned the education system, too, but went further.

"The failure is more than just the mental state of the students," the paper wrote, "and it's not just the responsibility of universities - it's every link, from childhood to youth, from school to family and society in general."

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