Recently, an unsolved case of poisoning of a 19-year college student in 1994 resurfaced in the Chinese social media sphere. It not only grabbed the wide attention of Chinese netizens, but also triggered a wave of petitions to the White House.
Zhu Ling, a promising sophomore at the most prestigious university in China then, was diagnosed as having been intentionally poisoned by thallium, a highly toxic chemical used in insect poisons. She remains mostly bed-bound now and is taken care of by her old parents.
Zhu’s roommate, Sun Wei, was the major suspect at the time and was the only one who was questioned by the police but was soon cleared. The hearsay circulated around has been that Sun's political-related family allowed her to escape justice.
Disappointed by a lack of judicial independence in China, netizens turned to the White House. On May 3, 2013, a Chinese-American living in Florida submitted an online petition, which has drawn more than 145,000 signatures so far, on the White House’s “We the People” platform. Sun is believed to be residing in the United States and thus the Chinese called on the Obama administration to deport the suspect.
After the petition was circulated on Sina Weibo and other online forums, the Chinese netizens crammed the White House’ petition website in the following days with a variety of petitions such as: to nail down the official taste of bean curd stew (a kind of Chinese tofu), to improve Sina staff ‘s meal subsidies, and to cancel the university admission exams [zh]. Some petitions were written in poor English while others were written simply in Chinese.
Although the current signatures regarding deporting Zhu Ling have surpassed the threshold of 100,000, the petitions haven't received any official response yet. Many are crystal clear that the petitions will not necessarily lead to any practical result, including Zhu Ling’s parents, who expressed their preference to solve the case through regular domestic channels instead of resorting to the United States.
However, the enthusiasm for petitioning White House reflects the shortage of a leveraging voice and the venting of resentment for Chinese back home. In fact, Sina Weibo made an attempt to censor the name of Zhu Ling at the very beginning, but only found that it was too late to block the issue. Upon seeing a call for justice turned into a petition drama, many netizens blame the dereliction of duty of the Chinese government. Prominent writer Li Chengpeng (@李承鹏) laughed at the local petition system [zh],
The inability of Chinese judiciary authorities to solve an attempted poisoning murder at home 19 years ago, forcing the Chinese to resort to the website of the United States, elaborates two points: one is that we are not turning blind to the 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. These years Obama has been jokingly referred to as the head of the 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 a image to pursue justice.
Journalist Xiang Xianjun (@@项仙君) believed that the incident would impose some pressure on the new leaders:
中国网民向白宫请愿是对新政府的警示:面对公信力的严重流失，高层须迅速找到适应网络时代的执政方式，前提是调整执政理念。we the people 的走红，就是软实力的成功。在最早喊出我们人民有力量的国度，为什么我们还纠缠于截访而不是开闸泄洪打捞沉没的声音呢？
Chinese netizens’ petitioning the White House is a warning to the newly elected government: faced with the serious loss of public credibility, the government must change the ruling style and keep up with the age of the Internet. The popularity of We the People illustrates the success of soft power. In a country that boasts the power of the people at an early age, why does it still bother to block the people's voice instead of letting it go?
Some netizens even make fun of Obama and photoshopped his image as Bao Zheng, a renowned justice official during the Song dynasty. Microblogger, “Shinning Sun” (@朗朗的阳光) commented on Obama-Bao-Zheng: A netizen's Weibo post was even carried on Twitter:
President Obama must be very busy now due to various petitions and various parodies… Hah, Bao Zheng is in the White House, who is able to distinguish the good from the bad due to his impartiality.
But some netizens believe that the wave of petitions is meant to shift the attention onto Zhuling's case. For example “Tse Xiaowei” (@TseWave觉悟X) said:
严重觉得最近在American White House网上请愿那些搞笑是水军所为，是想试着以这些无聊的事去cover某个重要的请愿么？
I am very suspicious that the petitions on the American White House website are done by “web navy” [those who are employed by others to write posts purposefully]. And I wonder if their intention is to cover up the important petition with meaningless ones.
An independent journalist, Sang Bo, observed how a criminal case was turning into a public drama step by step [zh]：
From “judicial independence” to “speech freedom”, from “national justice” to “democratic politics”, a group of people are making use of Zhuling's case to make their argument. Although I agree on their conclusion and the problems surfacing from the case, I do not agree with their mathematic equation.