Obama, Minister of China Petitions?

The recent poisoning death of Huang Yang, a graduate student at Fudan University in Shanghai, has triggered inquiries among netizens over the unsolved 1994 poisoning of , then an undergraduate at Tsinghua University. Netizens’ calls for a re-investigation of the politically sensitive case were met with censorship on Sina Weibo. From Adam Minter at Bloomberg:

The details of the almost two-decade-old case are sordid and murky. In 1995, Zhu Ling was a promising undergraduate at Beijing’s elite Tsinghua University when she came down with a mysterious illness that was thought to be poisoning via thallium, a toxic element once used asrat poison. This finding soon led to a suspect: Sun Wei, a roommate of Zhu’s who happened to be one of the few undergraduates at Tsinghua to have access to thallium in a laboratory.

Most important for the politically minded Chinese netizen, Sun Wei was the granddaughter of a high-ranking official who was thought to be close to then-President Jiang Zemin. In 1997, Sun was detained by police for questioning for eight hours but not arrested. Soon after, the case was closed, and Sun reportedly fled to the U.S., where it’s rumored she’s married with kids (enterprising microbloggers have tried to keep tabs).

[…] Among the earliest actions was a highly unusual censorship decision directed at People’s Daily, the official mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party. On April 26, the paper’s official Sina microblogging account tweeted, as translated by the blog Offbeat China: “Zhu Ling is 40 years old now, completely paralyzed, almost blind and with the intelligence of a 6-year- old. What exactly happened 19 years ago? Who was behind the poisoning?”

[…] Then the tweet was deleted by Sina’s censors, along with tweets that quoted it, posted screen grabs or reposted it outright. About the same time, People’s Daily deleted its special online page devoted to Zhu Ling coverage. So, either People’s Daily or somebody above it decided that the paper didn’t need to devote any additional coverage to an issue that was becoming increasingly critical of the party.

Some netizens even set up an online petition on the ’s official ‘We the People’ platform, asking Obama to deport Sun Wei. From David Bandurski at China Media Project:

The petition for the deportation of Sun Wei received more than 107,000 signatures by 8:30pm today. According to the terms and conditions of the service, the petition has now reached the required “signature threshold” (100,000 signatures within 30 days) and should receive a response from the White House.

[…] Users have predictably made light of the fact that Chinese have turned to an American petition site seeking justice that, some say, is impossible at home.

[…] Zhang Xian (张弦), a media professional in Hefei with more than 153,000 followers, wrote on Sina Weibo: “Hello, Comrade Obama, chairman of the National Office of Letters and Calls! Requests on the Zhu Ling case have already reached 100,000. We hope Chairman Obama answers the Chinese people for the sake of the autonomy of the Chinese people!”

The petitioning caught on. Besides the Zhu Ling case, netizens have also asked Obama to encourage the suspension of a PX Project near Kunming, Yunnan Province, which was the target of local protests last Saturday. More radical called for the US to “send troops to liberate Hong Kong“, while others hoped that it “will tofu curd official taste is sweet,namely the use of granulated sugar,brown sugar and other sweet condiments.”

The more serious White House petitions are just the latest efforts to turn to foreign authorities and news media as a last resort. From Yang Yingjie at Global Times:

Yuan Yulai, a Ningbo-based lawyer and active microblogger on Sina Weibo, told the Global Times Tuesday that the petitions to the White House were regarded the last straw when seeking justice after frustrations over official probes and assessments.

[…] Meanwhile, some petitioners unsatisfied with the way the authorities have dealt with their grievances also turn to UN missions and foreign embassies as well as overseas media.

[…] Yuan noted the move was aimed at pressuring the authorities at home in the hope the government could direct attention to their grievances and devote itself to providing remedies to their problems.

However, Zhang Yiwu, a professor of Chinese literature with Peking University, disagreed, calling it “irrational and more of a way to vent people’s frustrations than offering any practical help.”

[…] Last year, a petitioner surnamed Peng from Sichuan Province was sentenced to 18 months of re-education through labor punishment for appealing directly to a foreign embassy in China.

At Tea Leaf Nation, David Wertime recalled the trend’s online predecessors:

In early February of 2012, when China’s so-called Great Firewall of censorship temporarily lifted its block on Google Plus, Chinese Web users took advantage of the brief reprieve to flood President Obama’s re-election page with comments. More recently, in mid-March of this year, a well-known provocateur tweeted the results of an imaginary election on Sina Weibo, a micro-blogging service. Hundreds of users replied in surprisingly serious tones, with one estimating that true elections would not be held until 2033, another saying it would be “a thousand years” hence. That provocateur’s tweet, and the comments to it, were deleted in less than 24 hours.

One cannot interpret these instantiated movements as representing China writ large. Given the massive size of China’s social Web, even a tiny but determined minority can quickly make its presence felt on the American Internet. Even within these comparatively small groups, motivations vary; some White House petitioners wrote in rage, others in jest.

Nonetheless, it’s a valuable reminder of American soft power in the digital age. In China, the Letters and Visits Office is charged with accepting petitions from aggrieved citizens. But often, thugs known as “jiefang” intercept would-be petitioners from outside of Beijing, sometimes before they can even board a train headed for the capital. The contrast with the White House’s approach is jarring. As one Weibo user commented, “Going to the gates of the White House to petition may or may not be useful, but I know that going there to petition won’t get you in trouble.” Another wrote, “Too funny; but after I laughed, I felt like I’d never be able to slake my thirst.”

See also Ministry of Truth: White House Petition Goes Viral at CDT. Samuel Wade contributed to this post.