BEIJING – The poisoning of a college student 18 years ago recently re-emerged as a hot topic in China, but censors soon squelched the politically sensitive online discussions over whether the culprit may have eluded punishment because of Communist Party connections.
Chinese looking for justice found another way to keep the issue alive. They took it to Washington.
Appealing to a White House online petition page, they soon gathered the 100,000 signatures required for an official response, and — although there has been no response from Washington so far — news of the request revived talk about the case in China. Beijing police issued an explanation after weeks of silence, and state media chimed in with editorials.
"The Chinese public went to a foreign site to vent off their frustration, and that speaks of the loss of credibility of the Chinese government," said Shen Dingli, professor of American studies at Fudan University.
Started in 2011 as a project in open government for the Internet age, the Obama administration's "We the People" site is a work in progress that already has spawned unintended consequences domestically, prompting updates of the ground rules for a successful petition.
Though clearly intended for U.S. citizens, the guidelines on gathering online signatories remain broad enough to hearten activists overseas who — frustrated with their own governments — hope to raise the international profile of their cases. The site does not ask for one's nationality, and one only needs to be 13 or older and have a verified email address to create an account to initiate a petition or sign one.
Malaysians have complained to the White House about election fraud in their country, drawing more than 222,000 signatures within a week to become the site's second-most popular issue. Other petitions ask President Barack Obama to secure the release of two abducted Orthodox Christian archbishops in Syria and to urge a recount of votes in Venezuela's presidential elections.
And in the past week, requests have poured in from China, where petitioning the central government in Beijing dates back to imperial eras, but where nowadays the tradition is usually fruitless and sometimes perilous.
Some of the petitions are serious, and some silly — as with many of the U.S.-generated requests, which include a demand to build a "Star Wars"-style Death Star.
The Chinese petitions have asked Washington to disclose assets held by Chinese officials' children residing in the U.S., and have urged remembrance of the bloody Chinese government crackdown on the 1989 student protest in Tiananmen Square. Others have asked for adjudication on the official recipe for Langzhou beef noodles, and on the debate over whether the flavor of bean curd stew — a Chinese breakfast staple — should be sweet or salty. The petitions often are written in bad English, and some are in Chinese.
The White House says that, for now, it will give equal treatment to petitions from overseas.
"'We the People' is just part of the administration's commitment to open government and the code powering the application has been made available to anyone, including other countries, who wish to set up a similar system," White House spokesman Matt Lehrich said.
The current threshold for White House response is when a petition gathers 100,000 signatures within 30 days — up from lower thresholds that allowed for too many frivolous petitions.
The Malaysian petition crossed that barrier, but has drawn no response yet. Any hopes for U.S. condemnation of the election results evaporated this week when the U.S. State Department recognized the polling results, while acknowledging allegations of irregularities. Still, supporters feel they accomplished something.
The petition "spoke out the dissatisfactions to the international communities successfully," virologist and the petition's apparent organizer, Kuan Ping Ang, said on her Facebook page.
Shen said the White House page is one of a kind. "No other Western democratic country has a site where the government promises to respond to a petition with 100,000 signatures," she said.
It has rapidly become popular in China, where the tightly controlled media and Internet put politically sensitive topics off limits. People who bring their grievances to the central government as petitioners are routinely harassed, beaten and sent to labor camps as troublemakers — or locked up in what are known as "black jails" in a kind of extralegal detention.
Enthusiasm for the White House site shows the lack of avenues at home to vent frustration, said David Zweig, professor of social science at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
"There is no mechanism for the Chinese citizens to really express their views. It's really as simple as that," Zweig said. "The citizens are looking for any strategies to make their grievances known."
It started with the case of Zhu Ling, a woman who was paralyzed for life from thallium poisoning during her third year at Tsinghua University in Beijing. No one was held responsible for the crime, and the cold case resurfaced in April in the wake of another poisoning at Fudan University. The Chinese public demanded an investigation into one of Zhu's roommates — who had long been considered a suspect. They questioned whether the original investigation was squashed because of her family's political ties.
Before there was any satisfactory answer, Chinese censors began to remove posts and shush online commentators, effectively ending the discussion. But then someone started the petition on the White House page early this month, and by last Monday it had garnered more than 100,000 signatures in about three days. Since then, about a dozen more China-related petitions have appeared.
Shi Shusi, a well-known media commentator, sees black humor in the flood of petitions to the White House.
"For a very long time, the Chinese government has responded too slowly on social incidents. It has exhausted its credits," Shi said. "The public probably just need a place to vent their resentment."
Associated Press writer Sean Yoong in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and news assistant Flora Ji in Beijing contributed to this report.