Share story

BEIJING — The Chinese people would like President Obama to stop an oil refinery from being built in southern China, endorse sweet-flavored tofu and reopen an 18-year-old criminal probe of a poisoning case.

And while he’s at it, if he wouldn’t mind mobilizing U.S. troops to liberate Hong Kong, as well as China as a whole, that’d be great, too.

In a strange and diplomatically awkward turn of events, Chinese citizens have flocked to the White House’s website over the past week to lodge formal petitions, many of them directed against their government.

Some are deadly serious, others frivolous and funny. A few have a touch of both.

This week, save 90% on digital access.

Some of the signatures — more than 168,000 total on the various petitions as of Thursday — were undoubtedly posted in jest, but many more, Chinese online users say, reflect a sincere sense of powerlessness among people frustrated with their leaders’ repressive style of governance.

Comments critical of the government are banned on Chinese Web forums.

So as the link to the White House petition website went viral this week on Weibo microblogs — the Chinese equivalent of Twitter — all that pent-up frustration found sudden release.

The case that jump-started the fad was an unsolved attack almost two decades ago on a college student named Zhu Ling.

In 1995, Zhu was left severely disabled after a suspected thallium poisoning. Her roommate, Sun Wei, who had access to thallium at the university, was a suspect in the case. But she also happened to be the granddaughter of a high-ranking official believed to have close ties with China’s then-President Jiang Zemin. No charges were ever filed, and Sun disappeared.

Talk of the long-dormant incident resurfaced last month after another student was poisoned in an unrelated case.

Comments turned bitter as bloggers recalled Sun as an example of a rich, well-connected elite — the target of much resentment these days — getting away with attempted murder.

On Thursday, as some petitioners called for a U.S. ban on Beijing fried pancakes, some bloggers tweeted worries that the White House might start filtering their complaints, as China’s government has done for so long, despite the website’s familiarity with frivolous complaints.

The White House promises a response to any petitions with more than 100,000 signatures, a number the Zhu Ling poisoning case has far surpassed.

But at least in China, the online rally on behalf of Zhu has already elicited a response from the government. Authorities recently stopped censoring the name Zhu Ling.

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.