The Dark, Corrupt World of Forensic Science in China

Wang Xuemei's resignation in protest of false autopsy reports reveals a process rife with political meddling.
Wang Xuemei talking about the Ma Yue case on television (Sina Weibo)

On August 17, Wang Xuemei, a leading female forensic scientist, announced she was quitting as vice president of the Chinese Forensic Medicine Association, the most authoritative and highest institution in its field. Her resignation statement alleged: "I can't tolerate that my name, Wang Xuemei, is confused with an organization producing such ridiculous and irresponsible forensic conclusions."

Wang does not have her own Weibo account. Instead, the statement was posted on the verified Sina Weibo account of the dead Ma Yue's mother. Ma Yue, a junior at Southwest Jiaotong University, was electrocuted after falling onto subway rails in Beijing on August 23, 2010.

Wang's complaints about "ridiculous and irresponsible forensic conclusions" refer to the Forensic Medicine Association's autopsy report on Ma Yue's death. Those findings -- which included no blood alcohol level, no abnormality in toxicology analysis and no surface wounds -- accorded with electrocution. Based on the autopsy result, police concluded that Ma had fallen onto the electrified rails by accident and did not pursue it further.

Wang Xuemei agreed that Ma Yue had been electrocuted, but insisted it was not an accident. She pointed to an inch-long wound on Ma's lower jaw, and concluded it was caused by an external blunt object. If Wang is correct, then the state-owned enterprise that runs the subway is legally liable for Ma's death.

Unable to persuade her colleagues and skeptical of their motives, Wang quit with a flourish. Her resignation statement read: "I couldn't rectify this conscienceless miscarriage of justice even if I paid with my own life. What can I do? Quitting is the only path."

Wang's resignation went viral on the Sina Weibo microblogging platform. On August 18, a post about the story by an account called "headline news" (@头条新闻) was shared over 50,000 times. In 17,000 comments, netizens lavished praise on Wang for her "consciousness, courage, and integrity."

Some netizens have described Wang's behavior as a Chinese version of "satyagraha action," nonviolent resistance adopted by Mahatma Gandhi. One commenter calling himself Old Xu wrote, "Not doing evil takes consciousness. Not collaborating takes wisdom. Standing up for something takes courage." Old Xu continued, "In today's world, you can choose to keep silent, [which is far better than] making up lies. You can choose not to do good things, [but that is far better than] choosing to follow evil."

Shu Shengxiang (@舒圣祥) a veteran political writer, paid tribute to Wang on Sohu Weibo because she "held the bottom line." Pointing to a slew of recent scandals, Shu wrote:

Judges patronized prostitutes in Shanghai, which slaps all judges in the face. Doctors in Shanxi Province sold babies by deceiving parents that the babies having congenital diseases, which slaps all doctors in the face. Case after case of child molestation perpetrated by teachers slaps all teachers in the face. ... Wang's quitting demonstrates not only integrity but also responsibility. She teaches us what 'conscience and 'reverence for life' mean. 

Ma Yong, a historian, tweeted:

Morally, I support Wang's resistance to collaborate with evil. But I have another thought. If people of genuine talent quit, incompetent villains will be increasingly rampant and unscrupulous, won't they? Good guys have many ways to protest. How could one speak his mind when he marginalizes himself?

Why did the resignation of a forensic scientist hit such a nerve?

The Chinese public views forensic scientists as manipulating autopsy reports to cover crimes committed by wayward officials. The latest example is the death of a watermelon vendor named Deng Zhengjia on July 17, 2013. Deng's family and witnesses claim Deng was beaten to death by urban enforcement officers, or chengguan, while authorities have declared he "suddenly collapsed and died."

The much-anticipated autopsy report was released on July 31, saying Deng "died of brain abnormality and vessels burst caused by an external force." But Deng's daughter has said forensic doctors and the officials told them external factors such as fatigue, excitement, or a quarrel could have been the "external force." Hong Daode, a professor of criminal procedure law, has explained that compared with causing death directly, causing death by external force triggers a far lighter punishment. The former can lead to life imprisonment or even the death penalty, while the latter exposes the perpetrator to less than ten years imprisonment.

Jiabao Du is a contributor to Tea Leaf Nation. 

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