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.

There was a mass debate on the independence and integrity of China's forensic system as early as 2009. In August of 2007, a woman named Dai Yi in Heilongjiang Province was found dead at home. The autopsy report issued by the police concluded she died of Aminopyrine Caffeine, a kind of cold medication, because the drug was found in her blood and gastric juice. But the family suspected Dai's family of murder.

To protest the result, Dai's elder sister ate 96 pills of Aminopyrine Caffeine and refused any treatment. Three days later, she recovered and left the hospital. A follow-up autopsy was launched,concluding that "possibility of drug poisoning should be ruled out while possibility of strangulation and mouth suffocation should not." In fact, the new results showed that Aminopyrine Caffeine had been artificially added during forensic identification.

But the victory for Dai's family was short-lived. A national organization conducted yet another follow-up and overturned the previous finding. In December 2009, authorities announced that Dai had died of poison.

Disputes over Dai's case highlighted the entrenched flaws inside the China's judicial expertise system. In an investigative report from Southern Weekly, an anonymous expert held that police departments dominate China's forensic experts, with no checks and balances to rectify the problem. In a nation where the judicial system is subservient to the Communist Party, it is difficult for forensic scientists to overturn erroneous conclusions handed down by the police.

While salutes to Wang prevailed, many episodes about Wang discussed online have portrayed her as an emphatic and hard-edged maverick, extraordinarily different from her low-profile and subservient colleagues. One of the most widely shared tweets on the subject, by Weibo user @Vihike, said: "When Wang's book, Notes of A Female Forensic Doctor, was proofread (or censored) before publication, the editor requested that she delete the words 'fuck the organization.' Wang's rebuff: 'absolutely not! They are the mightiest words in my book!'" As incredible as the anecdote sounds, a report in the respected magazine Century Weekly tells the same story.

Born in 1956, Wang rose to become the first female professional forensic scientist in the Supreme People's Procuratorate in 1986. The Supreme People's Procuratorate is the highest organ for legal supervision in China, with a broad mandate to investigate corruption, abuse, and bribery. A recent profile published by the Oriental Morning Post revealed that in her role there, Wang had reviewed and reversed many forensic conclusions in her career. In particular, one such case haunted Wang for years: early in her career, she brushed off her colleagues and insisted on concluding that a suspect who died in custody had suffered torture and coerced confessions. As a result of Wang's forensic report, the police who detained the suspect were sentenced to three years in jail. Instead of serving his time, one officer jumped to his death. Many people accused Wang of being "ruthless."

Another profile published in 2008 by the magazine Century Weekly called Wang Xuemei "a lone warrior" for her individual confrontation with an autopsy's conclusion that a witness had jumped to death during inquiry. The Supreme People's Procuratorate rejected Wang's request for a review of the conclusion; she later engaged with a face-to-face shouting match with her leaders, and posted a lengthy article about her analysis. Faced with her strong protest, the involved departments conducted a fourth forensic analysis (the suicide conclusion remained intact).

Perhaps most daring of all, Wang waded into the trial against the wife of fallen politician Bo Xilai, Gu Kailai, who is now in prison after being convicted of murdering British businessman Neil Heywood.

On September 2012, Wang contested the official account that Heywood was poisoned to death by cyanide. In her blog, she wrote: "I think Heywood's dying of Cyanide severely lacks factual and scientific basis." Wang cast no doubt on Gu Kailai's murder motives and premeditation, but instead on whether "the lethal poison" was actually deadly. The trial of Gu has been criticized for deliberately obfuscating the role of senior officials in the Heywood murder and the corruption case against Bo Xilai.

This post first appeared at Tea Leaf Nation, an Atlantic partner site.