China’s death row: Wu Ying doesn’t deserve to dieA generation was brought up to cheer on public executions, but there’s much unease about such punishment for financial crimes
Share reddit this Comments (…)
Lijia Zhang guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 4 April 2012
The death penalty is now a hotly debated issue in China. This has partly been triggered by the case of Wu Ying, a 31-year-old woman on death row who was charged with illegal fundraising. In January, just before the arrival of the auspicious year of the dragon, Wu, a former tycoon, burst into tears upon hearing the news that the Zhejiang provincial high court had upheld the death sentence ruling against her. Clad in a bright yellow prison smock, she bowed her head, tears streaming down on her young face.
Her initial death sentence in December 2009 produced an unprecedented public outcry and much discussion. Why can’t China allow people to raise capital privately? Is it right to kill someone for an economic crime? Indeed, is it ethical to have capital punishment at all? The arguments continue as the case is reviewed by the supreme people’s court. A panel discussion was held in March during the annual parliament session, where a consensus emerged: the death penalty will remain in place to deter people from committing serious crimes.
I’d like to join the overwhelmingly sympathetic choir to argue that Wu doesn’t deserve to die. Wu didn’t endanger people’s lives and the large sum in her case did not involve public funds. Her rags-to-rich fairytale once inspired millions. Born to a farmer’s family in eastern China’s Zhejiang province, she started out with a beauty parlour. Having made big profits from selling sheep placenta extract, a popular anti-ageing product in China, she set up Bense Holding Group, with 15 different companies under its umbrella. In 2006, the 25-year-old was ranked by the Hurun Report as the sixth richest woman in the country. Within a year, however, she was arrested for raising ¥770m (£77m) from the public by promising them high investment returns. Wu has admitted to some of the charges, while her defence lawyer contests that she merely borrowed the money from friends and invested the funds in profitable businesses.
According to China’s criminal law, someone convicted of financial fraud involving a large sum can face capital punishment. But Wu alleged crime falls in a grey area. Unlike most countries in the world, raising private capital is illegal in China; businesses are supposed to go through a state bank to obtain funds. Yet because banks tend not to lend money to small private businesses, black market loans are common practice. Moreover, people like to put funds in the hands of businesswomen such as Wu hoping for higher interest returns. In her case, none of her major investors have accused her of cheating.
But even if Wu did “bring huge losses to the nation and people” as accused, does such a nonviolent crime deserve a death sentence? As someone who was brought up in China, I used to believe in the Chinese equivalent of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”. As children at the tail end of the Cultural Revolution, one of our rare outings was to watch public executions organised by the authorities. We always went along joyfully, thinking that justice was being done. It was George’s Orwell’s essay, A Hanging, about the execution of a criminal in Burma, that triggered me to begin questioning our traditional wisdom. As Orwell describes how the prisoner steps aside to avoid a puddle of rainwater, he asks himself what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man, and readers are obliged to ask themselves the same question.
I call for the total abolition of the death penalty in China because it is too easy to make a mistake in a country that lacks transparency and independence within the judiciary. The death penalty has always been used by the Chinese communists as a harsh tool to maintain social security and political order. Responding to outside pressure and pressure from academics and lawyers from within, China has
progressively reduced the number of crimes punishable by death to 55, ranging from murder to drug trafficking to panda poaching. China’s legislators considered striking financial crime from the list, but it has remained in place.
“Ever since the supreme court took back the sole authority in reviewing the death penalty in 2007, I have noticed a substantial decrease in issuing death sentences,” said Professor Chen Weidong, an expert on the death penalty from Renmin university, in an interview with me in Beijing. The rate of execution, however, remains a state secret. But Wu’s harsh sentencing doesn’t seem to be in line with the central government’s policy of “killing less and killing with extreme caution”. Interference from local government may be to blame: black market loans have caused concern for local governments as those who lost money in such ventures have protested and petitioned.
The law is a powerful tool. Using it to end the life of an individual is supposedly done in the best interest of its citizens but, in this case, it does not seem there is a popular desire to see Wu die. Our leaders have always liked to cite the people’s support for the death penalty to justify its stand but such support has never extended to financial crime. A saying goes: “For a debt, to pay with money; for a murder, to pay with life.” Let Wu pay with money, not her life.