Netizens like to say that posting online complaints about government wrongdoing, or “onlooking,” is “changing China.” Now, they are putting that slogan to the test as they try to save a young woman’s life. With a remarkable degree of candor and rage, netizens have surged online to demand that Chinese authorities strike down a provincial court’s ruling sentencing a young woman to death.
On January 18, the Zhejiang Province high court affirmed a lower court’s death sentence for Wu Ying, the 31-year-old woman convicted of illegally accumulating over RMB380 million, or about US$60 million, through a combination of loansharking and Ponzi schemes directed at (mostly wealthy) individuals and families. The conviction capped a stunning fall for Ms. Wu, who was listed as the sixth-richest woman in China in 2006. Wu had appealed the lower court decision against her, arguing among other things that there was no intent to deceive or squander, and the borrowed funds were used in management of her companies. But in a short announcement, a judge for Zhejiang’s highest court affirmed the lower court’s judgment, refusing to take questions from reporters afterward.
The day after the judgment, netizens posted millions of comments on Weibo, China’s Twitter, many objecting to the ruling in the strongest possible terms. They called it “China’s shame,” “the law’s shame” and “the people’s shame.”
Most commenters in opposition felt the penalty was too strong given the crime. Many argued that a death sentence for an economic crime was “draconian,” drawing parallels to the case of Ma Yanqin, a woman famously sentenced to death in 1980s-era China for operating an illegal dance hall.
Other netizens note that the lines between legal and illegal economic activity were simply too ambiguous. Many economists asserted that Wu Ying’s case is only a symptom of the growing pains of a vibrant but unruly shadow banking system, underground capital-raising arrangements among local clans outside the purview of state-owned banks. Even Mr. Hu Xijin, the conservative editor-in-chief of the Global Times who usually toes the party line, tweeted that he personally opposes the death penalty for Wu because she has taken no life.
The greatest source of ire was the contrast between the system’s treatment of Wu and its treatment of corrupt Party officials, who often receive slaps on the wrist. Popular novelist Liu Liu spoke for many when she complained that “some officials who embezzled RMB2 billion [about US$317 million] don’t get the death penalty, but Wu Ying gets it for RMB300 million? Can someone please explain the legal basis for this so I know what’s the cheapest way to break the law.”
Many commenters felt sure that Wu is a scapegoat who must be sacrificed to protect the “big fish,” perceiving “obviously a huge inside job” and “not ruling out out a dirty, extra-legal hand manipulating” the process. Essayist Zhou Xiaoyun tweeted the rumor that Wu Ying’s penalty was particularly harsh because she implicated local officials of wrongdoing. Mr. Ye Kuangzheng, a scholar and poet, scoffed that the local officials’ joint efforts to ensure the death penalty was “not only to silence her” but also, invoking a Chinese metaphor, “killing a chicken to scare the monkeys so others do not dare bite the officials.”
The government did have its defenders. Many used non-verified accounts with few followers, with one criticizing the “公知,” or public intellectuals, who overwhelmingly condemn the ruling. Although the precise backstories of some of Wu’s victims remain ambiguous, one commenter argued she had stolen from “ordinary people,” a crime worse than officials’ stealing “the country’s money.” Another wrote, “Wu Ying’s [situation] is tragic, but [that of] the families she has hurt is more tragic.”
Regardless of the officials’ motives, many netizens were outraged that this woman, “a blade of grass with no special rights or resources,” has been sentenced to death while “corrupt officials” committing similar crimes rarely are. One fumed, “The public has heard enough about huge corruption [resulting in] ‘commuted sentences’ and ‘expulsion from the Party.’” In such arguments, enthusiasm for the death penalty quickly resurfaced: “If you kill Wu Ying, then you must kill corrupt officials…who do people hate more? Who harms [society] more?” Another exhorted, “Kill the corrupt officials, and ten thousand citizens will rejoice!” Many called for the highest court in China to review Wu Ying’s case and respect the “people’s will.”
Will netizens’ calls for intervention be heeded? Initial signs are not good. A search for “Wu Ying” on Sina Weibo yielded over 3 million posts on January 19, with one user observing, “Today, everything is about Wu Ying!” Less than one day later, the same search showed over 600,000 posts, suggesting censors are hard at work.
Regardless of how the government chooses to react, the outpouring of support for Wu Ying has not gone unnoticed. The case has highlighted China’s best and worst aspects: A power system that can seem indifferent to fundamental notions of fairness, and a populace of millions willing to speak up to save a single woman they have never met. Just hours before this article’s publication, Wu Ying’s father, Wu Yongzheng, sent a message on Weibo that seemed to grasp both:
“I read Weibo all night and went without sleep. I am a farmer with a low level of culture; I can’t really type so asked someone else help me send this. Here I’d like to thank all those friends who have watched over and supported my daughter Wu Ying. In three days, it will be the Spring Festival. I think back to when the court announced its judgment, my daughter turned around repeatedly and silently mouthed the word ‘Papa.’ I looked at her emaciated body, and I couldn’t stop my tears.”