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David Wertime

Netizens: "Power of Weibo," Not the Law, Saved Wu Ying's Life

Wu Ying will remain Alive, Not Dead

It’s official: Wu Ying will live.

Ms. Wu, once among the richest women in China, was sentenced to death in January by a provincial court for 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. Wu then enjoyed a tidal wave of citizen and netizen discontent over her seemingly tainted sentence, as netizens surged forth to demand the ruling be struck down. At the time, they evinced a palpable sense that, somehow, their opinions could save her.

They may have been right. In April, China’s Supreme People’s Court reviewed her death sentence, as it has for all death sentences since 2005. Perhaps in response to widespread public sentiment, it overturned her sentence and remanded the case to the Zhejiang court for re-sentencing. Yesterday, the expected result emerged: Wu Ying was given a two-year reprieve (死缓), which the Wall Street Journal explains will likely be commuted to life in prison after good behavior.

While Ms. Wu may have slept well for the first time in months, China’s censors were burning the midnight oil. At approximately eight o’clock in the evening, Beijing time, a search for Wu Ying’s name called forth 3,653,956 recent tweets on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter. But by dawn, they had whittled that number down to a mere 8,329. [Note: This number later jumped back up, and now stands at more than 3.7 million. Could it have been a mere glitch or aberration? Feel free to hold forth in the comments below.]

Luckily, Tea Leaf Nation never sleeps, and was able to capture and analyze a sufficient number of tweets to form an outline of netizen sentiment toward the recent news. 

A number of netizens complained that the sentence was still “too harsh.” But it’s a far cry from death, which Wu Ying faced not months ago. The question that has preoccupied the Chinese blogosphere, at least before the censors descended: Why was the sentence suspended? And what does the suspension signal?

Did the netizen outcry save Wu Ying?

As Tea Leaf Nation reported in January, initial netizen reaction to Wu Ying’s death sentence was fierce. Then, as now, millions of tweets poured forth on the blogosphere–then, as now, millions of them were scrubbed clean by morning time. But in the interim, those tweets, and their overwhelming support of Wu Ying, may have had helped convince Chinese authorities to lean on China’s Supreme Court to strike down Wu’s death sentence.  

Wu in better times. Most felt death was unjustified for an economic crime

Many netizens hailed the result. @杭州恰恰 wrote, “This is…a victory for public opinion! [Responsiveness to] public opinion is progressing!” @洪陈纷纭 wrote: “The power of democracy; the power of Weibo.”

If so, what does that say about the law?

Unfortunately, many netizens felt their victory, if it was theirs at all, was a Pyrrhic one. @Q版温故‘s comment aptly captured netizen sentiment: “No matter what, the result is progress. But this time, the progress is mostly because of the contributions of public opinion, and not law itself.” Instead of law, many commenters perceived realpolitik, hard at work. @闫英士 opined, “The real meaning is this: The death sentence is to save face, the commutation is to quiet citizen rage. But it all has nothing to do with Wu Ying herself, and certainly doesn’t prove the independence of the so-called judiciary.”

So what kinds of fundraising are “illegal,” and which are “legal,” anyway? If Wu Ying’s sentence was meant to send a message, it failed. All @Fermion could divine was this: “Conduct which harms or could harm the Communist Party’s interests is criminal conduct! This is the basic principle of Chinese law!” @寒冷龙卷风 felt it reflected politics, and one’s balance sheet: “Finance cannot be separated from politics. If you succeed, it’s finance; if you fail, it’s a crime.”

Unequal treatment for a notorious smuggler

Many netizens felt compelled to ask, “And what about Lai Changxing (赖昌星)?” Mr. Lai was sentenced last Friday to life imprisonment, not death, for smuggling approximately 20 billion RMB (yes, that’s “billion” with a “b”) out of China between 1996 and 1999, and then fleeing to Vancouver. Canada recently repatriated him, but only after receiving assurances Lai would not be killed.

Some netizens saw this differential as the result of luck, or realpolitik. Netizen @寒冷龙卷风 added: “Someone else smuggles out billions and is given a life sentence–which will be reduced in a few years–and gets to see an outside doctor, et cetera. But it’s just dependent on luck. In those years, everyone in the Red House [code for Lai's mansion, in which he is reported to have plied visitors with liquor and prostitutes] was a big official for the Celestial Dynasty [i.e., China's government]."

But @民族精神大本营 offered a plausible rebuttal, arguing, "Lai Changxing did not die because 'international law is superior to domestic law.' His immunity to the death penalty for smuggling was [due to] international law. Lai Changxing's original death penalty was under domestic law, so, he was not sentenced to death. The legal basis for Wu Ying's death sentence is completely not up for debate."

A bad sign for a valuable sector

Many netizens turned the discussion to private finance. After all, Wu Ying's original crime (let's call it that) was raising money from individuals, not banks, and promising outsize returns to lenders. Some observers feel Wu Ying's original death sentence came in part from a government effort to crack down on so-called "grey market loans," i.e. those occurring outside of government purview. 

If we see Wu Ying again in this world, she won't have this yellow suit

But many netizens felt this market should be allowed to flourish. @Golgoltonny wrote that "private enterprise is today's hope and tomorrow's fortune." @江南运河 argued that Wu Ying's behavior should not tarnish the credibility of private finance: "The goal of recognizing the legal status of citizen finance is to support the small and medium micro-enterprises that support private enterprise, allowing the local economy … to get a timely infusion of lifeblood. Because these loans are usually not too large, they won't spread [and become destabilizing]."

What happens to Wu's assets, anyway?

Speaking of filthy lucre, what happened to Wu's assets, anyway? Recent reports have simply stated that her assets, despite being ill-gotten, will not be confiscated (Chinese). Many netizens found this perplexing. @中关村社点评员 asked, "Why didn't they confiscate her assets? Why not sell them and use them to pay back the debts?"  

And to Wu Ying?

We just may see Wu Ying again. Pending good behavior, her temporary reprieve will eventually become a permanent reprieve--but also a life sentence. However, even life sentences can be shortened in certain circumstances. One netizen, @仔卿同學, decodes it hopefully: "Life imprisonment = 10 - 20 years." If that becomes true, Wu Ying will re-emerge one day to find a China very different from the one she was forced to leave behind.

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David Wertime

David is the co-founder and co-editor of Tea Leaf Nation. He first encountered China as a Peace Corps Volunteer in 2001 and has lived and worked in Fuling, Chongqing, Beijing, and Hong Kong. He is a ChinaFile fellow at the Asia Society and an associate fellow at the Truman National Security Project.
  • Peter Ford

    Sina Weibo tweets re Wu Ying back up to  3,723,019 at 14.30 Beijing time Tuesday. Think there might have been an aberration in the apparent overnight scrub you witnessed. And if the reprieve is a sop to public opinion, as appears the case, why would authorities not want to spread the news, even with sarky comments?

  • Peter Ford

    Sina Weibo tweets re Wu Ying back up to  3,723,019 at 14.30 Beijing time Tuesday. Think there might have been an aberration in the apparent overnight scrub you witnessed. And if the reprieve is a sop to public opinion, as appears the case, why would authorities not want to spread the news, even with sarky comments?

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  • David Wertime

    Peter, thanks for your comment and for reading. You’re right, that number has jumped back up. It did seem a bit strange (given that as you say the reprieve appeared to be in part due to public opinion), but a great number of comments were, not surprisingly, something less than cheerleading of the decision so it was not terribly shocking. We’ve made a note and updated the piece accordingly.  

  • David Wertime

    Peter, thanks for your comment and for reading. You’re right, that number has jumped back up. It did seem a bit strange (given that as you say the reprieve appeared to be in part due to public opinion), but a great number of comments were, not surprisingly, something less than cheerleading of the decision so it was not terribly shocking. We’ve made a note and updated the piece accordingly.  

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