Public opinion has once again taken aim at a high-profile legal ruling in China.
Just days after a tide of popular and online rage helped propel one criminal, the disgraced financier Wu Ying, out of the death chamber, netizens are flexing their muscle again in hopes of sending another to the gallows.
On the morning of November 21, 2011, Liang Rongcai, nicknamed “Xiao Mi,” took a bathroom break from her morning classes at Dongguan University of Technology.
A fourth-year student, Ao Xiang, a then-21-year-old male almost 6 feet tall, entered the bathroom while Liang was inside, locked the door, and turned out the lights. He donned a mask and gloves, removed his pants and shoes, and pulled out a knife. He set upon Liang, forced her into a bathroom stall, and began to sexually assault her. Liang resisted, and succeeded in breaking back out of the locked stall.
But the much stronger Ao set on her again, striking her head and face into the bathroom floor until she was unconscious, then choking Liang for a number of minutes until she died. Liang was 19 years old.
With facts this horrific, the Liang family expected an open and shut case. Murderer Ao Xiang had sexually assaulted at least six young women before he victimized Liang, and, Liang’s family maintains, confessed that he had targeted university students “because prostitutes are dirty.”
Instead, according to a blog post Liang’s boyfriend (@BQXY) wrote in March, the court proceedings were marred by irregularities. Then-suspect Ao appeared preternaturally calm. The prosecutor told the family before the argument began to “prepare psychologically” for a light sentence, then did not contest discrepancies between Ao’s testimony and his written confession, nor did he dispute Ao’s claim that he lacked specific intent to rape Liang.
Weibo’s starring role
Perhaps strangest of all, Weibo, China’s Twitter, played a starring role in the defense’s case. According to the blog entry, the defense lawyer argued that unlike the Yao Jiaxin case, a murder that lit up Weibo in April 2011 due to doubts that the privileged young defendant was being properly punished, this case “had not caused bad social effects.”
The boyfriend ends his original March 20 post writing, “I hope this is all normal, and I’m just being delusional and thinking too much. But I can’t eat, and I can’t sleep.”
Late on Tuesday night, the “bad social effects” began, almost as if the defense attorney had unwittingly summoned them. The power of Weibo kicked into gear, propelled by the inherent virility and emotional appeal of a video apparently made by the boyfriend, and first posted by Liang’s father, “A Video for Mi.” It lays out the facts of the case and interviews the decedent’s family.
By early Thursday morning, the stills of the young victim accompanying the video had been reposted over 150,000 times, easily Weibo’s most viral image for May 23.
Since the video’s posting, the boyfriend has confessed to being somewhat overwhelmed. “Woah, I never thought this would have such an effect…I’ve been too busy to respond to everyone’s comments.” There are over 31,000 comments.
The verdict is in, and netizens are angry
On the evening of the 24th, the verdict came out: “A suspended death sentence [which usually coverts to prison time],” the boyfriend tweeted. “Can I curse?” He writes shortly thereafter, “[We] don’t have the right to appeal the criminal part…there may not be a rehearing, we’ll just get a few pieces of paper [explaining the court's reasoning]. Hmmph, it’s not socially influential, I get it.”
The mainstream media is apparently trying to explain the ruling. Chinese news outlet Legal Daily, writes that Ao was sentenced to death for intentional murder, but that sentence was suspended because Ao turned himself in. For their part, netizens have rushed to demand justice and a re-hearing, stressing they do not accept the ruling. It is clear they know that someone beyond their friends and followers might take their comments into consideration.
For now, Liang Rongcai’s Weibo account (@小米猪儿–彩) continues to stand as a sort of digital memorial. Its final posting, from November 18th, 2011, was a tongue-in-cheek comment about chocolate. That page is now covered with symbols of a burning candle, left by thousands of netizens who feel this case somehow involves them too.