China’s highest-level appeal court said this week it would review a death sentence handed down to a former billionaire businesswoman for fraud, following an online campaign on her behalf.
Wu Ying, 31, was sentenced to death in 2009 by the Jinhua Intermediate People’s Court in the eastern province of Zhejiang.
Wu was found guilty of raising 770 million yuan (U.S. $122 million) in funds through one of China’s off-the-books, illegal lending networks and promising her investors huge returns on their investments through the then-booming property market.
The former president of Bense Holding Group was accused of “squandering” around half the amount she raised between 2005 and 2007 on luxury cars, jewellery, and real estate.
Last month, Wu’s appeal was rejected by the Zhejiang High Court.
However, the Supreme People’s Court said in a rare public statement that a review of her case will be handled “with care,” and conducted “based on facts” and “according to the law.”
It is unclear when the final verdict will be announced.
Chinese netizens have launched a vociferous online campaign to save Wu from execution, seeing the former hair-salon boss as the scapegoat for a system in which the corrupt political elite routinely get away with far worse excesses at taxpayers’ expense.
Her case has sparked widespread calls for the legalization and regulation of the shadowy money markets which proved her downfall.
“The case of Wu Ying is in fact a question of Chinese financial monopolies,” said Beijing-based rights lawyer Teng Biao, who authored a recent online article titled “Wu Ying’s life Has To Do With Me.”
“As an entrepreneur, she was unable to raise money from the banks, only from private loan networks, but the law is very hazy on this,” Teng said. “It has always been a grey area.”
In his article, Teng calls for domestic money markets to be opened up to include private lenders, and be better regulated.
Currently, businesses that use such networks are tolerated by local officials if they derive some benefit from them, Teng said.
“After her lines of credit were cut off, local officials pinned charges of illegal borrowing and financial fraud on her, for their own benefit,” he said.
“What Wu Ying did does not amount to financial fraud; still less does it amount to taking money from the public under false pretenses,” Teng said.
“There is no basis to sentence her to death.”
Crackdown on lending, speculation
Wu’s sentence came as China’s leaders vowed to crack down on unauthorized lending networks and on rampant real estate speculation, which has put the price of residential property out of reach for many Chinese.
But the campaign to revoke Wu’s death sentence has spread rapidly via China’s hugely popular microblogging service, and includes some high-profile figures, including Zhang Sizhi, the 85-year-old lawyer who defended Mao Zedong’s wife Jiang Qing during the trial of the Gang of Four in 1976.
Zhang, who argued that Jiang was following Mao’s orders at all times, said that Wu invested in hotels, advertising, wedding planning, and transport companies with money from friends and family, not the general public.
Other supporers include real estate magnate Ren Zhiqiang, who tweeted: “To save Wu Ying is to save ourselves.”
Meanwhile property mogul Pan Shiyi wrote: “Spare [her] from the blade.”
Xiamen University literature professor Yi Zhongtian agreed.
“Today, we save Wu Ying. Tomorrow, others will save us,” Yi wrote.
‘Life is too precious’
Beijing University of Science and Technology professor Hu Xingdou wrote via his verified account on the popular Sina Weibo microblogging service: “I don’t think that Wu Ying’s crimes deserve the death penalty.”
He called for a top-level legal team to defend Wu, an immediate review, and a speedy transition to a jury trial system to ensure judicial independence.
Beijing-based media professional Tian Kong said the campaign had intensified as the case reached the Supreme Court.
“If the court upholds the death sentence, then everyone will become very cautious over private funding … because it could lead to death,” he said.
“This will make it very hard for the private sector to get funding, because the risk will be too high, and life is too precious.”
Reported by Xin Yu for RFA’s Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.