Supreme Court Rejects Billionaire’s Death Sentence

China’s Supreme People’s Court has rejected the death sentence passed on Wu Ying, a Zhejiang entrepreneur who at 25 was known as the country’s sixth richest woman, but was later convicted of fraudulent fundraising. The court upheld Wu’s guilt, but told the Zhejiang Higher People’s Court that she should be re-sentenced. From Xinhua:

The SPC held that the facts of the case were clear, the evidence was sufficient, and the nature of the crime Wu committed had been determined accurately in the verdicts which were made by lower courts.

“Wu obtained an extremely large sum of money through fraudulent fundraising, causing severe losses to the victims, undermining the national financial order and creating extremely harmful effects, and thus entails a penalty in line with the law,” the SPC ruled ….

After fully considering all the factors, the SPC ruled that immediate execution may be inappropriate in the Wu case, overriding the death sentence.

While the ruling against “immediate” execution may sound ominous, a prominent expert told The New York Times that a lighter punishment now seems likely:

Jerome A. Cohen, a scholar of Chinese law at New York University, said in an e-mail interview that the supreme court could have resentenced Ms. Wu itself and imposed a new penalty, including death with a two-year suspension. That usually means that the convicted person will never be executed; after two years of good behavior, he or she might get a life sentence.

“But, by sending the case back for resentencing, it leaves open the possibility that Wu may immediately get an even lighter sentence than a two-year suspended death penalty, such as 15 years,” Professor Cohen said. “This seems a typical Chinese judicial compromise between what those who call for the death penalty wanted and what Wu’s many supporters, both popular and professional, have called for.”

China Real Time’s Josh Chin collected some comments on the role of public opinion from Sina Weibo:

“Weibo has saved Wu Ying” -– Xu Xiaoping, investor

“Is the Zhejiang High People’s Court not up to snuff, or did public opinion just trump the prosecutors?” –- Zhang Xiangtao, police officer

“The Supreme People’s Court refuses to approve the death penalty for Wuying – this is a victory for Chinese online public opinion. The power of public opinion definitely doesn’t manifest in correct ways all the time, but China needs a tutorial in how to respect it more. Like I’ve said before: Non-fatal crimes, no death penalty. This applies to everyone.” –-Hu Xijin, editor of the nationalist tabloid Global Times

The breadth of public support for the billionaire may, as The Economist noted in January, appear at odds with widespread resentment of China’s growing income inequality. But much of it was fuelled by Wu’s position on the wrong side of another chasm in Chinese society: between those with rank, connections and power, and those without. An in-depth account of Wu’s case at China Entrepreneur (via Sinocism) suggested that this was what left her vulnerable:

Wu Ying’s father Wu Yongzheng, her husband Zhou Hongbo and many creditors share one belief about this case: Wu Ying is in trouble because she has picked the wrong place at the wrong time. They say her fall is not caused by private lending, but by her shaky foundation of powerful connections in Dongyang ….

“Dongyang has made a lot of efforts to attract investors, but few chose to stay, because the business environment is no good here,” Wu Ying’s husband Zhou Hongbo said during a phone interview. He said that he was strongly against Wu Ying’s idea of trying to grow her businesses in Dongyang, because he believed that she was too weak to compete against the local powers.

Wu Yongzheng says that his daughter told him that she was threatened for refusing to pay bribes to the Lou family, which he calls the local power that has dominated Dongyang for years. He remembers the threat as if it were a line from a gangster film: Somebody said, “who cares Wu Ying is making so much noise now? Sooner or later I’d have her kneeling down before me.”

See also ‘Shadow Banks on Trial With China’s “Rich Sister”‘, on CDT.