Death sentence weighs heavily
Updated: 2012-02-08 07:57
By Zhao Yinan (China Daily)
Wu Ying stands trial at Jinhua Intermediate People's Court in Zhejiang province on April 16. The one-time business tycoon is waiting for the top court's final review of her death sentence. Provided to China Daily
BEIJING - Wu Ying, a tycoon once listed among the richest women in China, has come to her last hope of survival.
The former 31-year-old billionaire, now on death row, is waiting for the top court's final review of her capital sentence, which was upheld by a local court last month, a few days ahead of the Chinese New Year.
Shen Ziming, the presiding judge of the case from the High People's Court of East China's Zhejiang province, told China News Service that the court endorsed the previous judgment after finding the defendant illegally raised up to 770 million yuan ($122 million) from 11 lenders with the promise of high returns from 2005 to 2007, and hence should be "severely punished" for the apparent Ponzi-like scheme, as she has "brought huge losses to the nation and people with her serious crimes".
Shen said Wu concealed her debt to lenders and pretended to be financially powerful by "showing off jewelry and registering nominal companies".
According to China's criminal code, a person convicted of financial fraud is punishable by death if the money involved is "especially huge" and an "especially heavy loss" of the interests has been made to the state and the people.
Although some legal experts supported the judgment, wide sympathy and pleas for the fair-skinned woman with a short haircut have quickly ranked top on the country's most popular micro-blogging site.
Speculation swirled around both the suitability of the charge and whether capital punishment is too severe for a non-violent financial crime.
Zhang Sizhi, an 85-year-old barrister with national renown, wrote an open letter to the top court and pleaded for re-consideration when it exerted its right of review, for there are still "reasonable doubts".
Zhang Yanfeng, Wu's lawyer, argues that the case does not constitute the crime of financial fraud, a charge that requires fundraising from the general public by means of "swindling" for the purpose of illegal possession.
"Nine out of the 11 lenders are Wu's old friends and should not be considered general public," said Yang Zhaodong, one of Wu's lawyers.
He then said Wu has used the funds to invest in trading companies, hotels and real estate, instead of using the money to cover existing debt and purchase personal luxuries as accused by the prosecutors.
Oral testimony shows the lenders still believe Wu borrowed the money to improve cash flow instead of illegal possession and personal indulgence.
"The last time I met her was in November 2011, and she looked robust," Yang said.
He said Wu's request to meet lawyers was turned down by the detention house one week before the provincial court announced the final verdict.
Insisting that his daughter is innocent, Wu Yongzheng, a slightly tanned man with a bony figure, said he believes his daughter is being treated unjustly because it "implicates government officials".
The government of Zhejiang's Dongyang city, where Wu Ying was born and rose from a dropout to a billionaire businesswoman, froze her assets and auctioned them at an apparently low price before the court made a judgment.
"The government's auction is illegal, since at that time Wu Ying was still a suspect instead of a criminal," said Chen Guangzhong, a legal expert on criminal procedure.
But it will be difficult to retrieve the revenues from the government if Wu's verdict is overturned, Yang Zhaodong said. Questioning some of the facts in the case, Chen Guangzhong furthered his point about whether the death penalty is suitable for a non-violent financial crime, especially as the country tries to tighten the use of capital punishment.
The National People's Congress, the country's top legislature, moved to slash crimes punishable by death from 68 to 55 last year, following the top court's withdraw of the final say on all the capital punishments in 2007.
Chen said the top legislature considered abolishing the death sentence for financial fraud, although it was later excluded from the final proposal submitted to vote by lawmakers.
The list of crimes carrying a possible death sentence has evolved along with the country's shift of government priorities, since the criminal code was introduced in 1979.
Many economic crimes, including the crime of financial fraud that Wu is facing, were included during the 1980s and 1990s, when the country's opening-up led to both an economic boom and increase in financial offenses.
Apart from doubts in the case itself, public outrage over Wu's death sentence also stems from sympathy for her legendary life and concerns that the punishment may eventually discourage grassroots entrepreneurship, especially when many small businesses in coastal China have been shut down or are suffering.
A farmer's daughter from a small city in Zhejiang, a province known for booming household businesses, Wu started with a small beauty salon at the age of 22 in 2003. Before being arrested four years later, she had become owner of at least seven companies with about 780 employees.
Han Zhiguo, an economist, said even if Wu has illegally raised funds - which is still a disputable charge - it should be taken into consideration that many businessmen in China are compelled to do so since it is too difficult for private companies to borrow money from banks.
A survey polling about 2,800 companies in Zhejiang province last year showed 86 percent of respondents said banks had asked for additional conditions when they applied for a loan.
"The boundary of private lending and fundraising has to be cleared, especially when private lending is indispensable and government support is still difficult to get," said Chen Jun, deputy president of Zhejiang Chamber of Commerce.
(China Daily 02/08/2012 page5)