GUANGZHOU: In letters to his daughter from death row, Zeng Chengjie assured her he would be reprieved, like others convicted of economic crimes in China.
Instead he was executed, his body cremated, and his loved ones left to find out days later via a written notice posted at a courthouse.
The incident triggered a public outcry and spotlighted China’s combination of a murky criminal justice system and aggressive, sometimes unpredictable, use of capital punishment.
Zeng’s 24-year-old daughter rushed to the Changsha Intermediate Court after hearing rumors of her father’s death, hoping an official could reassure her. Instead she found the statement.
“I felt like I was in a dream, that this couldn’t be happening,” Zeng Shan said. “In his letters he always said there was hope.”
Even after a relative collected his ashes, she said, “I still couldn’t believe it.”
Zeng had been convicted of “illegal fundraising,” although his lawyer argues his assets could have easily covered his debts—if the state had not confiscated them.
China is believed to execute more people than any other country.
It stepped up capital punishment in the 1980s and 90s to try to prevent crime amid social upheavals that came with drastic economic reform. More recently it has cut down, with a key reform in 2007 requiring the Supreme Court to review all death sentences.
Judicial killings dropped from 10,000 a year to 4,000 in the last decade, usually by lethal injection, but “China continues to lead the world in executions,” Human Rights Watch said in January, citing estimates as actual figures are secret—so much so that Beijing has not publicized the drop.
The number of crimes eligible for execution was reduced from 68 to 55 in 2011, and in November China pledged further cuts.
But Randy Peerenboom, a law professor with La Trobe University in Melbourne, said: “I don’t think people should get too excited about it because there are so many crimes subject to the death penalty, and that’s likely to be the case even after they further narrow the range.”
Many Chinese support the death penalty but resent a judicial system that seems to favor the powerful, public opinion polls show, though representative samples are hard to obtain.
Six in 10 Chinese said they approved of capital punishment, while at the same time seven in 10 said it was “unequally and unfairly applied,” a 2007-2008 survey by the Max Planck Institute found.
The court of public opinion cried foul last September after a street vendor was executed for killing a local official after a dispute.
By contrast a year earlier the wife of top politician Bo Xilai, Gu Kailai, admitted to murdering a British businessman but received a suspended death sentence, usually commuted to life in prison.
China’s courts are politically controlled, and public sentiment may also sway decisions. After entrepreneur Wu Ying was condemned to death in 2009 for the same crime as Zeng—causing an uproar—her sentence was suspended.
“The judges are sensitive that they should be aware of what the public thinks about a case,” said Margaret Lewis, a law professor at Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey.
‘One last time’
The charges against Zeng centered on his borrowings from individuals and companies in the 2000s to fund government construction contracts he secured in his home town of Xiangxi, in the central province of Hunan.
Such schemes exist in a legal grey area, but are common among private companies as banks prefer lending to state-owned firms.
At the time the local authority “encouraged private financing for the sake of local development,” a Chinese report said.
But new leaders later took over and cracked down, triggering Zeng’s downfall.
The official version says he borrowed from 24,000 people and caused “economic losses” of 620 million yuan ($100 million), prompting riots.
The sums and number of victims were “the highest in years” and “seriously affected local social stability,” the Beijing Times cited a Supreme Court official as saying.
But Zeng’s lawyer Wang Shaoguang blames the government for sparking panic, arguing his client had assets of 2.4 billion yuan and could have repaid everything had the authorities not seized them.
Zeng was condemned in 2011, the Supreme Court approved his execution last June, and it was carried out in July.
Amid online outrage over the denial of a final family meeting, the Changsha court sought to justify its actions—but only provoked more anger.
First it declared on social media it was not obliged to let those about to die see their relatives. Then it apologized and said its staff had not studied the law closely enough. Then it said Zeng had been invited to meet his family but declined.
“My relatives were pretty angry because they didn’t get to see him one last time,” said Zeng Shan, who lives in Guangzhou.
“We didn’t even think the sentence would be approved.”