In China, public outcry softens sentence for Wu Ying

China's Twitter users went wild Tuesday after a court overturned the most controversial death sentence here in recent memory.

In this April 2009 file photo made available Monday, May 21, Wu Ying, once ranked as China’s sixth richest businesswoman, is pictured at a court in Jinhua city in eastern China's Zhejiang province.

Chinese social media users exploded with delight Tuesday after a court overturned the most controversial death sentence here in recent memory.

Wu Ying, once ranked as China’s sixth richest businesswoman, was sentenced to death with a two year reprieve on Monday evening; such sentences are almost always commuted to imprisonment after two years.

The Supreme Court had overturned an original death sentence in April, ordering the High Court in Zhejiang, Ms. Wu’s home province, to reconsider its judgment after a huge public outcry. The case has attracted attention as an example of how the Chinese legal system can be influenced by public sentiment.

“Public opinion played a very important role in this case,” wrote @Heyu Crisis on Sina Weibo, the Twitter-like social media platform, which had registered more than 3.7 million tweets about Wu Ying by Tuesday afternoon. “This case proves once again that the people’s will is truth,” declared another user called @Shishi bear.

Previously, Chinese courts have tended to respond to public pressure to impose a death penalty, often in especially brutal murder cases, rather than to pressure to reverse it. Wu’s is a rare case of the Chinese public demanding clemency.

Wu had been convicted, and sentenced to death, by the Zhejiang court for having illegally raised $120 million in loans from private investors whom she failed to repay when her business collapsed.

She won widespread public sympathy – not only because she had shown remarkable entrepreneurial zeal in parlaying a single hairdressing salon into one of the largest private firms in China but also because her plight underlined how hard it is for private businesspeople here to raise funds through official channels. Chinese banks favor state owned enterprises, forcing millions of ordinary businesses to turn to illegal private sources of capital.

Premier Wen Jiabao himself signaled his own feelings in March, in a rare comment on a legal case that was still sub judice. Private sector lending “does not meet China’s development and social needs,” he told reporters, adding that the Supreme Court “has taken a very cautious attitude” to Wu's case.

That remark “told us that Wu Ying would not be executed,” says He Weifang, a legal scholar at Peking University.

“The Chinese legal system is not independent,” he explains. “Public opinion does not affect sentencing directly, but it impacts the [country’s] leadership, and they influence the sentences” handed down in cases that have attracted wide public attention.

The Supreme Court has reviewed all death sentences handed down by lower courts since 2006, in what legal scholars say is an attempt to rein in the use of capital punishment, though the court has never said how many death sentences it overturns. The number of people executed in China each year is a state secret, but Amnesty International estimates that it runs into the thousands, more than in the rest of the countries in the world combined.

The Supreme Court review “is a good thing,” says Liu Jihua, a Law Professor at Renmin University in Beijing, “because it imposes a common nationwide standard to the application of the death penalty … and ensures it is used correctly.”

But even the Supreme Court – subjected like the rest of the Chinese judicial system to control by the ruling Communist Party – can be swayed by strong public opinion, says Professor He.

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