A public outcry over the “secretive” execution of self-made millionaire developer Zeng Chengjie took China’s social media world by storm over the weekend after his daughter protested online.
Zeng Chengjie, a leading real estate developer in Jishou, Hunan province, started to raise funds through private financing under government support for a huge city construction project in 2003. He was in trouble when local officials were reshuffled. In 2011, he was convicted for fraudulent fund-raising of a total of RMB 3.45 billion yuan ($562 million) and was sentenced to death.
Last Friday on July 12, he was executed by lethal injection…without his family being notified. His younger daughter Zeng Shan, who has been fighting for his exoneration for years, only received the news (not from the court) after everything was done:
“News came. My father was executed this morning…by lethal injection. We didn’t even get a chance to see him one last time. And no last words were left. There wasn’t any notification from the government even until now. We didn’t expect him to be executed so soon. My father was innocent! We will clear his name!”
When Zeng Shan and her older brother rushed to the court the next morning, they saw the execution notice of their father on the gate. What’s worse, the body has already been cremated and they won’t be able to get the remains until Monday.
Zeng Shan’s detailed account of the whole event on Sina Weibo, China Twitter-like microblog service, soon went viral and led to a wide-spread public outcry. In response to overwhelming queries, the Changsha City Intermediate People’s Court that handled the case released a statement through its official Weibo account that “there is no clearly written law stipulating that convicts must meet with family before being executive.”
The statement was deleted in less than an hour and replaced with an apology saying that the court’s Weibo account manager knew little about law and thus made a mistake. A few hours later, the court issued another statement online saying that Zeng was asked whether he wanted to see his family right before his execution during the identity verification process, and Zeng said no.
During the weekend, in almost a desperate move, the court released a more detailed statement on Zeng’s case, and claimed that a notification was sent to the husband of Zeng’s older daughter (Zeng’s wife and older daughter are also in prison) on the day of the execution since the contact information of Zeng’s younger daughter wasn’t on file. But guess what, on July 12, the day of the execution, Zeng Shan was protesting in front of the court.
The back and forth between Zeng Shan and the court has taken Weibo by storm. Many businessmen, who usually keep their mouth shut about politics, break their silent this time. Like 王冉, CEO of China eCapital, commented: “I share [Zeng Shan’s post] because this is the reality of China’s judicial system that every one of us needs to face every day.” 王石, another Chinese real estate tycoon, called for more transparency: “Please stop secret execution!.”
Netizens mainly have two doubts about Zeng’s case. First is whether Zeng deserved death penalty. Wang Shaoguang, Zeng’s defense lawyer, published a statement Saturday refuting the verdict, saying the actual amount raised was 710 million yuan instead of 3.45 billion. He added that Zeng’s assets were worth 2.38 billion yuan but were sold off at a low price by authorities before Zeng’s conviction.
Many netizens drew a comparison between Zeng and Liu Zhijun, China’s former minister of railways, who was sentenced to suspended death earlier this month for bribery (64.5 million yuan) and power abuse. Their conclusion is that China’s death penalty is for non-official only.
Weibo celebrity 王小山 viewed Zeng’s case as another opportunity to push for the abolishment of death penalty in China: “Those in power have already abolished death penalty for their own men. Please forget about dreams of using death penalty to punish corrupt officials. Death penalty is for people like you and me. No matter how much money you have, you are nothing but an ant in the eyes of them. And just image if you are poor.”
The second question, and the one that scared more netiznes, is why such a hasty and secretive execution. Many lawyers, law scholars and even policemen joined the discussion on whether it is illegal for the court to inform Zeng about his right to meet family so shortly before the actual execution and whether it is illegal to have the body cremated without notifying the family.
And more importantly, the case sent out a very chilling message to businessmen in China. Like 何兵, associate dean at the law school at China University of Political Science and Law, commented: “The father was executed. The mother and the brother in prison. No wonder businessmen are emigrating.” Weibo celebrity 北京厨子 asked: “This is just a case we came across accidentally on Weibo. What about others? How many have they secretly executed?”
In response to the case, former head of Google China, Kai-Fu Lee posted an announcement on his Weibo account:
“I’m Kai-Fu Lee. If one day, I’m sentenced to death and told that I have the right to meet my family, I guarantee that I will absolutely ask to see my family. If the court claims that I didn’t make such request after the execution, it must be a lie. Share this Weibo post to make your promise, too, in case you lose the chance to see your family one last time.”
In less than one day, the post was shared over 65,000 times.
[UPDATE] This morning, Zeng Shan posted online the execution notice she received from the court on July 14, two days after the actual execution, which stated that her father was executed by shooting, not lethal injection.