In letters to his daughter from death row, Zeng Chengjie (曾成傑) 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 (曾珊) 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 Chengjie had been convicted of “illegal fund-raising,” 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 1990s 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 past decade, usually by lethal injection, but “China continues to lead the world in executions,” Human Rights Watch said last month, 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 last year China pledged further cuts.
“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,” said Randy Peerenboom, a law professor with La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia.
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 Society found.
The court of public opinion cried foul in September last year 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 (薄熙來), Gu Kailai (谷開來), 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 (吳英) was condemned to death in 2009 for the same crime as Zeng Chengjie — 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 New York.
The charges against Zeng Chengjie centered on his borrowings from individuals and companies in the 2000s to fund government construction contracts he secured in his home town of Xiangxi, Hunan Province.