A few years ago, she embodied the rags-to-riches legend of modern China: The daughter of an illiterate farmer starts a hair salon when she is just 15, and in little more than a decade creates a business empire that makes her one of the country's wealthiest women.
Now the country's "billionaire sister," still only 31 and looking much like a schoolgirl with her ponytail and straight-cut bangs, has come to symbolize something far different: opposition to the death penalty.
A provincial court upheld Wu Ying's death sentence Jan. 18 on charges of fraud and "illegal fund-raising," violating legislation aimed at fighting underground banking and loan-sharking. Since then, her cause has won the backing of members of China's business community, which normally steers clear of politically sensitive human rights issues.
Among her supporters is the editor of the Global Times, a newspaper closely tied to the Communist Party. An online poll found people opposing the death penalty for Wu by a margin of 10 to 1. Those who put themselves on record against it included real estate tycoon Pan Shiyi and technology executive Kai-Fu Lee, the former head of Google's China operation.
Lawyers, human rights activists and scholars opposed to imposing the death sentence on Wu gathered this month for a seminar in Beijing. "This case is really about the lack of independence of the Chinese judicial system," said one participant, Hu Xingdou, an economist with the Beijing Institute of Technology. "Somebody clearly wanted to send Wu Ying to her death."
Supporters say she didn't do anything different from many other entrepreneurs, who have to work around a banking system that still favors state-run enterprises, and that her case has had a chilling effect on business. Others say that even if what she did was illegal, she shouldn't be put to death.
John Kamm, executive director of the Dui Hua Foundation, a San Francisco human rights organization, said Wu Ying's was a "wedge case."
"Even for people who support the death penalty, there is a strong feeling that you shouldn't kill people for economic crimes," he said. "That is simply barbaric."
China is one of only a few countries that impose the death penalty for economic crimes, Kamm said. About 4,000 people are executed each year, the highest number in the world, Dui Hua says.
(source: Los Angeles Times)