“A prince who does wrong must be punished like anyone else.”
These words of advice from statesman Shang Yang to his ruler Duke Xiao of Qin in the fourth century BC were offered as a proviso for creating a powerful, stable state.
More than two millennia later and the warning has been doing the rounds on China’s social media. That’s after former railways minister Liu Zhijun escaped the death penalty, while an ordinary businessman from Hunan province was executed for much the same crime.
Liu was given a suspended death penalty for corruption and abuse of power. The verdict was delivered last week in Beijing after an investigation that had dragged on for over two and half years. (The trial itself lasted less than four hours.)
In reality he could spend as little as 10 years in prison if the political winds change.
The official reason for the perceived leniency in Liu’s sentence is that he showed contrition for his crimes and was helpful during the investigation. “Prosecutors said Liu had a very good attitude in confession and a strong desire to repent,” Xinhua reported. The unofficial version is that he had support from the relatives of at least two prominent Party members’ offspring.
Either way, although Liu is rumoured to have got kickbacks worth up to Rmb1 billion ($162.7 million) – keeping 18 mistresses and buying 374 apartments and 16 cars – the court judged him on economic crimes accounting for Rmb64 million of graft, foreign newspapers reported.
Views on Liu’s sentence are more mixed than you might imagine.
“There are many officials who give Liu a lot of credit for what he achieved,” the London-based Telegraph quoted Wu Qiang, a professor of politics at Tsinghua, as saying. “They think he was capable and had a good reputation and that he has been the victim of political infighting.”
During eight years in office Liu transformed China’s decrepit railway network into one with over 8,600km of high-speed track. In fact, it’s now possible to travel the length of the country – from Beijing to Guangzhou – on trains going at around 300 kilometres an hour (in case you’re wondering, there are 35 stops and it takes eight hours, reports Sky News).
The speed at which he achieved this feat earned him the nickname Great Leap Liu. But the need for speed saw corners cut, leading to accidents like the Wenzhou train crash two years ago, when two bullet trains collided (see WiC117).
By comparison, people have argued, Zeng Chengjie, a real estate developer from Hunan, hurt no one except investors attracted by his promises of huge profits.
But Zeng, who was sentenced in 2011, was executed last Friday without the court even bothering to inform his family in advance. When his daughter Zeng Shan found out that evening, she took to weibo to express her shock. “This morning, my father was executed by lethal injection. I didn’t even get to see him one last time! The government has yet to formally inform us,” she wrote in comments that soon went viral.
To make matter worse the court which heard his case in Changsha also took to weibo to defend itself, saying it was not legally obliged to inform family members before executions took place. Later it retracted the comment and said the convict had not requested a visit from his family before being put to death.
Zeng’s treatment was soon being compared to how the Liu case had been handled. “If officials and normal people are not treated equally in front of the law, what’s the credibility of the law?” wrote one weibo user.
Other netizens, including high profile commentators such as former Google China chief Lee Kai-fu, posted variants of the following message: “I am Lee Kai-fu. If I were going to be executed one day, I would definitely ask to meet with my family members. If the court says after my execution that no such request was made, it will be a lie. Please pass on this post and make your own vow.”
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