Society

One law for them…

Is China’s death penalty only for poor, ask bloggers

CHINA-TRIAL/

Netizens question Gu’s sentence

Two murders have been compared and contrasted by millions of Chinese recently, especially the sentences doled out to the perpetrators.

Case one: on May 16, 2009 an unemployed factory worker set up an unlicenced kebab stall on a street in the northeastern city of Shenyang to earn a bit of money for his family. Three urban enforcement officers (known as chengguan and almost universally disliked, see WiC203) spotted him and a scuffle broke out in which the kebab man stabbed two chengguan to death.

Case two: two and half years later a wealthy woman in her early fifties walked into a hotel room in the southwestern city of Chongqing and knowingly administered a fatal dose of poison to a former business associate who was staying there.

Although there seems to be a solid case for charging the kebab vendor with manslaughter, he and the well-heeled women were both tried for premeditated murder. Both were found guilty too.

There the similarities end. Xia Junfeng, the hawker, was executed last week despite a spirited campaign by his wife and a team of human rights lawyers, who claimed he had acted in self-defence.

The female murderer, on the other hand, got life in prison.

If she behaves well enough, she may eventually be released early.

The reason for the different outcome? The answer, many ordinary Chinese say, is simple. It all boils down to social status.

As many readers will have guessed the woman in the second tale is none other than Gu Kailai, the wife of disgraced ex-Politburo member Bo Xilai. She was convicted of poisoning British businessman Neil Heywood August last year.

Gu’s more lenient sentence acted as a lightning rod, provoking indignation on social media websites.

“Gu lives a comfortable life with billions in bribes. Xia lives on his tiny stall. Gu poisoned a foreigner on purpose; Xia fought back for his life. Gu was a lawyer yet deliberately broke the law; Xia was struggling to survive at the bottom of society. Gu is alive despite her crime; Xia is executed for acting in self-defence. Now tell me, who really deserves to die?” asked one person on the microblogging website Sina Weibo.

Another put it more bluntly: “The death penalty is just for the poor.”

Others posted cartoons showing a special guillotine that failed to sever the necks of the rich.

Another cartoon depicted a condemned man hanging from a very tall gallows. Beneath him ordinary folk are standing, trying to prevent the rope from snapping his neck. The background is black but everyone is looking hopefully upwards towards a single spot of light in the sky.

Many netizens said the cartoon had reduced them to tears.

“Farewell, Xia,” wrote one netizen. “There is no darkness nor chengguan in heaven. Your child will be raised and we will help him remember his father.”

Were there to be a sequel to A Touch of Sin (see page 15), Xia’s story might make for the kind of tale that director Jia Zhangke has showcased to critical acclaim.


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