Photo: Getty Images; Illustration by A. Babar
Photo: Getty Images; Illustration by A. Babar

On Friday morning, Zeng Shan woke up knowing that her father, Zeng Changjie, was still alive but condemned to death row in Changsha, Hunan province. His alleged crime was "shadow banking" -- the unregulated lending of private money at high interest rates to customers who China’s state-owned banks can't or won’t serve. At the discretion of prosecutors, shadow banking practices are sometimes labeled fraud and criminal charges are filed. Zeng was arrested in December 2008 and convicted in 2011 of raising more than $500 million from 24,000 investors. Some of those investments went bad, and when Zeng couldn’t pay out, prosecutors moved in.

There was hope and precedent that Zeng’s sentence might be reduced. Other major white-collar criminals have been handed lesser sentences, even for seemingly worse (and more expensive) crimes than those alleged against Zeng Changjie. To defend her father, Zeng Shan established an account on Sina Weibo, China's most popular microblogging service, making the case that local governments in Hunan framed her father for his money.

Then, at 10:04 p.m. last Friday night, she tweeted: “Bad news has come: My father was executed via lethal injection this morning. We didn’t get to see him a last time! No final words! The government didn’t even notify us! I didn’t expect this to happen so quickly! My father was innocent! We will clear his name! Thank you, thank you to all who have been concerned ------- Zeng Shan, weeping blood.”

Zeng didn't specify how she learned the news but, according to her tweeted account, on July 13 she and her brother traveled to the court and verified the truth themselves. The ashes, court security told them, could be picked up Monday. On Sunday, they received a court notice clarifying that their father had been killed by firing squad.

Zeng's Friday-night tweet has been re-posted nearly 74,000 times and has accumulated almost 50,000 comments. Both her father’s name and the court that sentenced and oversaw his execution are trending topics on Sina Weibo. Some of China’s top newspapers weighed in with editorials about the execution, using it to explore and criticize China’s court’s system, as did many of its most prominent businessmen.

However, much of the outrage was not overtly directed at the execution itself, nor the haste with which it occurred or lack of immediate notification. Rather, what sparked the outrage -- and one of the most intense Chinese discussions of capital punishment in years -- was the fact that Zeng Shan and her brother weren’t invited to visit their father before he was killed. For example, on Monday, Southern Metropolitan Daily, a highly influential Guangzhou newspaper, devoted a lengthy editorial to the importance of guaranteeing the condemned a right to say goodbye to family: “Even though the criminals are so notorious that they must be sentenced to death, we should satisfy the reasonable request and guarantee relevant rights for humane reasons.”

That may seem like a trivial point when discussing the execution of a shadow banker. But unlike shadow banking, a quasi-legal industry that Chinese laws and regulations largely do not address, a condemned man’s right to a final family visit is guaranteed by article 423 of China’s Criminal Procedure law and a legal interpretation of China’s Supreme Court. So, for those -- like Zeng Shan and her supporters -- who believe Zeng Changjie was unjustly prosecuted and executed, the best hope is to stress this clear point of law. High-minded arguments about the death penalty in general, and whether financial crimes should be subject to it, simply don’t get very far in the personality- and controversy-driven world of contemporary Chinese public opinion. In other words, undermine the legitimacy of the court or skip the debate.

This approach is nothing new: China’s public discourse has always been symbol- and proxy-laden, a trend which microblogging has only exacerbated. On Saturday, 19 hours after Zeng’s tweet announcing her father’s execution, and in the midst of a growing public furor at the Changsha Intermediate People’s Court’s apparent denial of a family visit, the court used its own Sina Weibo account to re-post its findings against Zeng Chenjie, and to announce (as translated in the Global Times): “There is no clear procedure in the law that allows the families of prisoners awaiting execution to be allowed to meet one last time.”

This claim was provably false, and the tweet was deleted within 90 minutes of its posting (but preserved across China’s Internet, including by state-owned newspapers such as the law-and-order Global Times). The court soon tweeted a clever replacement: “The judge informed Zeng of his right to meet family before the identification procedure in advance of the execution, but he didn’t make a request nor did he mention it in his last words." This tweet went viral almost immediately, and as of Tuesday evening in China, it’s been re-posted more than 34,000 times and generated more than 17,000 almost universally insulting comments, including -- around dinnertime Tuesday -- the predictable: “Your reckoning will come!”

The most notable reactions came from entrepreneurs and executives, aware that law enforcement in China -- especially at the local level -- is unpredictable and untrustworthy. Kai-Fu Lee, the former president of Google China, and one of Sina Weibo’s most popular figures, with 49 million followers, tweeted Sunday morning (as translated by the Offbeat China blog):

“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 a 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.”

Lee’s post has been shared more than 71,000 times as of Tuesday evening. Of course, few if any of those sharing the post expect to find themselves on death row, hoping to see family. Rather, they seem to recognize that if a court can’t be trusted to ensure a banker’s right to say farewell to his children, neither can it be trusted to bother with their rights, either.

(Adam Minter, the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog, is writing “Junkyard Planet,” a book on the global recycling industry.)

To contact the author of this article: Adam Minter at ShanghaiScrap@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Zara Kessler at zkessler@bloomberg.net.