Crackdowns and Executions Provoke Shock and Outrage in China’s Business Community

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Zeng Shan, the daughter of Chinese businessman Zeng Chengjie, holds a picture of her father, in Changsha, China, on July 7, 2013.

When China’s biggest real-estate developer speaks up on Sina Weibo, the nation’s Twitter-like social media service, people listen. On July 14, Wang Shi, the founder of property firm China Vanke, used his account to bemoan how China’s lack of rule of law affects the way in which business is conducted in the world’s second-largest economy. Referring to a recent crackdown on crime in the southwestern metropolis of Chongqing, Wang wrote: “A large group of local businessmen were put into prison illegally, their properties were confiscated by the government, their lives and dignities lost legal protection, even their defense attorneys were put into prison illegally. At that time I kept silent. Later I realized that was cowardly and wrong. We should say ‘no’ to those law enforcement departments that infringe upon law, property and life.”

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Wang’s Weibo outburst came just as the Chinese online community was abuzz over the hasty and secretive execution of businessman Zeng Chengjie on July 12.  Zeng, a real-estate developer from central China’s Hunan province, was convicted in 2011 of fraudulently fund-raising up to $562 million. The sentence? Death. But Zeng’s family, who maintain that he was innocent, were not informed of his execution until after the event. Zeng’s 24-year-old daughter, Zeng Shan, took to Weibo herself, expressing the family’s outrage: “Devastating news. My dad was executed this morning. We didn’t even get to see him one last time!” Her post went viral, reposted 72,000 times within two days — and property guru Wang was one of many to opine in the wake of Zeng’s demise. Some online commentators joked that such a swift execution would lead more rich Chinese to emigrate abroad, lest they find themselves in the gallows without even the opportunity to see their families before the end. Others, like Wang, used the case to criticize the way in which law enforcement can operate in China.

The cozy intersection of business and politics has made immense fortunes in China. But such shady relationships, known as asguanxi, provide little cover when the law is irregularly applied. Furthermore, as in the Chongqing case, law-enforcement officers can run roughshod over due process when trying to ferret out financial malfeasance. For the country’s most successful businessmen, it’s a difficult balance: maintaining the informal business relationships needed to thrive while trying to steer clear if government investigators come knocking.

Zeng’s post also galvanized online debate over whether executing someone without informing their family was even legal in China. On July 13, the Changsha Intermediate People’s Court, which ordered Zeng’s execution, stated on its own Sina Weibo account that “there is no clearly written law stipulating convicts must meet with their family members before being executed.” But members of China’s online community rebutted that statement, citing Chinese statutes that claim, in fact, criminals are entitled to meet with their family before they are killed by the state. The Changsha court was forced to delete its original post and apologize, defending itself by saying that staff managing its social-media account were not expert in criminal law.

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Later the court issued a third post saying the judge had notified Zeng of his right to meet his family before his execution but that the condemned man had chosen not to exercise this privilege. Zeng’s daughter remains unconvinced. “The court said my father did not request to meet us before the execution, but I hope they can provide some proof of this,” Zeng Shan told TIME. “They deprived us of the right to see my father for the last time. This is not humane.” Others clearly share her skepticism. Taiwanese-American entrepreneur and former Google China chief Kai-Fu Lee, who maintains an active Weibo presence, wrote: “If I am to be executed one day, and the judge told me I had the right to meet my family, I promise 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 in case you miss a last opportunity to meet with your family in the future.”

Some prominent Chinese businessmen have counseled against making public statements that can be construed as political, especially in this charged business environment. Liu Chuanzhi, the founder of tech firm Lenovo, told a business gathering last month: “We should focus on our business, not talk about politics.” But Zeng’s execution has galvanized some unlikely voices. Wang Ying, a private investment banker in Beijing, wrote on her Weibo: “What happened to Zeng tells us that it is so important for businessman to voice their political views.” Lawyer Ma Jian also wrote: “Liu Chuanzhi said businessman should not talk about politics, but look what happened to Zeng Chengjie.”

On July 15, Zeng received her father’s ashes from the Changsha court. “Now I hope my father can rest in peace,” she said. “If we could do things over, I sincerely wish that my father could have just run a small business. As the saying goes ‘the loftiest trees most dread the thunder.’ Sometimes running a small business is much safer than running a big one.” Yet even here the law may be unequally dispensed in China. Four days before Zeng was executed, Liu Zhijun, China’s former Railway Minister, received his sentence for having received $10.53 million in bribes. That crime only merited a suspended death penalty, meaning he will most likely escape execution. And while Chinese government investigators are probing allegations of graft levied at foreign pharmaceutical companies, including GlaxoSmithKline, some economists have wondered whether overseas firms are receiving disproportionate scrutiny. This month, foreign infant formula makers were forced by Chinese regulators to lower their prices.

As for celebrity property developer Wang Shi, he wasn’t done after his initial Weibo post prompted by Zeng’s case. On July 16, he posted a follow-up: “Now China is facing a period of transformation and uncertainty. As entrepreneurs, we are more influential than ordinary people. We should bear social responsibility and express our opinions.”

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