[Reader-list] A worker's death in China

Ravi Sundaram ravis at sarai.net
Sat Dec 31 12:51:31 IST 2005

NYTIMES, December 31, 2005

In Worker's Death, View of China's Harsh Justice


- From the prison cell where he contemplated an executioner's bullet, 
a migrant worker named Wang Binyu gave an anguished account of his 
wasted life. Unexpectedly, it rippled across China like a primal scream.

For three weeks, the brutal murders Mr. Wang committed after failing 
to collect unpaid wages were weighed on the Internet and in Chinese 
newspapers against the brutal treatment he had endured as a migrant 
worker. Public opinion shouted for mercy; lawyers debated the 
fairness of his death sentence. Others saw the case as a bloody 
symptom of the harsh inequities of Chinese life.

But then, in late September, the furor disappeared as suddenly as it 
had begun. Online discussion was censored and news media coverage was 
almost completely banned. Mr. Wang's final appeal was rushed to 
court. His father, never notified, learned about the hearing only by 
accident. His chosen defense lawyer was forbidden from participating.

"All of you are on the same side," Mr. Wang, 28, shouted during the 
hearing, his father said in an interview here in the family's home 
village in northern Gansu Province. "If you want to kill me, just kill me."

On Oct. 19, they did. Mr. Wang was executed so quickly, and quietly, 
that it took weeks for the word to fully trickle out that he was dead.

China executes more people every year than the rest of the world 
combined. By some estimates, the number of executions is more than 
10,000 a year. The government's relentless death penalty machine has 
long been its harshest tool for maintaining political control and 
curbing crime and corruption.

But it has now become a glaring uncertainty about China's commitment 
to the rule of law. There is widespread suspicion, even within the 
government, that too many innocent people are sentenced to death. 
This year, a raft of cases came to light in which wrongful 
convictions had led to death sentences, or, in one well-publicized 
case, the execution of an innocent man.

Reforming capital punishment has become a priority within the 
Communist Party-controlled legal system, partly because of 
international pressure to reduce abuses. Within the party-run 
legislative system, there is a broader debate about how to improve 
criminal law.

But achieving those reforms is hardly certain. Hard-liners are loath 
to restrict the power of the police and the courts to take a tough 
line. Death penalty reforms announced by the People's Supreme Court - 
and broadly trumpeted in the state news media - are mostly just a 
return to the status quo of 1980.

The case of Wang Binyu lacked the moral clarity of an innocent man 
wrongly convicted. He killed four people in a rampage after a final 
dispute over wages. But his saga of abuse and disdain from his bosses 
resonated deeply with a public disgusted with corruption and 
inequality and resentful of a legal system perceived as favoring the 
wealthy and well connected.

"Wang was forced to fight against those who exploit and tread on the 
poor," one person wrote at a Chinese Web site. "Why is the law always 
tough on the poor?"

Mr. Wang's case also illustrates how a system built for convictions 
has few safeguards or protections for a defendant facing death. 
Officials in the High Court of Ningxia Autonomous Region, the area in 
western China where the case was heard, refused several requests for 
interviews. But Wu Shaozhi, the Beijing lawyer who tried to represent 
Mr. Wang, said the Ningxia courts obviously wanted fast results.

Before the appeal, the Wang family signed power of attorney to Mr. 
Wu. But Mr. Wu said court officials had initially lied, telling him 
the appeal was over. Then they refused to let him enter the case. 
Instead, Mr. Wang was represented by a lawyer approved by the court.

Meanwhile, Mr. Wu noted, the same judges who heard the appeal also 
concurrently handled a mandatory final review of the case. It meant 
that judges were reviewing their own ruling - a practice that legal 
experts said is not uncommon and provided little real check and 
balance on the use of the death penalty.

"An unjust procedure will undoubtedly lead to unjust results," Mr. Wu said.

China is wary enough about its death penalty system that it has long 
designated its number of executions as a state secret. A hint at the 
number came last year when a high-level delegate to the National 
People's Congress publicly estimated that it was "nearly 10,000." In 
2004, Amnesty International documented at least 3,400 executions - 
out of 3,797 worldwide that year - but cautioned that China's number 
was probably far higher. Outside scholars have put the annual number 
as high as 15,000.

In late October, the People's Supreme Court announced that it would 
reverse a decision from the early 1980's that ceded the final review 
on many death penalty cases to provincial high courts. Legal analysts 
say Deng Xiaoping, then the paramount leader, ordered the move out of 
anger that courts were moving too slowly to crack down on crime. The 
shift meant that provincial courts could often operate without any oversight.

Under the new policy, the People's Supreme Court will reclaim 
responsibility for reviewing all capital cases. The state news media 
have estimated that executions could drop by as much as 30 percent - 
an estimate that could not be proved but that implied deep flaws 
within the current system.

"They feel that mistakes were made in so many cases," said Yi Yanyou, 
an associate professor at Tsinghua University Law School, in 
explaining the motive for the change. Mr. Yi said the new changes 
would be meaningful, but did not represent reform, because they 
merely re-established central control. One idea for a change that he 
offered was to require unanimous consent among judicial panels making 
final reviews.

He Weifang, a liberal constitutional scholar at Beijing University, 
said the new changes should improve the review process, but argued 
that only deeper constitutional reform, to establish a more 
independent judiciary, could remove the political pressures that can 
seep into many high-profile death cases.

Out in the arid hills of southern Gansu where farmers scratch a 
living from soil that seems as fertile as chalk, Mr. Wang's family is 
unaware of such legal debates. At age 15, Mr. Wang left home for 
migrant work after a childhood marred by poverty and tragedy. When he 
was a young child, his mother died after an infection from a botched 
sterilization. Family planning officials had ordered the procedure 
after she gave birth to Mr. Wang's younger brother. The family sued, 
without success.

Mr. Wang worked at a succession of migrant jobs until he took a job 
three years ago wrapping steel pipes in the power plant of a factory 
in Ningxia. His younger brother, Binyin, who also worked at the 
factory, described the bosses as brutal men who beat Binyu and later 
mocked him when he became sick with ulcers.

The bosses also withheld Binyu's salary for two years, a problem 
common to migrant workers. This spring, his father called to say he 
urgently needed surgery for a leg fracture. The brothers decided to 
quit and return home. But first they needed to collect more than 
$1,000 in unpaid wages.

For weeks, Wang Binyu approached the bosses to collect the money. At 
one point, Wu Hua, a foreman, promised to pay the brothers if they 
would work a few more weeks. They did so, but still were not paid. 
"Once, my brother went to the bosses and began crying and begging 
them to pay him," Wang Binyin said.

Finally this May, the factory boss, Chen Jiwei, relented and paid the 
2004 salary, but only after making large deductions for fees and 
boarding expenses. He then refused to pay the 2005 wages until next year.

Frustrated, Wang Binyu sought help from the local labor bureau, but 
was told it had no jurisdiction. He went to the courts, but was told 
a legal case would take months. He then returned to the labor bureau, 
where a senior official agreed to intervene and persuaded a boss, Wu 
Xinguo, to pay the back wages within five days. It seemed like a victory.

But after leaving the labor bureau, Wu Xinguo barred the brothers 
from their dormitory. Later that night, locked out of their room, the 
brothers began beating on Wu Xinguo's door to demand payment. Wu Hua, 
the foreman, and others soon arrived and tried to run off the Wang 
brothers. The group began pushing and slapping Wang Binyu until a 
fight broke out. Wang Binyu, who was carrying a fruit knife, exploded 
in a rage that would end with four people dead and one injured.

Wang Binyin said he tried to pull his older brother away. He recalls 
saying: "You can't do this. We still have an old father at home. What 
am I going to do?" When the rampage ended, Wang Binyu tossed his 
knife in the Yellow River and turned himself in at a local police 
station. As it turned out, the two top bosses - Mr. Chen and Wu 
Xinguo - escaped harm.

Mr. Wang's initial trial, on June 29, ended with a death sentence. 
His family was not notified of the trial date and did not attend. He 
seemed destined to be one of the thousands of people executed each 
year with little public notice. But on Sept. 4, the New China News 
Agency, the government's news service, published a jailhouse 
interview with Mr. Wang that was astonishing for its content and for 
the mere fact that it was printed.

"I want to die," Mr. Wang said. "When I am dead, nobody can exploit 
me anymore. Right?"

Of his crime, Mr. Wang said, "I just could not take it any longer. I 
had taken enough from them." But, he later added, "I should not have 
killed the other people. I did not mean to let it happen."

Finally, he offered a lament for his fellow migrant workers. "My life 
is a small thing," he said. "I hope that society will pay attention 
and respect us."

Chinese journalists say the authors of the article picked the case 
because they thought it dovetailed with a campaign by Prime Minister 
Wen Jiabao to help peasants. Newspapers, assuming the interview 
signaled official approval, jumped on the story.

Interviews with legal scholars followed, with some arguing that the 
system should be nimble enough to give Mr. Wang a more lenient 
sentence. Internet discussion boards were filled with indignation.

But the coverage was put to a sudden stop. Internet search engines 
were ordered to censor Wang Binyu's name, and newspapers were told to 
drop the story before the appeal was heard in late September. Most 
likely, the public outrage had alarmed central government officials 
who did not want to see a death sentence so openly questioned. From 
his jail cell, Wang Binyu told his younger brother that he thought 
local officials were eager to execute him, because a reversal of the 
death sentence could harm their careers.

The appeal was held in secret. Mr. Wang's father, Wang Liding, 
happened to bring his son a pair of shoes a day earlier. Otherwise, 
he would not have known. At one point, the father said that he 
shouted out during the proceeding because prosecutors said his son's 
wages had been fully paid. The elder Mr. Wang was briefly removed 
after the outburst.

Now, the family has still not collected the unpaid wages owed the 
dead son. Donations have helped them build a new room on their 
crumbling house. The father has wrapped the green booklet certifying 
his son's cremation in folded paper. It is his last record of his son.

In October, before the execution, court officials in Ningxia called 
the father with what he thought was good news. He was told he could 
come collect his son's unpaid salary. He traveled for more than a day 
to Ningxia from Gansu. But when he arrived, he found that the lure of 
wages had been a lie. Officials wanted him to sign his son's execution warrant.

Illiterate, the father could only smudge the paper with his thumb.

"It was wrong of him to kill people," the father said. "But there was 
a cause."

More information about the reader-list mailing list