A proposed amendment to China's criminal law could see the abolition of capital punishment for a number of non-violent offences, including illegal money lending, as Cao Yin reports.
When she learned about a proposal to amend China's criminal law and abolish capital punishment for the crime of "illegal fundraising", Zeng Shan took a deep breath and sat quietly, remembering her father, Zeng Chenjie, who was executed for the crime in July 2013.
After a while, the 25-year-old broke her silence: "Maybe other people suspected or convicted of this charge will not face the death penalty in the future." Illegal fundraising involves private individuals who set themselves up as moneylenders and then invite "investors" to contribute to the principal fund, on the understanding that the extremely high rates interest the borrower is charged will bring them a huge profit.
The money is then loaned and the operation is administered by the fundraiser. If the money is repaid at the agreed rate, all is well, but defaults are common, and when they occur, investors often appeal to the local government for redress, thus bringing the activities of the fundraisers to the attention of the authorities.
However, few investors obtain compensation, because under a 2011 regulation issued by the Supreme People's Court, China's highest judicial body, private lending is only allowed if the interest charged is not more than four times the central bank's benchmark lending rate, and most illegal fundraisers charge rates that are many times in excess of the legal ceiling.
In May 2011, Zeng Chengjie, an entrepreneur from Changsha, the capital of Hunan province in Central China, was convicted of generating more than 3.4 billion yuan ($554 million) via illegal fundraising. He was sentenced to death by the city's intermediate court.
In June 2013, the Supreme People's Court reviewed and upheld the sentence. The 55-year-old was executed a month later.
At the end of October, a session of the National People's Congress, the country's top legislature, discussed abolishing the death penalty for nine crimes, five of which relate to "economic misbehavior", including illegal fundraising.
According to Yi Shenghua, a criminal lawyer in Beijing, the reduction in the number of crimes subject to capital punishment has become a trend as China's lawmakers revise the criminal law. He said most of the calls for abolition relate to economic, non-violent crimes.
Under the law as it stands, 55 crimes are subject to the death penalty, a reduction from the 68 on the statute books before a 2011 amendment cut the number by 13.
Yi described Zeng Chengjie's case as the catalyst that accelerated the process of abolishing the death penalty for illegal fundraising, which most legal professionals consider a sensible and humane policy.
"Zeng Chengjie should be the last person to be sentenced to death for illegal fundraising," he said. "In reality, though, very few people are sentenced to death for this crime. Usually, the sentence is only handed down to people whose misdemeanours are particularly serious, such as raising a huge amount of money, or whose actions cause mass disturbances or damage social stability."
In 2012, Wu Ying, 32, an entrepreneur from Wenzhou in Zhejiang province, was sentenced to death after being convicted of illegally raising 770 million yuan between 2005 and 2007, and then failing to pay back the investors.
However, the Supreme People's Court stepped in and overruled the local court. Wu's death sentence was suspended for two years, and was later commuted to a lengthy prison term, which she is still serving.
Court officials said Zeng Chengjie's case was far more serious than Wu's because it led to three episodes of mass disturbance, and also resulted in an investor committing suicide by setting himself on fire.
Yi said depriving someone of their life is too high a price to pay for infringing other people's financial interests: "Capital punishment for economic misbehavior is not equitable to the crime. After all, life is the most precious thing, and the death penalty is irreversible. It isn't possible to reverse an execution in the event that we discover errors in the investigations or trials."