By Benjamin Kang Lim and Nick Edwards
BEIJING (Reuters) - Thousands of Chinese Internet users have urged China's Supreme Court to spare a 31-year-old death row convict, once one of China's richest women, in a contentious fraud case that has sparked sympathy for the self-made daughter of a peasant.
It has become a touchstone issue for China's vocal Internet campaigners and newly rich private entrepreneurs who see the sentence as too harsh as Beijing struggles to deliver social harmony as wealth inequality soars.
Wu Ying, president of Bense Holding Group in eastern Zhejiang province, was arrested in 2007 and sentenced to death two years later by the Jinhua Intermediate People's Court. She was accused of illegally raising 770 million yuan ($122 million), between 2005 and 2007, from 11 people who in turn sought money from other investors.
Wu was convicted of bilking investors of 380 million yuan, promising them exorbitant returns on money that she used to buy rapidly-appreciating real estate assets and luxury items which she says she aimed to re-sell at a profit.
The Zhejiang High Court rejected Wu's appeal last month on grounds that she "squandered" the funds and did not use them in "normal operational activities."
Wu has appealed against her sentence to the Supreme People's Court. In a rare move prior to reaching a verdict, the highest court said a review of her case will be handled "with care", conducted "based on facts" and "according to the law." A court spokesman did not say when the final verdict will be delivered.
TOUCHES ON KEY INITIATIVES
The case is particularly pointed as it touches on two key policy initiatives in Beijing -- one to curb speculation in real estate, the other to shut down the spread of unregulated lending in the shadow banking system.
A public outcry over soaring property prices and a scandal that saw private entrepreneurs in Wenzhou, in Zhejiang province, flee into hiding to escape loan sharks after being unable to secure credit from China's big state-backed banks has forced personal pledges from the country's leaders to turn things around.
Premier Wen Jiabao toured Wenzhou last autumn at the height of the scandal, promising to ensure the right policy mix in future to support access to credit and economic growth.
Meanwhile, a two year-long campaign to bring property prices back to "reasonable levels" -- as determined by the leadership -- has struggled to gain traction, only really doing so in the last quarter of 2011. Home prices have fallen marginally in key cities, but remain many times the level they were a decade ago.
Microbloggers who have rushed to the defense of Wu, whose humble beginnings saw her open a hair salon in 1997, include well-known tycoons, academics and Zhang Sizhi, the 85-year-old defense lawyer of Mao Zedong's widow Jiang Qing.
Zhang argued that Wu did not defraud investors because she did not flee or "squander" the funds and that she invested in hotels, advertising, wedding planning and transport companies with money from friends and family, not the general public.
China's 500 million Internet users enjoy limited freedoms, with microblogs becoming a magnet to highlight abuse of power and champion victims of perceived miscarriages of justice.
"To save Wu Ying is to save ourselves," real estate magnate Ren Zhiqiang wrote in his Tweeter-like microblog.
"Spare (her) from the (executioner's) blade!" property tycoon Pan Shiyi said in his microblog, using an ancient saying.
"Today, we save Wu Ying. Tomorrow, more people will save us," wrote Xiamen University literature professor Yi Zhongtian.
Many microbloggers accused courts of double standards and showing leniency to corrupt government officials.
The public outcry came a year after parliament abolished capital punishment for 13 types of non-violent economic crimes.
China halved the number of executions to about 4,000 last year compared with 2005, rights group Dui Hua Foundation estimates. The official figure is considered a state secret.
The high court ruled that Wu "squandered" the money on 41 cars and jewellery worth 140 million yuan. Police in Wu's hometown, Dongyang in Zhejiang province, seized and sold by auction 30 cars for just 3.9 million yuan.
Wu's father, Wu Yongzheng, insisted that she could repay her debts by selling flats bought for 160 million yuan around 2006.
The Southern Weekend newspaper estimates that her real estate assets are now worth 400 million yuan, but the Dongyang Intermediate Court put it at one-third the market price.
($1 = 6.2996 Chinese yuan)
(Editing by Ken Wills and Richard Borsuk)