A Chinese woman who became a folk hero after fatally stabbing a Communist Party official to fend off his demands for sex was freed by a court Tuesday, a decision that likely avoided a storm of public criticism over the carefully watched case.
Deng Yujiao, 21, was accused of stabbing the official with a fruit knife and injuring his colleague when the two inebriated men cornered her one night last month at the hotel she worked in as a karaoke bar waitress. Her popularity reflects widespread anger in China over abuse of power by communist cadres, officials and the security forces.
The Badong County People's Court on Tuesday found Deng guilty of causing injury with intent but spared her from punishment, bowing to popular support for a woman portrayed by many as a hero for lashing out against injustice.
Grass-roots civil rights activists had trooped to Badong in recent weeks to show their support for Deng, and her case sparked a flood of supportive postings on the Internet. Coverage of her case in the entirely state-controlled media was unusually sympathetic.
'Best girl on the planet'
Posts in online forums called Deng "the best girl on the planet," composed lines of verse in classical Chinese that described her as "beautiful and fierce" and dedicated the lyrics of a popular love song to her.
A group of Peking University students last month staged a demonstration in front of a Beijing office building in which a woman wearing a face mask and bound from neck to feet in white cloth lay on the ground next to printed Chinese characters that read "Anyone Could Become a Deng Yujiao."
A similar public outpouring of sympathy followed the case of a man who confessed to killing six Shanghai police officers last year in revenge for allegedly being tortured while interrogated about a possibly stolen bike.
The official Xinhua News Agency said the court ruled that Deng should be spared punishment because the injury resulted from excessive force used in self-defense and that she had limited criminal responsibility because she was manic-depressive.
Another mitigating factor was that she turned herself in to police after the May 10 stabbing, Xinhua said.
Xinhua cited police as saying she used a fruit knife to stab Deng Guida, 43, when he and a colleague tried to force her to have sex with them for money.
Deng Guida, who ran a local government office for business promotion, died later; his colleague was slightly hurt. The two Dengs are not related.
Calls to the court and the woman's lawyer rang unanswered. Press photographs showed Deng grasping her mother's hand as they left the courthouse after the trial.
A Beijing-based lawyer and legal blogger, Liu Xiaoyuan, said the flood of public sympathy Deng received pressured investigators to pursue the less grievous charge of intentional injury instead of murder. But he said she should have been acquitted even of the lower charge.
"Imagine a woman who is being harassed by two drunk men. Is she only limited to resisting using her bare hands? Can she really stop the two men?" Liu said. "Even if her resistance with a knife led to the death of one man, her behavior still falls into legitimate self-defense."
Avant-garde artist and government critic Ai Weiwei, who felt the court's ruling was unfair, said the support that Deng's case was able to inspire posed a serious challenge to the government's leadership.
"On the one hand, in the face of public pressure, they know they can't punish her because that will cause unrest," Ai said. "On the other hand, they want to reaffirm the authority of the law and they don't want to be laughed at."
On a popular Internet forum, a posting under the user name "Red Sunshine" called the verdict "a victory for the online citizens and for public opinion." Another comment read: "Our sister was found guilty in the end, and all of us are still people without any rights."
Chinese media reported that Deng Guida found the waitress in the laundry room of the hotel spa, a few floors below the bar where she worked, and demanded sex. When she refused, he allegedly forced her down on a couch and blocked her from leaving. She attacked him with a fruit knife she had in her bag, reports said.