The Case of Wang Binyu (王斌余)

This had been the hottest subject on the Chinese Internet recently.  The principal character is a migrant laborer named Wang Binyu.  He has been sentenced to death for killing four persons, and there is no dispute that he committed the murders.  Yet, the calls have gone so far as saying that China is finished morally as a country if Wang should be put to death.  What is the story behind Wang Binyu?

The following is a translation of the story in Nanfang Metropolitan News (September 11, 2005):

"I don't have much time left.  My dad said that he supports news interviews.  When you people interview me and publish the articles, more people will pay attention to the migrant laborers.  When the leaders come around, they only look at the surface of the building.  We work on the walls and we could fall down dead if we are not careful.  Do you how many migrant laborers die when a building is constructed?  I know that there are policies which protect migrant laborers, but the people below do not implement them.  Therefore, our rights are still not being protected" -- Wang Binyu.

The tragedy here is that none of the dead are bad people.  This is no winner.

The migrant laborer Wang Binyu had the beautiful dream of improving his life and set off to work in the city at 17 years of age.  Instead, he had a hard life as he was exploited and cheated time and again.  He attempted unsuccessfully to get his back wages several times, and in the end he killed four people and seriously injured one person.  After the news was published, the Internet bubbled with sympathy for Wang Yubin and some people even called him a "hero" and regarded his murderous actions as "tragedy" and "romance."  Yet, the truth is that many people did not understand that Wang Binyu did not murder the much criticized sub-contractor.  Instead, he killed his co-worker who had helped him and other members of that family.

The tragedy caused pain, but also deep reflection.  Obviously, we cannot just say that the murder case was an inexorable march of forces because this clearly happened under a particular social system.

On September 7, Wang Binyu appeared for the second time in court, wearing handcuffs and legcuffs.  Life is unpredictable, because he and the person that he wanted to kill both stood in the defendants' corner at the civil court.  Wang Binyu yelled at the judge: "You put handcuffs and legcuffs on me, but you let the subcontractors Chen Jiwei and Wu Xinguo stay free.  They were the true murderers!"

Four months ago, Wang Binyu murdered the foreman Wu Hua and three family members.  This time, Wu Hua's father and mother-in-law sued Wang Binyu, Chen Jiwei and Wu Xinguo collectively in court for the amount of 420,000 RMB.  But they "hated most" not Wang Binyu who committed the actual murders; instead, it was the third defendant Wu Xinguo.  "If he did not withhold the back wages for the laborers ... if he had paid Wang's five days of living expenses ... if he wasn't hiding inside the house and refusing to show his face ... if he had come out earlier, none of that would have happened!"

The next day, Beijing lawyer Wu Shaozhi came to the detention center and offered his free legal service.  By that time, the Internet support for Wang Binyu was hitting a peak.

But as far as Wang Binyu was concerned, death is near.  More than two months ago, he was sentenced to death.  "I want to die.  When I am dead, nobody can exploit me anymore.  Right?"


"There is no point in living anymore!"  When Wang Binyu chased Wu Xinguo down the alley with his bloody knife, that was what the shop owner Zhang Jianguo heard him repeatedly say.

The first round of slashing and stabbing had just stopped.

It was the night of May 11.  "Around 1030 pm, I and my brother went to Wu Xinguo's rented house.  From the other side of the glass door, we asked him to give us our living expenses.  Wu Xinguo yelled from the inside: 'I wanted to give you 50 RMB in the afternoon.  You did not want it.  I have no money.  If you want money, you go and see Chen Jiwei!'  We kept knocking on the door.  Wu Xinguo came out of the house with a mop and said, 'If you knock again, I am going to kill you!'  I knocked again.  He said: 'Why don't you complain to the Labor Department about me?  You can go tomorrow!'  We argued with him, but he ignored us and went back inside the house to sleep.  I continued to knock.  His wife said, 'If you knock again, I am going to call 110 to get the police!'"  This was how Wang Binyin, the young brother of Wang Binyu, remembered it.

The police did not come, but the brothers saw their co-worker Su Zhigang with his yellow safety helmet.  Su came over and said: "It is late already and we have to work tomorrow.  Don't knock anymore."  Wu Xinguo did not call the police.  Instead, he called the foreman Wu Hua, who was at a nearby fruit store.  They had just returned on a motorcycle after working overtime."  "I wanted to get him to come over and persuade the Wang brothers to leave."  Su Zhigang is the brother-in-law of Wu Hua and he had also returned from overtime work, and he was trying to persuade the Wang brothers to leave as well.

"Su Zhigang charged over and I said that it was none of his business.  Su Zhigang said, 'It is my business because you ratted on me to the boss often.'  Su Wencai then came over too and said that my younger brother was not a good person and then he slapped him on the face.  Wu Hua also used his foot to kick my younger brother ..." Wang Binyu told the police.

Wang Binyin's testimony was that Su Zhigang said, "Did you guys miss being beaten today?"  Wang Binyu asked: "What do you guys want?"  As soon as he finished, Su Wencai slapped him on the left side of the face and Su Zhigang came over and was ready to assault Wang Binyu.  At that point, Wang Binyu took out his knife and stabbed Su Zhigang in the chest ...

The testimonies of the Wang brothers were inconsistent with each other, and that shows how chaotic the situation were.  "Nobody from our family now saw anything.  All those who went there are dead."  Wu Hua's father said.

But the fight occurred only after Su Wencai slapped the other party in the face, and this was acknowledged in the verdict document.  This slap in the face made Wang Binyu angry and he took out the foldable knife that he had with him.

"My young brother grabbed me and said, 'Elder brother.  We still have a father at home.  Please do not stab anymore!'  I said: 'You let go.  Do not mind me.  We come here to earn money, and they all exploit us.  There is no point in living anymore!'  At that point, Wu Hua charged at me, and I stabbed him once.  Su Xianglan scolded me: 'We treat you so well.  You have no conscience ...'"  Wang Binyu testified.

Su Xianglan was chased down the space between the two pool tables, crying.  In the end, she was stabbed as well.  "She looked the worst.  She was kneeling on the ground, hands in front and face tilted to the left.  Her eyes were wide open."  Zhang Jianguo sighed.

After four people were stabbed and fallen down, Wu Xinguo's wife came out to help the wounded Su Zhigang lay down by the wall but she too was chased by Wang and sustained stab wounds.  Wu Xinguo called the police on 110 from the shop next door.  When Wang Binyu saw Wu, he gave chase.

Several minutes later, Wang Binyu returned to the scene of the stabbing after losing Wu in the chase.  Then he began a second round of stabbing.  Afterwards he went to the Yellow River Bridge, threw the knife into the water, washed the blood on his hands and took a taxi cab to turn himself in at the nearest police station.

During Wang Binyu's two rounds of stabbing, Wang Binyin also took out a knife just like brother's.  But the police investigation showed that Wang Binyin did not kill anyone.  Instead, he was scared witless, threw his knife on the ground and stayed at the scene to be arrested.


The anger in Wang Binyu had been boiling up until the day of the killings.

Early morning, Wu Xinguo told him that he wanted to terminate the two brothers.  So Wang Binyu wanted to get paid.  "He told me to go see Chen Jiwei instead and then he left for the worksite."

This April, Wang Binyu was tired of working for the "Big Boss" Chen Jiwei.  Since his father recently broke his leg while helping the villagers to build a house and needed money for an operation, he wanted to quit, but "Wu Xinguo refused to pay his back wages."  Wang Binyu was angry, but he could not do anything.

After Wu Xinguo left for the worksite, Wang Binyu called Chen Jiwei from the little shop.  Chen said that he was in Zhongning and wanted Wang to go there.  "I said no, and he said 'What do you want to do?'"

"What could we do?  We thought about it all morning, and we went to the Weinong District Department of Labor to complain," said Wang Binyin.  "At first, we had no idea whom to see.  The people there said that they can't do anything and told us go to the court.  We went to the court and they said that these cases take time (at least one month) and suggested that we go to the Department of Labor Monitoring Division director."

So the brothers went back to the Weinong District Department of Labor again and found the office for the Monitoring Division.  "This person seemed to be a more important official.  He called Chen Jiwen immediately to tell him to pay the work wages.  After two hours, Wu Xinguo came with Wu Hua."  After speaking for a while, the official asked the two brothers to step out for a moment.  After about ten minutes, the two were asked to step back into the office.

"Right in front of them, the official said that the wages will be settled in five days.  Wu Xinguo said that I and my younger brother must move out of the dormitory tonight.  If we want to stay on, we must put down a 1,000 RMB deposit.  The official told Wu Xinguo: 'You owe them wages.  So you let them stay and you can deduct it from their wages later on.'  Wu Xinguo refused." Wang Binyu testified.

When Weinong District Department of Labor Monitoring Division director Song Shengli was interrogated by the police, he said: "Wu Xinguo refused to let Wang Binyu stay.  I said if you won't let the laborers stay there and they don't want to work for you, you must give them part of their living expenses and you can deduct that from their wages.  Wu Xinguo agreed."

Wang Binyu asked for 300 to 400 RMB in advance, and Wu Xinguo agreed.  But after saying goodbye to the official, Wu Xinguo reneged and offered only 50 RMB.  The Wangs refused and they left unhappily.

How much money did Chen Jiwei and Wu Xinguo owe the Wang brothers?  The accounting seems to be messy.  In his testimony, Wang Binyu said that he and his brother were owed more than 4,000 RMB.  Wang Binyin said that it was 7,000 to 8,000 RMB including the unsettled amounts from the preceding year.  The migrant laborer Zhao Yanming who worked with them at the same site said that the boss owed Wang Binyu more than 100 workdays for more than 3,500 RMB and Wang Binyin more than 70 days for more than 2,000 RMB.  But in court on September 7, Chen Jiwei only admitted to owing Wang Binyu 66.5 workdays, which Wang denounced as a beastly lie.

When the brothers returned to the dormitory that night, they found that the door was locked.  The female cook said that Wu Xinguo locked it and took the key away.  28-year-old Wang Binyu cried in front of his younger brother: "I worked for so many years on the outside and this is what happens.  I am sorry for getting you into this, and for my other hometown people."  After the spring festival, two hometown people came to work under Wu Xinguo and left within two months without a cent because they could not take it.  Wang Binyin did not know how to comfort his brother, so he only said: "Elder brother, you shouldn't have come here."

The two then went to look for a hotel near the steel factory.  When they walked by the lottery store, Wang Binyu went in and spent four RMB on two lottery tickets.  Just before the madness exploded, the two still had some hope in the form of the two improbable lottery tickets.

The two could not find a suitable hotel, so they kept looking for Wu Xinguo.  On the way, they saw Wu Xinguo, Wu Hua and Su Zhigang passing by in their motorcycles.  Wang Binyu shouted: "Give us some living expenses!" but "Wu Xinguo stepped on the gas and sped away."

"At that time, I thought that I had to get the living expenses tonight!" said Wang Binyin.  When they were knocking at the door of Wu Xinguo's rented house, Wang Binyin who was normally less brazen than his brother knocked louder and harder.  But he never imagined that his elder brother would be destroyed by the anger that had been raging inside for a long time.


The policeman asked: "Do you usually bring a knife?"

"I usually bring a knife, principally for self-defense," said Wang Binyu.  His defense lawyer said: "He was often bullied during his years at work, so the knife gives him a psychological sense of security."

During the week before the murder, the brothers were at the steel factory market and they saw a foldable fruit knife with patterns of birds.  "These types of knife used to sell for 12 RMB each, but they were going at 8 RMB for two.  We thought that they look great, so we got two.  I took a smaller one," said Wang Binyin.

At the time, Wang Binyu told him that if they get attacked when they ask for their wages from their boss, the knives could be used for self-defense.

Wang Binyu's home is in a small mountain village in Kangu County, Kansu province.  Their mother died when he was six years old.  Afterwards, he studied and worked.  A neighbor said, "This is a smart and honest kid.  He can cook, launder and farm."  At seventeen, he went with some villagers to work on the outside.  He worked in mills around Kansu and Ningxia, he was a tricycle driver and he also worked in construction lots.

At first, he worked at the Kansu Tianshui construction site for 7.5 RMB per day.  Afterwards, his 15-year-old younger brother Wang Binyin also came to work at the construction site for 5 RMB per day.  Both brothers quit school after fourth grade.

One time, when Wang Binyu was working on the construction frame, he fell into a 7 meter deep well and nearly drowned.  When they pulled him up, he fell ill but the boss only gave him some cold pills.

From August 2003, he worked for the Henan sub-contractor Chen Jiwei.  Chen had the contract for the heat-preservation work at a factory in Ningxia Shizuishan Weinong district.  Wang Binyu and his co-workers had to apply rockwool and iron sheeting around steel pipes.  Rockwool is a chemical irritant against which the workers only had hat and gloves and no special protective clothing.  That is why the workers often suffered allergic reactions such as red and itchy skin.  Later, Wang Binyu became the team leader and he earned 35 RMB per day, payable at the end of the year subject to a deduction of 300 RMB as personal bond and more than 1,000 for board and meals even though that was supposed to be covered in the original agreement.

During work, Wang Binyu had arguments with the technician/foreman Wu Hua.  According to Wang Binyu, Wu Hua took his temper out on the workers at the site.  When Wu told him to steal stuff from the site and he refused, Wu cursed him and beat him.  After Wang Binyin came to work there, he saw Wu Hua hit his elder brother with a brick.  One time, Wu kicked his elder brother several times "for ratting on him in front of the boss."  On the day of the murder, those two had another argument at the Department of Labor office.

Wang Binyin said that his elder brother did not fight back.  Wang Binyu complained in his testimony that many of the hometown people introduced by him to work there had to quit because they could not stand the beating and the hardship.

After working for so long, Wang Binyu has developed a serious case of stomach problem.  Last year, he spent more than 1,000 RMB on medical treatment.  The contract originally included medical coverage, but he had never gotten a cent.  A co-worker injured his leg, but still had to work and finally had to go home after he could not take it anymore.  In spite of this, Wang Binyu did not ever think about returning home because he remembered the poverty and bitterness of his home village.

When Wang Binyu was young, the whole family slept on one bed.  In recent years, they used their earned money to build a few brick rooms even though the windows have not been put in yet.  28-year-old Wang Binyu and 26-year-old Wang Binyin are unmarried because it costs 20,000 to 30,000 RMB to get a wife.  Most village girls do not want to stay there.  They either marry outside or become "misses" in the cities.

Due to the poverty in the village, many young people want to become robbers in the city.  When Wang Binyu's fourth uncle came back from the army, he wanted to become a robber.  But Wang Binyu's father gave him a good scolding and he finally got married at forty.

In the eyes of the defense lawyer, this was a humble and shy young man who was looking for self-respect.  "When he feels that you respect him, he is very grateful."  At the detention center, the regimented lifestyle has given him more color in the face.  In fact, he even felt that living inside the high walls was better than working because "no one curses him, he is not beaten and he has rights."

After Xinhua reported on Wang Binyu's murders, there was a tremendous outpouring on the Internet.  Most netizens obviously feel that Wang Binyu's acts were "romantic" and "tragic."  Some even called a "hero" and wrote poems in his honor.  Some called for a "Save Wang Binyu" campaign in the name of justice.  Some even called for a donation campaign for his father with a great response.

At the same time, there is a huge debate about whether Wang Binyu should receive the death sentence, coming from the legalistic and sociological perspectives.  Many used the "manslaughter" argument, but the other side also had their reasons.

Yet, the truth is that many people did not understand that Wang Binyu did not murder the much criticized sub-contractor.  Instead, he killed his co-workers and innocent family members who had helped Wang.

"Our family's Wu Hua treated the Wang brothers decently," said Wu Hua's father Wu Wenxi, who is also a migrant laborer at the same worksite.  "Last spring festival, Wang Binyu stayed at the worksite to watch the materials and he stayed at our house at night.  We played mahjong together.  Last year when Wu Hua got married, he attended the wedding and gave a 200 RMB gift."  Wu Wenxi said that one night Wang Binyu stepped on glass while going to the toilet, and Wu Hua took him to the hospital by motorcycle the next few days for medical treatment.  Sometimes Wu Hua would lend money to Wang Binyu.

In the eyes of Wang Binyin, although Wu Hua and Su Zhigang sometimes yelled at and hit his elder brother, they still talked and laughed sometimes.  Wu Wenxi explained it this way: Wu Hua was the technician in charge of quality control and inspection and he took his job very seriously.  When he saw workers making mistakes, he would ask them to re-do it and there may be verbal battles.  Even with respect to his own father and Su Zhigang, he was very direct in this speech.

In the eyes of the shop owners in the neighborhood, Wu Hua was a "delightful" young man; he spoke well; he was smart; he treated people well.  But they did not know too much about Wang Binyu.

It is difficult for people to determine just what happened between Wang Binyu and Wu Hua.  But the sensitive Wang Binyu obviously thought that the boss's favorite Wu Hua was different from himself and possibly in league with the boss.  Wu Wenxi admitted that Wu Hua was loyal to the boss.  The fact that the mobile telephone numbers of Wu Hua and Chen Jiwei had consecutive ending numbers show that they didn't have an ordinary relationship.

When Wang Binyu was interviewed by the media, he said that Wu Xinguo's hometown people from Ningxia's Helan County would all speak well of Wu and help him exploit others.  In Wang Binyu's eyes, the dozen or so workers at the worksite were divided into two opposing camps.  In his anger, he directed his knife at the entire family of Wu Hua.  After he calmed down, he was sorry.  At the detention center, he told Wu Wenxi: "In my next life, I will repay your family by being your horse or your cow."

The locals all believed that Wu Hua's family died wrongly in place of Chen Jiwei and Wu Xinguo.  The normal person would think that the latter two ought to be grateful.  Very quickly, instead, the two families behaved poorly.  Wu Wenxi said angrily that Wu Xinguo's wife vanished after she got out of the hospital.  She changed the number of her mobile phone.  When he went to find her at her Helan County home, she hid and refused to see him.  On the day after Wu Hua and his wife died, the child was just 100 days old and was sick in the hospital.  Wu Wenxi called Chen Jiwei for money to buy baby formula, but Chen said that he had no money.  "The family of four is dead, but they never showed up once to see us.  It makes our hearts go cold!"

On October 11, the father and mother-in-law of Wu Hua sued Wang Binyu, Chen Jiwei and Wu Xinguo in court for 429,300 RMB in damages.  In court on September 7, Chen Jiwei denied that Su Zhigang worked for him.  "Heavens!  Su Zhigang worked for him for almost two years.  Was it because there was no signed contract?  He still owes several of us back wages!" said "Wu Wenxi.  These two sub-contractors are the most hated enemies of the family.


(YCWB)  Comments on the case of Wang Binyu.


Tsing Hua University Law Department associate professor Zhou Guangquan:

Some netizens believe that Wang acted properly in self-defense.  Zhou does not agree.  He says that the victim was subject to typical verbal abuse and mild violence, and there is no cause for Wang Binyu to use a murderous weapon to take revenge.

Some netizens considered that Wang Binyu was oppressed over a long time; besides, he turned himself in afterwards.  These are mitigating circumstances for commuting the death sentence.  Zhou believes that it was a grave crime to kill four people and injure another person.  Those circumstances should not be considered in the case.  Even if all four of the dead persons were sub-tractors who owed money to Wang, he should still receive the death penalty because the consequences are too grave.

As to whether public opinion should be reflected in the verdict, Zhou thinks that public opinon is uncertain and sometimes quite emotional.  Some people think that Wang Biny should not be sentenced to death and some other people think it is alright.  So which is 'public opinion'?  How does the judge know?  Therefore, the judge should not consider public opinion.


Netizen: Wang Binyu went to collect his back wages, but he was told that he was "like a dog" and then he was punched and kicked.  Under this difficult situation of insult, indifference and assault, how could anyone stand it?  Although his murderous acts should lead to a death sentence, isn't it inhumane to give no room whatsoever for leniency?

Netizen: To give Wang Binyu the death penalty violates the fifth article of the Criminal Law.  It exceeds what is normally expected by people and it is therefore a misapplication of the law.

Netizen: Under what circumstances did Wang Binyu kill?  He was being punched and kicked.  Therefore I believe that Wang Binyu acted in proper self-defense, and his sentenced should therefore lightened.

Netizen: "Power must be used for the people; (cadres’) sentiments must be tied to those of the people; and material benefits must be sought in the interest of the people" are not empty words.  Based upon the fact that Wang Binyu was forced into it and had no motiviation to murder deliberately, the court should consider a reduction of the sentence.  In reality, the ones who should be punished are the "sub-contractors who mistreat the mgrant laborers" and the "administrators and law enforcement people who ignore the rights of the migrant laborers."

Wang Binyu:  “我的生命事小,我希望党和国家能重视我们农民工,希望社会能够关注我们,尊重我们!”  (translation: My life is a small thing.  I hope that the Party and the Country will value us migrant laborers.  I hope that society will pay attention and respect us.)


死 囚 王 斌 余 的 道 白
















(Yannan)  Yang Tao

On the Internet, everybody at first thought that Wang Binyu killed the sub-contractor.  But the later reports tell us that this was not true.  Instead, he killed the sub-sub-contractor and other migrant laborers in his same situation.  Further, he had already injured them and then after he was unsuccessful in chasing down the sub-contractor, he returned to the scene and finished killing them, including a woman who got down on her knees to beg for her life.  This is cruel, but true.  Although I think that the sub-contractor's life should be equally protected under the law, he is morally challenged in this case and one may be lenient for his murderer.  But instead Wang Binyu directed his hatred on fellow migrant laborers instead.

A commentator said that this was truly unexpected.  When they first saw the Xinhua report, they only saw the suffering of Wang Binyu on the job.  We could not imagine what transpired during the act of killing or whom he actually killed.  The initial reports were inflammatory, and I think that they failed.

To sympathesize with the poor is a natural instinct for the people.  But we must have a bottom line and sympathy cannot trump the fact, the law and the rule of the law.  When the media reports a sensitive story such as this, they must be careful not to inflame public passion and create what de Tocqueville calls the "tyranny of the majority."  The masses are sometimes emotional and extreme. 

In the case of Wang Binyu, this was clear to us.  The media reports were murky at first, and the masses made inferences based upon the simple details to create a mainstream opinion to demand the reversal of the case.  Once this opinion has been formed, the media can only push this position further along.  I have tried posting about why I agreed with the death sentence at certain popular websites, but my posts were repeatedly deleted.  This type of situation is dangerous and worrysome.

To repeat, it is important to provide balanced reports.  In this world, we are not God and we cannot tell right from wrong in a short time.  In order not to mislead the public and ourselves, we can only reflect the voices from both sides and let the people decide and may the truth emerge from the competition in the free market of free opinions.  The sky won't fall down if you let people whom you don't like to express their opinions.

(New York Times)  In Worker's Death, View of China's Harsh Justice.  By Jim Yardley.  December 31, 2005.

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."