The swift downfall of ambitious Chinese politician Bo Xilai exposed a bitter power struggle in the highest echelons of government. Now his victims are telling their stories, exposing a darker side to Bo’s signature clampdown on organized crime.
Charismatic and outspoken, Bo seemed headed for the country’s top leadership body, the Politburo Standing Committee, before he was removed abruptly from his post — as party secretary of the major southern city of Chongqing — earlier this month.
It was about the same time, three weeks ago, that Zhang Mingyu was kidnapped. The businessman was in his Beijing apartment when police officers arrived from Chongqing — 910 miles southwest from the Chinese capital.
“They didn’t let me contact my lawyer or use my cell phone,” Zhang says. “They didn’t want to take a plane or a train, in case someone saw us and posted it online. So we drove 23 hours to Chongqing. More than 10 people watched me day and night.”
Zhang, who is also a deputy to the Chongqing Municipal People’s Congress, had been threatening to expose information about Bo’s former right-hand man and head of the city’s police force, Wang Lijun. His nighttime flight to the U.S. consulate in Chengdu, some 170 miles from Chongqing, marked the beginning of Bo’s downfall back in February.
Someone wanted to keep Zhang Mingyu quiet. For a week, he was held incommunicado in Chongqing. It was a day after he was released that Bo, the Chongqing party secretary, was sacked.
‘Heavy Fist’ Of Crackdown
Zhang is scathing about Bo’s much-vaunted campaign against organized crime.
“The mafia crackdown was definitely selective,” he says. “It was done to maintain the authority of the people who cracked down on the gangsters.”
The campaign against organized crime — known as “smashing the black” — was one of Bo Xilai’s favored initiatives. The other was “singing the red,” or mobilizing the masses to sing patriotic songs, in a throwback to the Cultural Revolution era.
One patriotic song devoted to the campaign against organized crime sums up its spirit with the lyrics, “Smash the black with a heavy fist, eliminate evil and keep the peace.”
Certainly the “heavy fist” was clear during the mafia crackdown, which began in June 2009. Thirteen people were executed, 4,781 were arrested in just 10 months. But some observers say that suspects’ rights were often completely ignored.
“The anti-mafia campaign in Chongqing wasn’t based on the rule of law,” says lawyer Li Zhuang, who represented an alleged gang member. “It was an anti-mafia campaign for political purposes. It overrode the law, it ignored basic legal procedure and it even violated basic human morality.”
Claims Of Police Torture
When Li first met client Gong Gangmo, Gong told him Chongqing police had tortured him sporadically over a period of eight days and nights.
“They hung him from the ceiling, so he could touch a table with his toes, but he couldn’t put his heels down,” Li recalls being told. “He was hanging for a long time, so he soiled himself. An interrogator took him down, and ordered him to clean up the mess with his hands, and wipe the floor with his shorts. Then they hung him up again naked.”
But that wasn’t the end of it: When a senior policeman walked past, he ordered Gong to put on some clothes. Gong was taken down, made to put the soiled shorts on, then hung up again.
Li used this testimony in his client’s defense, arguing that Gong’s confession was forced by torture.
But in December 2009, Li himself was detained on charges of fabricating evidence and inciting witnesses. Gong, his client, was found guilty on nine counts, including running a gang, murder and dealing in guns and ammunition. He was given a life sentence in February 2010. Li, meanwhile, was in police detention.
“According to Chinese law, interrogation through torture isn’t just beating, it’s also not allowing people to sleep or drink or eat,” says Li. “For three days and three nights, I was locked into a chair with a board over the lap, so I couldn’t move. They didn’t beat me, but they didn’t let me sleep.”
It took only 18 days for Li Zhuang to be put on trial. He says that’s a record in China. No prosecution witnesses were produced at that first trial, his lawyers were not able to conduct cross-examinations, and his assistant — who could have backed him up — was physically held by Chongqing police at a private home, preventing him from attending court.
Li was sentenced to two-and-a-half years, which was later reduced to one-and-a-half years at appeal.
Most of those 18 months were spent not in prison but in police detention centers, leaving Li under police jurisdiction and monitoring. A second trial on similar charges was started against him, but was suddenly abandoned. He was released last June.
Li says his arrest and trial were designed to send a clear message.
“It was a warning to all the lawyers in China: We’re cracking down on the mafia here, no one should come here,” Li says. “They were ‘killing the chicken to scare the monkeys.’ They made all China’s lawyers so scared no one dared speak out. It was extremely terrifying.”
More Fallout Expected
At a press conference last March, Bo Xilai shrugged off any allegations of wrongdoing in Li’s case, calling it “absolutely in line with the law.”
“He only got two-and-a-half years,” Bo told reporters airily with a charming smile and a dismissive hand gesture. “That’s much shorter than those mafia sentences. Why did this affair attract so much attention?”
In Bo’s final press conference less than two weeks ago, he once again defended his moves, saying, “I was mentally prepared that attacking organized crime and expunging evil would affect some people’s interests, and there would be different views. … These people who form criminal cliques have already formed wide social ties, and they have power over opinion.”
Already Bo’s disgraced police chief has been replaced and 38 of the city’s top procurators — who play a role similar to a district attorney — have been reshuffled. Li expects more fallout, saying new allegations of abuse are emerging almost daily.
“I get calls every day from the relatives of those in prison. I say, ‘Why didn’t you call before?’ They simply didn’t dare,” he says. “In the past, if your relatives appealed for justice, they’d also be detained or sent to labor camp. Now it’s all coming out.”
Li comments that, to his knowledge, all those sentenced in the crackdown against organized crime had their assets confiscated, providing a windfall for the state.
“According to the law, assets amassed by criminal behavior definitely should be confiscated,” Li notes. “But with so many ‘gangsters,’ they were confiscating hundreds of millions, maybe even billions, without differentiating between assets gained through criminal activity and those accumulated legally.”
Online, many are now asking if Chongqing saw a crackdown on the mafia, or a crackdown by a mafia state. Bo Xilai once hoped that Chongqing could serve as a model for the rest of China. But his victims’ tales of abuse and torture paint a picture of a state-within-a-state, where China’s laws were simply ignored.