It was 5 p.m. on an ordinary Tuesday, and Li Ping was finishing up the company accounts before going to have a facial. She was working for her brother, Li Qiang, who owned one of the biggest private transport companies in Chongqing, a major city in southwestern China.
Suddenly, five plainclothes policemen barged into the room. They asked her name, then put a black hood over her head and drove her to a secret interrogation site. Her ordeal had begun.
“I sat on a chair 24 hours a day,” Li Ping remembers. “My hands were cuffed and my feet fettered. I sat there for seven days. I wouldn’t let them take the hood off because when I was wearing it, I could doze off and they couldn’t see.”
Unbeknownst to her, her brother was undergoing the same treatment. Even though he was a millionaire and a politician — a Chongqing city People’s Congress member — he spent 81 days handcuffed in a metal chair.
This was July 2009, and Li Qiang’s arrest was one of the first in Chongqing party secretary Bo Xilai’s highly publicized campaign against the mafia. Now, 14 months after Bo was detained on suspicion of abuse of power and corruption, some victims of his campaign are going public for the first time with accounts of a process that flouted the law at almost every stage. Many others still languish in jail, despite the fall of those who put them there.
‘Fight The Black, Sing The Red’
Two arrests precipitated Bo’s scandalous downfall from the highest realms of China’s leadership: that of his wife, who has since been found guilty of murdering a British businessman; and of his former police chief, Wang Lijun, who is now serving 15 years in jail after a dramatic attempt to seek shelter in the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu. Four senior policemen have received jail terms for helping cover up the businessman’s murder, including some who were instrumental in the anti-mafia campaign.
Bo branded his campaign against gangsters as “fight the black, sing the red,” tying it into his predilection for mass mobilization in the form of public rallies singing communist or “red” songs reminiscent of the era of Chairman Mao. For the victims, there were other similarities to the lawless days of Mao: Punishment wasn’t limited to the individual; whole clans went down. In Li Qiang’s case, six other family members and dozens in his inner circle were put on trial.
“These are mafia tactics,” says retired Chongqing journalist Han Pingzao, who has been following the cases closely. “A totalitarian dictatorship uses these methods against so-called enemies. It’s not just directed against you. It’s also against generations of your family and people linked with you.”
In October 2009, Li Qiang went on trial, accused of seven crimes including being a gang leader, disturbing social order and offering bribes. Thirty other defendants stood alongside him in the dock. The state had marshaled 1,849 pieces of evidence against Li Qiang. But he’d been allowed to see his lawyer only twice.
His sister Li Ping, who was also standing trial, remembers the moment the verdicts were announced.
“I heard that my big brother got 20 years, and my husband got 18 years. Then my tears started to flow,” she says. She was jailed for 18 months for hiding company accounts.
After being released from jail, Li Ping found that most of the family’s assets had been confiscated. Some of this happened during the investigation, not after the verdict was handed down as the law demands. Even the bank account of her elderly mother, who hadn’t been charged with any crime, had been emptied into a police bank account. The local government had taken over the family’s transport company. The entire business empire her brother had painstakingly built up — including a property-development firm, a car maintenance plant and a large plot of land — had all been taken by the state.
Four members of the family are still in prison, including Li Ping’s brother. When she visited him in jail earlier this year, she didn’t ask him about his mistreatment.
“I’m reluctant to ask that since it’s a painful memory,” she says. “He is also reluctant to talk about it. We want this thing to become history and to be erased.”
As for the reason her family was targeted, everybody in Chongqing tells the same story. Soon after Bo Xilai arrived in the city, he was speaking at a meeting about a taxi drivers’ strike when Li Qiang interrupted him.
“You’ve not been here long,” Li is reported to have said. “You don’t understand the situation. Let me speak.” Those abrasive words may have sealed his fate and that of his extended family.
Another victim of the campaign is Wen Jiahao, 30, who spent 10 months in detention while his father Wen Qiang, the former head of the Chongqing justice bureau, was being investigated. Wen Qiang had become famous as the deputy head of the Chongqing police and his arrest was trumpeted with maximum publicity. On state television, Exhibit A was $3 million in cash, which he had allegedly hid in a fish pond, wrapped in oil paper. This high-beam publicity campaign continued even after his arrest, when two houses alleged to belong to Wen Qiang were used by police as an “Anti-Gangster Education Base.”
“This statement of more than $3 million hidden in a fish pond sounds like a fairy story,” says Wen Jiahao, who also points out that the two houses had never actually belonged to his family and have now been quietly returned to their legal owner, a family friend.
Wen Jiahao himself was held in a detention center without being permitted to see a lawyer and his family was never informed of where he was being held — both clear violations of the law. Although he was never formally charged, he was held in a cell with rapists and murderers, and made to participate in forced labor, making packaging for medicine. Ten months later, he was released, but his assets have not all been returned, even though those who put him in prison are now themselves in prison.
“The mistakes aren’t over just because they have been sentenced and sacked. I think they should give us an explanation,” Wen Jiahao says.
He believes he was held as a bargaining chip to force his parents to confess. In 2010, his father was executed for corruption and sheltering gangsters; his mother is serving eight years in jail.
An Execution Both Political And Personal
Wen does not dispute that his father was guilty of corruption, but he believes the punishment was disproportionate and the execution carried out too quickly without due process. He is also accusing the authorities of making it hard for him to reopen the case.
“The whole case happened when I was in detention. They won’t let me see the case materials. They won’t even show me my father’s judgment,” he says.
The bare facts of his father’s last day are troubling, too, in their lack of humanity. Just four hours before Wen Qiang’s execution, he met with two Chinese journalists. He refused to be interviewed, telling them he needed to review his case before the upcoming court hearing. The journalists later wrote that Wen Qiang had no idea that he would be executed that day. At this point, he was taken to the courtroom to hear the announcement of the Supreme Court verdict upholding his sentence.
Then Wen Jiahao was taken to visit his father in front of a large audience. They talked for 15 minutes and his father asked him to kowtow three times. They hugged. And that was it.
But Wen Jiahao says, at that point, he was told a blatant lie.
“I asked if the Supreme Court had reviewed my father’s death penalty. They said, no. They lied to me. Then, afterward, someone told me my father’s death penalty had been carried out. The news had been posted online. I was astonished. Eventually someone called me at the court to collect the ashes. It was all over,” he says.
This execution was clearly both personal and political. Firecrackers were lit in public sites to celebrate his father’s death, while banners outside government buildings read “Wen Qiang is dead, Chongqing is safe, the people are happy.”
Television news reports from Chongqing at that time also point to a coordinated propaganda campaign to demonize Wen Qiang and justify the campaign against gangsters.
“He should have been killed,” one man told a news reporter. “If this kind of person isn’t executed, the country won’t be stable.” Another woman said, “[His death] cheered ordinary people a lot, by removing the evils.”
Wen Jiahao, however, is comforted by is his father’s last message.
“He said not to hate the government and society. He said history would prove everything,” he says. “At first, I thought that would take a very long time, but history has already proved everything. The senior policemen were criminals, and their campaign against gangsters was political in nature.”
Wen says that during his father’s sentencing, the judge said that “the facts are clear, the sentence is correct and the procedure is legal.” Three years on, questions are being raised about all of these. Bo Xilai ruled Chongqing like a medieval fiefdom, with almost 1,300 people appearing in court in relation to the campaign against gangsters. Now Chongqing’s new leaders are slowly beginning to overturn some of the charges. Most people are still waiting for justice.
That this could happen in modern China shows the dangers of a one-party state, where power is exercised unchecked – and in Chongqing, for a time, the rule of law became the rule of gangsters.