Scores of police gripping black clubs guarded a courthouse in southern China on Tuesday — the first day of a trial for two alleged gangster bosses, the "Hammerhead" and "Spicy Qin," accused of using violence to build an empire that included everything from underground casinos to cement factories, truck lines and poultry markets.
The case has further exposed the dark side of Chinese society, where, crime experts say, gangs are thriving amid a weak legal system, corrupt government and policies that seem to value economic growth over almost everything else.
Hundreds of people gathered outside the courthouse in the small southern coastal city of Yangjiang, hoping to get a glimpse of the alleged mob kingpins — who arrived under tight security in a police bus with black ski masks over their faces to protect them from attack and publicity.
The defendants Xu Jianqiang, known as the "Hammerhead," and his partner, Lin Guoqin, or "Spicy Qin," were arrested in November 2007 in Yangjiang, which calls itself the country's knife and scissors capital because it boasts a big industry churning out sharp tools.
Court clerks said there were no open seats in the courtroom for an Associated Press reporter, and officials refused to provide copies of the indictment against Xu, Lin and 41 of their alleged henchmen.
'Black society' organization
But a notice taped to a courthouse wall said the men were accused of leading a gangster, or "black society," organization that engaged in fraud, tax evasion, armed robbery, illegal detention, malicious injury and gambling, "among other crimes."
If found guilty, they could be sentenced to death for such a long list of offenses. The court hasn't said if they've entered a plea yet, and their lawyers haven't made public comments.
One court spectator said the defendants were known to have owned casinos all over the city.
"I gambled in one once. It had baccarat, everything," said the middle-aged man, who only gave his surname, Li, because he feared the police and gangs. "These guys were so big and powerful, the police didn't dare touch them for a long time."
Xu, according to state-run media accounts, was a Tony Soprano-type of gangster — a burly guy with a flat bulldog face who liked to brawl and muscle his way into deals. One photo shows him in a white undershirt with a crew cut and dark sunglasses.
The local reports suggest Lin was more like Michael Corleone from "The Godfather," a suave operator who sought to cover his criminal tracks with legitimate businesses. Pictures have shown him in a natty dark suit or smiling in a gray tweed blazer over a cranberry crew neck.
Before his arrest, Lin held high-ranking posts in several business groups and had a seat in Yangjiang's local legislature.
Establishing rule of law
The way gangsters — or triads in local slang — have been joining forces with business leaders and officials to create powerful syndicates is a serious problem in China, said Dennis Wong, head of the criminology department at City University of Hong Kong.
"The reason organized crime groups are so prevalent in mainland China is that China has yet to establish rule of law and people do not respect law," he said. "It is still a country ruled by people, so it's easy for triad gangs to exist."
Wong added that the problem is compounded by the government's policy of fixating on economic growth. Officials often turn a blind eye to gang-controlled casinos and brothels because they provide a service demanded by the businessmen who stoke the economy, he said.
"Chinese police fully understand this fact, so they rarely crack down on prostitution and entertainment parlors," Wong said.
China's top leaders have repeatedly pledged to take a harder line on corruption, and they have targeted several high-ranking political and business leaders in recent years, including the former mayors of Shanghai and Shenzhen.
One of the hotbeds of triad activity has long been wealthy Guangdong province, where Yangjiang is located. In many ways, Guangdong is China's New Jersey, a gritty industrial region next to a big glitzy financial center — Hong Kong. Guangdong also shares a border with the booming casino city of Macau.
Macau and Hong Kong have long-established, sophisticated triad groups that have penetrated deep into Guangdong, said Sonny Shiu-Hing Lo, a political science professor at the University of Waterloo in Canada. These partnerships with mainland gangs are growing because organized crime has become more fluid and flexible, based on friendships and the common interest of chasing profits, he said.
"A bad economy may squeeze the economic income of triads and crime groups, but they can adapt easily by engaging in various types of criminal activities like extortion, loan sharking, underground gambling, drugs trafficking," said Lo, author of the new book, "The Politics of Cross-Border Crime in Greater China."
In good times, Lo said, the triads engage in legitimate activities, like investing in property, stocks and restaurants.
That's what Xu and Lin were known to have done before they were arrested, according to the Southern Metropolis Daily, a state-run daily that has provided the most detailed coverage of the case. Citing court documents the paper has described the defendants' rise and fall.
Xu, who had a reputation as a street fighter, and Lin, who was a small-time gambler, met in an illegal casino in 1990 and quickly started working together, it said, with Lin using the younger Xu as his muscle against possible gambling cheats.
Death of a crime boss
The two began stockpiling guns for a gang, and the turning point in their careers came in 1992 when a major Yangjiang crime boss lost a large sum of money to Lin while gambling, the paper said. Xu beat the crime boss up and had to go into hiding.
Two years later Xu invited the boss to a meeting so they could discuss reconciliation. At the meeting, the report said, one of Xu's henchmen shot and killed the crime boss. The killing had a shock-and-awe effect on other gangs, catapulting Xu and Lin to the top of the crime community.
In 1994, they began building their casino network in hotels, resorts and health clubs. Two years later, they moved into Yangjiang's lucrative fishing and ice-making industries. By the time of their arrest in 2007, they controlled 43 companies, dealing in poultry, trucking, sand, cement, among other things, the paper said.
Their arrests came amid a corruption sweep in the province that has taken down several top politicians, but it is unclear if Xu and Lin were targeted as part of this operation.
Some at the courthouse Tuesday had a simple explanation for their arrests.
"They had their hands in everything in this town. They got too big," said one spectator, a housewife who would only give her surname, Chen.
"But now that they might be going to prison, I don't really feel that much safer," the 32-year-old woman said. "Once the big ones get knocked down, the little ones will pop up and take over."