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'Red terror': Bo Xilai's crime crackdown deepens China scandal

As Bo Xilai, the dismissed Chongqing party chief, becomes immersed in an ever-more tangled scandal, disturbing details are emerging about his crusade against organized crime on which he built a national reputation.
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/ Source: The New York Times

As Bo Xilai, the dismissed Chongqing party chief, becomes immersed in an ever-more tangled scandal, disturbing details are emerging about one of his best-known initiatives, a crusade against organized crime on which he built a national reputation.

Since Mr. Bo was fired last month after a scandal involving his police chief, a starkly different picture of his sweeping campaign to break up organized gangs — called da hei, or smash black — is coming into focus. Once hailed as a pioneering effort to wipe out corruption, critics now say it depicts a security apparatus run amok: framing victims, extracting confessions through torture, extorting business empires and visiting retribution on the political rivals of Mr. Bo and his friends while protecting those with better connections.

“Even by Chinese Communist Party standards, this is unacceptable,” said Cheng Li, an analyst of the Chinese leadership at the Brookings Institution. “This is red terror.”

Intent on maintaining a facade of unity during a leadership transition, many of China’s rulers until recently heaped praise on Mr. Bo’s initiatives. Of the nine members of the Standing Committee of the Politburo, China’s ruling body, six have made the pilgrimage to Chongqing since 2009.

President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao pointedly did not go. And at a news conference this month, Mr. Wen issued what many called a veiled condemnation of Mr. Bo’s policies, warning that “the mistakes of the Cultural Revolution” have yet to be “fully eliminated.”

Fighting corruption was part of a muscular effort by Mr. Bo to thrust himself into the national limelight, and onto the Politburo’s Standing Committee, with splashy initiatives and political grandstanding that were alien to the rest of China’s mostly monochrome leaders. He aggressively promoted a retro-Maoist culture, summoning citizens to sing old nationalist songs and don red garments, strengthening his hand among influential left-wing nationalists.

Da hei, begun in June 2009, was Mr. Bo’s crown jewel, a strike against the corruption and law-flouting in China’s governing and business classes that ordinary Chinese deeply resent. It helped win Mr. Bo a national reputation as “a guy who gets things done,” Mr. Li of the Brookings Institution said.

In 10 months, 4,781 people were arrested, including business executives, police officers, judges, legislators and others accused of running or protecting criminal syndicates. In one celebrated case, Chongqing’s top justice official, found to have buried $3 million beneath a fish pond, was shot in July 2010, one of 13 da hei defendants who were executed.

Mr. Bo dismissed criticism of his hardball tactics. “There are still some small waves out there,” he said in August 2010. “The crackdown involves so many dark forces, has hurt so many people and affected the interests of so many groups. How can there be no conflicts?”

'Obvious violations of the law'
The campaign’s overlord was Wang Lijun, Mr. Bo’s police chief and, now, the force behind Mr. Bo’s downfall. Mr. Wang caused an international incident last month when he sought refuge in a United States consulate, apparently fearing for his safety. Details that have surfaced in the past week indicate that, in part, he feared retaliation after telling Mr. Bo that his family was linked to an inquiry into the death of a British citizen, Neil Heywood, who was an acquaintance of Mr. Bo’s family.

Some caught up in the da hei crackdown say they find it ironic that the party is just now investigating whether Mr. Bo flouted the law. They argue that his da hei crusade ignored legal restraints with impunity for two years.

Examples are not hard to find. Gong Gangmo, 48, a motorbike mogul, and Fan Qihang, 40, a construction entrepreneur, were charged with a string of felonies that included ordering the murder of a man after a nightclub fight. Both claimed innocence.

In an interview videotaped before his death, Mr. Fan said he had been secretly confined in a military reserve camp for five months and shackled to an iron bar — once, for five days straight — with only his toes touching a table. His handcuffs cut so deeply into his wrists that his guards once needed an hour to remove them.

Mr. Fan said he had tried to kill himself by beating his head against the concrete wall and by biting off the tip of his tongue, injuries supported by medical records. His lawyer, Zhu Mingyong, said he had seen only a few pages of the prosecution’s voluminous file. Even so, “There were so many obvious violations of the law, you don’t even have to look for them,” he said. Mr. Fan was found guilty and executed in July, 2010.

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His co-defendant, Mr. Gong, underwent similar torture, according to his lawyer, Li Zhuang, and his medical records also documented wrist scars. But any chance to exclude his confession vanished after Mr. Gong suddenly accused Li Zhuang of advising him to lie about being tortured. Li Zhuang said Mr. Gong had turned on him to spare himself from execution.

Li Zhuang was convicted of suborning perjury just 18 days after his arrest. Upon appeal, with no hope of justice, he said he wrote a confession, but began his paragraphs with words that combined to read “forced to confess.” His 18-month sentence scared other private attorneys away from da hei cases.

He Weifang, a Peking University law professor, said the case “sets China’s legal reform back 30 years.”

'I just wanted to die'
One of the wealthiest magnates ensnared in the purges was Li Jun, a Chongqing real estate mogul. Like hundreds of other private business executives, he said during 16 hours of interviews this month, he became a target of police, government and military officials who framed him as a “black society” boss.

He eventually lost control of his $711 million conglomerate and fled the country, branded a fugitive. Before his escape, he said, he endured three months of beatings, torture and relentless pressure to implicate others in nonexistent crimes.

He said his tormentors sought to confiscate his assets and extract a confession that could help frame rivals of Mr. Bo’s powerful ally in the military, Gen. Zhang Haiyang, now the political commissar of China’s nuclear forces.

Li Jun buttressed his account with photos taken at a secret detention facility and with binders of legal documents signed by military and police officials. A scholar of Chinese politics at Columbia University, Andrew Nathan, authenticated five documents supporting his claims of innocence.

Li Jun’s troubles began within a year after Mr. Bo’s appointment. A subsidiary of his company won a $50 million public bid for a hilly tract of land outside Chongqing. The seller was one of China’s five regional military commands, he said, led at the time by General Zhang.

In December 2009, under orders signed by the police chief, Mr. Wang, Li Jun was detained on suspicion of more than a dozen crimes, including organizing prostitution, usury, contract fraud, bid-rigging and bribery. He was bound to a “tiger bench,” a medieval-style iron seat with a straight back and a grooved bottom, and was kicked, pummeled and berated for 40 straight hours. At that point, he said, “I just wanted to die.”

A top military interrogator presented Li Jun with a list of more than 20 military officers, apparently rivals of Mr. Bo’s ally General Zhang, and accused him of bribing 2 of them to win the bid on the tract of land. “Don’t you see?” he said his interrogator finally told him. “Bo Xilai and Political Commissar Zhang are friends who grew up together. You are being framed. ”

Li Jun said he refused to confess. Finally, in March 2010, he was released and cleared of wrongdoing after paying the military command a $6.1 million fine. But after a police prostitution sting against a club he owned that October, he received a tip that he would be rearrested, and fled the country.

Thirty-one relatives and colleagues have since been jailed. His wife served a one-year sentence for aiding his flight. His elder brother was sentenced to 18 years in prison, his nephew 13 years. He had transferred ownership of his company to them in an attempt to shield it.

“It’s just like some new kind of Cultural Revolution,” he said. “Chongqing strikes down the landlords, redistributes the land and slaps a bad name on your head, ‘triad,’ from which you can never be freed.”

This story, "," originally appeared in The New York Times.