Fugitive official undone by call to his mistress

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 July, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 July, 2006, 12:00am

The former director of Fujian's Bureau of Industry and Commercial, Zhou Jinhuo, planned his escape from China with the care of a character in a John le Carre novel.

He hid in a small town in the southwestern province of Yunnan , which provides many escape routes over the mountains into Myanmar and Thailand.

Using a mainland passport with a false name, he put his pursuers off the trail by planting in the media a false story that he had escaped to the United States, where his wife and daughter have lived for the past 10 years. The China Business News, one of Shanghai's main economic dailies, reported that he had been arrested in Inner Mongolia , apparently as he prepared to escape into Mongolia or Russia. All Zhou had to do was to make the short journey over the border and then board a plane from Bangkok or Yangon en route to New York.

Then he made a fatal slip. Like many top government officials, he had several mistresses.

He knew that his two favourites - one in Fuzhou and one in Hong Kong - were known to the police and had their telephones bugged.

But he thought that number three on his list was not on the police radar and could not resist a call to her, to share the drama of his situation.

He was wrong. Her mobile was also being monitored and, thanks to the call, investigators were able to locate him and, with the help of the Yunnan police, arrest Zhou in late June and take him back to Fuzhou for questioning.

It was a foolish end to a remarkable career. His entry into the party and the government was not through the army, the Communist Youth League or a degree in engineering or economics but the massage couch.

Born in May 1949 in Fuzhou, capital of Fujian province , Zhou went to work as an apprentice at a local medical centre when he was 15. He studied at the province's Chinese medical college, specialising in the treatment of injured bones, and became a masseur at the main provincial hospital in Fuzhou.

His deft fingers and pleasant manner endeared him to his patients, many of them high officials of the party and government, who promoted him to the post of head of a district hospital in 1987. Then he became deputy chief of the district, in charge of health and culture.

His chance to earn big money came in early 1993 when he was made general manager of a property company under the provincial government, which was responsible for building personal villas for the leaders, giving him an opportunity to improve his personal connections even further.

In 1997 he was appointed mayor of Ningde city , a post he held for six years. During this period, he allegedly earned more than 100 million yuan in bribes and kickbacks from developers, thanks to his power to allocate land and approve construction projects.

In one case, he redesignated as urban development land 80 hectares of farmland on the outskirts of Ningde that had been given to 4,000 overseas Chinese in 1965, selling it for 7,000 yuan per mu (0.067 hectare) to his relatives, who resold it at 500,000 yuan a mu.

He arranged for his wife and daughter one-way visas to Hong Kong, from where they emigrated to the United States. Once his wife became a citizen, Zhou obtained a green card, a fact which he had to hide from his superiors because it is illegal for a person of his rank.

Zhou slipped up when he allegedly demanded a bribe of 10 million yuan from a Taiwanese company that wanted to build a project in Ningde. The head of the Taiwanese firm was so enraged that he complained to senior officials of the Kuomintang, who raised the issue during meetings with Communist Party leaders last year. They ordered an investigation into Zhou.

He was interviewed several times in Fuzhou and, in mid-June, when he learned of his imminent arrest, he disappeared.

Officials of the Fuzhou city government and police declined to comment on Zhou's case.