Death of a tyrant

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 January, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 January, 2010, 12:00am

It's early morning and Wang Hou'e is making breakfast in her brick home in a dusty back lane of the suburban village of Xiashuixi, Shanxi province. Wang is 48 years old but her sunken cheeks and wispy hair give her the look of a woman well into her 60s. Her knitted cotton top is stretched out of shape and hangs loosely from her small angular frame

She pours tea into two enamel mugs and places them next to a tin bowl of plain steamed bread. Then she pulls up a plastic chair and produces a slim wallet of photos.

The first picture is of a meek-looking teenager on a bicycle. Then there is a shot of the same boy but younger. Shyly, he is standing to attention in a brightly coloured marching-bandsman's uniform that is far too big for him. After that comes a school photograph with the boy peering sheepishly from the back row.

'My darling child,' Wang sobs. Her bony chest heaves and a tear trickles from the corner of one eye.

In the autumn of 2008, Zhang Xuping - the boy in the pictures - confessed to stabbing to death Xiashuixi's village chief. He was tried on November 26 last year and is now awaiting sentencing. Youths in the mainland have been executed for far less but Zhang has one thing in his favour: a growing tide of public support, which first made him a local legend and is now threatening to turn his case into a national scandal.

Zhang's tale is one of corruption, murder and a gang of criminal thugs headed by the village's Communist Party secretary. This man was a burly individual named Li Shiming, the fourth of six brothers in a powerful family. For a decade the whole village lived in fear of his rapaciousness and violence, until events came to a head in September 2008.

MOUNTAINOUS SHANXI is the mainland's coal-mining heartland and its capital, Taiyuan, lies in the broad valley that bisects the province from north to south. Xiashuixi is in the district of Lishi, 130 kilometres to the southwest of Taiyuan, in Luliang prefecture.

The first stage of the journey to the village from Taiyuan runs south, the route flanked on both sides by a terraced landscape of undulating loess. Here and there, rows of traditional cave dwellings perforate the dusty hillsides like holes in a termite mound. Trucks heaped with coal clog the highway. A brown haze hangs in the air over a sepia terrain.

Then the road cuts west; out of the valley and up into the mountains. The air clears. Settlements become fewer and the land turns green. Once over a pass in the ridge of the Luliang mountain range the road begins to drop. Then the blue and white towers and conveyor belts of a huge coal-processing plant on the edge of Lishi City appear around a bend of the valley.

It is apparent that the effects of the country's economic boom have spread from the coastal provinces this far inland. In the city centre, a neat row of red-roofed commercial buildings lines one of the well-constructed embankments of the river Dongchuan. Shiny cars crowd the streets and the police cruise around in Toyota SUVs.

Construction is going on everywhere; a railway snaking in from Taiyuan is months away from completion; arched bridges are being laid across the river; the concrete frames of future apartment blocks skirt the hillside and curve northwards up an adjoining valley into Xiashuixi.

It was here, on the edge of this burgeoning city, that farmer Zhang Waixin once owned two hectares, on which he grew corn and, along the margins, planted birch trees. Today, the 58-year-old lives in a temporary workers' shack on the side of the hill. A thin man with wiry hair, Zhang welcomes visitors into his home with sunflower seeds and green tea.

One day, in October 2004, when he went to tend his crops, he found Li Shiming and two brothers bulldozing his trees with a fork- lift truck. The three men attacked him with fists and clubs when he tried to intervene. He says he was hospitalised for a month. After recovering from his injuries, he found his property had been cleared and marked out for a housing development.

'In the end he beat my whole family. He beat my wife. He beat my son. And he beat my daughter-in-law. All four of us he put into hospital,' says Zhang. 'When he wasn't beat- ing people with his own hands there were his brothers. He also had more than 30 other thugs to call up when he needed them.'

Li Wenbin says he was another of Li Shiming's victims. Goons employed by the party chief attacked him one day when he was mixing cement on another coveted plot. He spent four months in hospital with injuries that included a broken hipbone.

'The harm I suffered was light compared with that inflicted on some of the many other people whose land he stole,' Li Wenbin says. 'In the end the whole village was left choking on its silent hatred towards him.'

Zhang Waixin, Wang and eight other villagers interviewed estimate that between 2000 and 2008, Li Shiming illegally seized some 30 hectares of valuable farmland. The village chief usually began by destroying trees, an action that should have required permission from the State Forestry Administration. Once the trees were out of the way, Li and other local officials could write out purchase orders and grant themselves planning permission, although compensation to the person with the rightful claim on the land was often not given. When a deprived person protested, he or she was subjected to enough violence to ensure the complaint was never repeated. Many villagers refused to be interviewed for this report. Some said they had never heard of Li Shiming.

Yan Yuanming worked for the Lishi Commission for Inspecting Discipline - the government department charged with fighting corruption - before he was forced out of his job three years ago. He says he has been arrested for speaking out before but he agrees to talk.

'This man used loopholes in the law, together with violence and intimidation, to rob land from the people and enrich himself,' says Yan. 'When he wasn't using political channels he relied on friends in the world of organised crime. On top of this, he drove around in a police car.'

Wang and her family suffered particularly badly from the predations of the party boss. In September 2002, she joined a group of 24 farmers intending to protest in Taiyuan after some 24,000 trees had been destroyed on their land as a prelude to one of Li's land grabs. Police arrested the villagers before they could leave Lishi. They identified Wang as the group leader and threw her into prison, where she spent a year. She says she was beaten by her warders every three days at Li's behest and locked in leg shackles for up to a week at a time. Her health suffered and she contracted tuberculosis.

Wang says Li used his influence to have 13-year-old Zhang Xuping expelled from school on the day of her release from prison. One of Li's brothers drove the boy back to the family home. The school said poor academic performance was the reason for its action.

Wang's son spent two years as a serving boy in a restaurant before drifting into petty crime. In 2005, he was jailed for a year for acting as a lookout for a gang of thieves. While in prison he was tortured and tried to kill himself.

Today, Wang and her family live on the margins of Xiashuixi, in conditions very different to the prosperity that was taken from them. There is one tap inside their crumbling home and few items of furniture other than beds. Outside there is a small garden and an open lavatory, where maggots writhe in the summer. Wang's husband, Zhang Youyuan, brings in most of the household's income by selling waste plastic picked from other people's rubbish. Wang supplements this by selling medicinal herbs gathered from the hillsides.

Wang says that because she persisted in seeking justice, her family was subjected to continued violence and harassment. In one episode, thugs repeatedly attacked and overturned a fruit stall she ran in the village, forcing her to abandon it. Another time, a separate set of youths kicked and punched her daughter as she rode her bicycle to school. After that, her expelled brother escorted his little sister to class in a taxi.

In another incident, Wang was assaulted by the party secretary of Fengshan - the township-level administrative division directly above the village of Xiashuixi and below Lishi, according to the mainland's governmental structure - when she went to report two illegal coke furnaces that an associate of Li had constructed less than 50 metres from her house. Wang says the force of the blow delivered to her head left her with tinnitus. After being beaten she was again imprisoned; this time for 18 days.

Wang and other villagers repeatedly use the phrase baohu san (protective umbrella) when recounting their stories. It refers to the network of senior officials Wang says Li paid off with his ill-gotten gains. Often this was in the form of a share in his Xiashuixi property developments. In return, she says, Li's superiors shielded him from prosecution.

Yan supports this theory: 'Corrupt officials in Lishi have formed a mutually protective network. They will take revenge on anybody who threatens their interests. It's a horrible situation and it's leading us to disaster.'

Wang and other villagers identify one senior official that Li routinely paid off as Wang Qiuyun, Lishi's former chief of police. Like other city officials, he owned properties in Xiashuixi. Li was close enough to Wang Qiuyun to be nicknamed Wang's deputy.

Last year, Wang Qiuyun was jailed for six years for corruption. His proven crimes included land thefts like those of Li and running an illegal two-floor gambling den 100 metres from the Lishi police headquarters. He was also convicted of loan sharking; when his debtors did not pay, he would put them in prison until they came up with the money.

'Hu [Jintao] and Wen [Jiabao], the two leaders of our country today, are good people. I saw their reaction to the earthquake on television and I was deeply moved,' says Wang Hou'e. 'But the mountains are high and the emperor is far away. Our city is a dark place. Here, there is not one upright official.'

Lawyer Li Boguang specialises in challenging the illegal seizure by local officials of farmland at the edge of burgeoning cities. He has travelled to 20 provinces to tackle what he says is a rampant and growing problem.

'Our leaders are not elected and that's why they can take the law and chuck it in the bin,' he says. 'They don't answer to the people so they can ignore any appeals or protests from below. They're accountable only to their superiors, whom they can bribe with the huge profits they gain from robbing the people of their land.'

Another way of snuffing out protest is to use thugs to beat up and even murder protestors.

'Blatant disregard of the law by local officials doesn't just harm farmers, who have no way of resisting,' the lawyer says. 'This corruption damages the authority of the government. It constitutes the biggest challenge to the legitimacy of the rule of the Communist Party.'

However, not everyone is so alarmist. Mao Shoulong is a professor of governance at Beijing's Renmin University and an adviser to the government on anti-corruption matters. He is keen to point out recent improvements, such as the thousands of arrests on corruption charges that have been made each year for the past decade. Many of them, such as those of former Shanghai party chief Chen Liangyu, which resulted in an 18-year prison sentence, and Shenzhen mayor Xu Zhongheng, have been highly publicised. 'This is certainly a great achievement,' he says.

Mao also cites government reforms. These include greater transparency in the process for awarding public-works contracts and the introduction of an open and transparent examination system for the recruitment and promotion of cadres. Then there is the growing use of the internet to expose the misdeeds of offi- cials. 'This, I think, means the future in the fight against corruption is extremely bright,' says Mao.

On one point Li Boguang and Mao agree: that injustice and brutality are inevitable as the mainland is propelled from a system of common land ownership to one of private property under a legal system that is far from developed.

'We're at the robber-baron phase in our development of capitalism; the same as Russia,' says Li. 'Our tragedy is that a generation of workers and peasants must be sacrificed, in the same way that Western countries sacrificed two generations to build the system they have today.'

Even if the mainland had enough experienced judges, lawyers and bureaucrats, Mao says, there would still be problems.

'You've got a system of farming small landholdings. It's a system that can only provide a subsistence living and has no future. Then you've got the system you want to achieve ... urban living and commercial developments. These developments employ the people who used to farm the land and pay them much better than the living they scraped before. How are you going to compensate those farmers for the loss of their land?

'If you compensate them with a lump sum they will likely fritter it away because they don't understand how to use capital. Then they will feel cheated when it is gone. If their compensation was calculated using what they were making on the land as subsistence farmers - which was very low - they will feel cheated when they compare this to the money being made by the commercial development, because they don't understand the investment and risk that was involved. If, on the other hand, you give them a share in the profits of the commercial development and it subsequently fails, they will once again feel cheated.'

Mao recommends farmers use the media for defence. 'Even threats of violence from gangsters will melt away when exposed,' he says.

Although that did not happen in Xiashuixi. Between 2001 and 2005, at least 10 local newspapers reported on the land abuses of Li Shiming. This pressure led him to resign as head of the Village Neighbourhood Committee but he was succeeded by his elder brother, Li Mingze, who held the post from 2003 to 2006. From 2006 until his death, Li Shiming was Xiashuixi's branch secretary of the Communist Party; in other words, the village chief.

Li Boguang, who will not speak in his office because he says it's too dangerous, advises farmers to get a good human-rights lawyer - if they can find one; in the run up to October's 60th anniversary of the founding of the people's republic, the government cracked down on public-interest law firms. Last summer, officials raided the offices of prominent civil-rights firm Open Constitution Initiative. Two weeks later its leader, Xu Zhiyong, was arrested.

Yan offers his explanation of how the situation in Xiashuixi was finally resolved: 'Li [Shiming] blocked legal channels and he blocked political channels. In the end there was only one channel of recourse open to the villagers.'

Wang Hou'e will always remember where she was on September 23, 2008.

'I had been at home all day when a neighbour came rushing in,' Wang says. 'He shouted, 'Li Shiming is dead! Somebody killed him!' I thought, 'Heaven and Earth! This piece of scum who has made victims of us all for so many years! A valiant person has delivered us from evil.'

'When I went outside I could hear firecrackers. People were rushing around telling each other. Some were literally dancing for joy.'

A week later, hundreds of Lishi party offi- cials arrived to honour Li at his funeral. On the same day, Wang learned her son had been taken into custody.

The events of the day of the murder began with Zhang Xuping receiving a phone call from another victim of Li's land grabs, a member of the failed 2002 bid to protest in Taiyuan called Zhang Huping. The farmer had spotted Li Shiming's car outside a school. He deduced the party boss was holding a meeting inside.

The teenager rushed to the scene, where he was met by Zhang Huping and given a tracksuit, a hat and running shoes; all of them black. After he had changed into the clothes, Zhang Huping handed him 1,000 yuan (HK$1,135) and a knife. Then the youth entered the school, found the tormentor of his family alone and stabbed him through the heart.

While Zhang Xuping vaulted a back wall and fled, Li Shiming staggered into the playground, clutching the single, 13cm-deep wound in his chest. He managed to haul his bulky frame into his luxury Audi SUV. But he was dead long before he could be driven to hospital.

Yan is more literary than most in his take on the episode: 'Li Shiming's fate is a judgment to be heeded by corrupt officials. Evil is repaid with evil. Good comes from good. If not today then certainly hereafter. The net of heaven has large gaps but it lets nothing through. Corrupt government injures the people. For the people this was certainly a great service.'

Less-educated villagers offer more down-to-earth verdicts.

'Li Shiming beat my nephew until his face split open,' says 53-year-old villager Li Wencai. 'When I saw him his whole head was a bloody mess. We had to pay 30,000 yuan to get him fixed at the hospital. You don't know what we went through. You don't know what kind of man Li Shiming was so I will tell you; he was a tyrant. He deserved to die.'

Although regarded by many as a hero, Zhang Xuping has confessed to his crime and as recently as five years ago, a swift trial and execution would have been a virtual certainty. Yet there are twists to the saga of Xiashuixi.

In the classic Song dynasty novel Water Margin, there is an episode in which the emperor pardons an upright man who rids his village of a bad official after a mass of citizens sign a petition testifying to the slain mandarin's wickedness. Similar stories pepper Chinese history.

Last winter, Zhang Xuping's older brother, Zhang Huping (no relation to the aggrieved farmer who paid to have Li Shiming killed), saw one such '10,000 name defence' featured in one of the many popular historical soap operas on mainland television. The elder brother started his own petition. He had gathered 20,996 signatures from Xiashuixi and surrounding villages when Zhang Xuping's lawyer handed it to the judge presiding over his trial in November. The judge dismissed the document as invalid and ordered the lawyer not to produce it again but that does not mean it has had no influence on the killer's trial.

In April 2008, the nation's most senior judge, Wang Shengjun, urged colleagues across the nation to take 'the will of the people' into consideration when passing sentences for crimes that could warrant the death penalty. A court in Hubei province obeyed this directive in a high-profile case last June, when it acquitted a 21-year-old pedicurist who had stabbed to death an official who tried to force her to have sex.

At New York University, criminal law researcher Yu Ping points out that Judge Wang's instruction amounts to a revival of the imperial petition system.

'The idea is the same; to open a channel for direct communication between the public and the highest authority,' he says. 'These days, there is no doubt that a petition that is big enough will influence a court.'

On August 25 - the day that Zhang Xuping was initially due to be tried at the People's Intermediate Court of Luliang - the will of the people made itself felt in a more tangible form. More than 1,000 people showed up to support the teenager and tried to cram into the court building. The judge reacted by ordering a postponement; standard procedure when the authorities fear a riot.

The murder trial went ahead on November 26, with more than 100 armed police in attendance.

The case became national news. The China Youth Daily, for example, ran an 8,700 character report of the case on December 2. Later, the Global Times ran an editorial headlined, 'Why would 20,000 people sign a petition asking for a murderer to be pardoned?'

Internet discussion of the case has mushroomed. Last summer, an internet search for pages containing both 'Zhang Xuping' and 'Li Shiming' yielded only one page; the Web log of Wang Hou'e. Today the same search yields more than 21,000 pages.

At the discretion of a judge, a prison sentence for a murder conviction could be as short as three years. Also, under mainland law, Zhang's sentence should be passed within 45 days of his trial.

'We are a humble household without the means to buy the favourable decision of a judge,' says Wang, who knows her son may yet be executed. 'I just want my son to come home. To influence his sentence we can only look to the people's will.'