Zhang Huping

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 February, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 February, 2010, 12:00am

A SHANXI CHILDHOOD When I was a child, our family owned half an acre of land on the hillside overlooking our village [Xiashuixi], where my brother and me used to spend days in the summer. Xuping is five years younger than me and in the school holidays we were together every day. I was the only one he would listen to.

He was only 15 when he was [first] sent to prison, in 2005. He had been acting as lookout for a gang of thieves and in total they stole perhaps 400 yuan [HK$450]. People in our village said there was no call to punish him so severely. But [village chief] Li Shiming made sure my brother went to jail.

THE TYRANT Li was an official who had grown rich from land grabs in our village. He had hated our family ever since my mother tried to lead a group of his victims to appeal in our provincial capital, Taiyuan, in 2002. One of those in Li's pay was the head of correctional services for our district. He had received a house worth 300,000 yuan from Li. In prison, he had my brother beaten every day.

Xuping was too young to take so many beatings. After a few months he slashed his wrists, although he didn't die because they rushed him to hospital. When he came out after one year in prison, he had changed. He never spoke to me about trying to kill himself but you could see something had happened to him because he didn't smile anymore. Looking back, I can see that something inside him had snapped.

On January 13, my brother was sentenced to death for murdering Li. The killing, which took place in September 2008, made him a local hero. The whole village - not just my family - suffered under Li for more than seven years. He had my mother thrown into prison after her 2002 attempted protest at the confiscation of our plot. There, she too was tortured. Weeks after Li died, a government team came to investigate his illegal seizure of more than 70 acres [28 hectares] of land in Xiashuixi. But they disbanded and went away without explanation. Li had given properties in his commercial developments to many local officials. Leaders around here are only ever prosecuted for corruption when they fall out with other party officials.

A LETTER TO THE EMPEROR The police took my brother a week after Li was killed and for a week after that we waited for Li's thugs to come and take revenge. He always had men around him and they would beat the people who got in his way. But they never came. Then some neighbours came calling. 'We have to join hands to save this child,' they said. I had seen a petition addressed to the emperor in a costume drama on television and that's where we got the idea to put together one of our own. Several hundred farmers from Xiashuixi agreed to sign. Then I started going to neighbouring villages.

To begin with, I thought a few thousand signatures would be enough. [Luckily], at the time, the villages in our county were holding local committee elections. When I approached the places where locals were waiting to vote, they were very eager to help me. Many had heard of Li and many hated him. They brought over a table and red ink. And after that they queued up to sign and add their thumbprints. In the end there were only two villages where I had to go from door to door; for the rest, I simply had to make sure I arrived before voting started at 8am.

Li's men started looking out for me when it became widely known that I was raising a petition. Friends in other villages would call to say, 'You can't come around here because they've put your photo out and they're waiting for you.' I was threatened but never beaten. Li's killing dismayed his men and they lost their courage. I managed to gather nearly 21,000 signatures in less than two months, even though there were many villages where I didn't dare to go.

THE TRIAL The weather was very hot on the August day last year that my brother's trial was scheduled for. At 6am, hundreds of people had arrived at the city courthouse and were trying to get in. Some had personally suffered at Li's hands. Others knew about the case and took the day off work to show support. At 8am, traffic on the roads near the building was brought to a halt. Riot police arrived and ordered the crowd to disperse. But, with thousands of people, they didn't dare attack. After a two-hour stand-off, the judge announced the trial would be postponed.

They were better prepared when the trial finally went ahead, at the end of November. Armed police closed off the courthouse and only the family members of those involved could enter. Nobody was allowed to testify in the trial. The only evidence came from statements. The judges ordered my petition to be put away when it was produced. When we spoke about Li's corruption, none of them listened. The trial ended on the same day and no sentence was passed.

WORKING ON THE OUTSIDE I gave up my job as a steelworker the day after Xuping was arrested. Consulting our lawyer, appealing to higher authorities and seeking publicity have kept me busy and it would not have been possible to get enough time off if I had kept on at work.

A television crew from Shanghai arrived in our village after the trial made it into the newspapers. They spent two days shooting an hour-long documentary but it was never shown. In the end they said their studio chief had come under pressure and ordered it to be pulled. A producer from China Central Television also called but he, too, could not get approval. I've had more luck with the international media.

On the day that we were given the sentence my mother broke down. I felt like the ground beneath my feet was collapsing. But I said to her, 'Don't cry because we still have hope.' We've only seen him once - on the day of his trial - since he was arrested and we don't really know for sure that he did it. There were irregularities in his confession and the murder weapon produced did not match the wounds on Li's body. We still have an appeal at provincial level and after that a review by the Supreme [People's] Court in Beijing.

But if he did it, we all owe him because we all suffered so much under Li. Many have said they would have killed him. I've been living on money borrowed from friends for well over a year but I'd do it all again for my brother. Not just because I love him but because he saved us all when he took that knife and drove it through the tyrant's heart.