Chongqing Revisited

Doubts cast on story of cash stash in Wen Qiang's fish pond

In the fourth and final part of our Revisiting Chongqing series, doubt is cast on charges that saw ex-police chief Wen Qiang executed

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 03 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 03 January, 2013, 8:51am

The story of the piles of cash found buried beneath former Chongqing police chief Wen Qiang's fish pond was frequently used to justify the massive anti-triad drive led by his successor, Wang Lijun.

The 20 million yuan (HK$24.5 million) stash was discovered in the pond owned by Wen, the biggest catch in a crackdown that helped Wang and his political patron, disgraced former Chongqing Communist Party secretary Bo Xilai , earn tremendous political capital.

The huge find, first revealed by a Beijing-backed Hong Kong newspaper days before Wen was formally arrested in September 2009 and then put on public display in Chongqing, became the final nail in his coffin.

Wen, who was replaced by Wang in June 2008, was executed in 2010 for corruption, property scams, rape and serving as the "protective umbrella" for organised crime.

Wang was jailed for 15 years in September for bribery, bending the law, abuse of power and attempted defection.

Since then, several people, including former police officers, have come forward to challenge the fish pond story, saying it was simply fabricated by Wang to incriminate Wen and help consolidate Bo's grip on power.

"Wen had nothing to do with it," said one Chongqing businessman familiar with the case. "The money was actually borrowed from a local business just a day before Wang invited the media to see the so-called evidence."

He said police buried the bundles of cash, carefully wrapped in waterproof paper, in the morning and then dug them up in front of the cameras that afternoon.

Another key piece of evidence used to convict Wen - two luxury villas worth more than 30 million yuan that Wen allegedly owned - has also been questioned.

A former senior police officer in Chongqing who was close to Wen insisted he was the real owner of the villas, where Wen allegedly kept mistresses and which were later turned into destinations for "anti-graft education" tours.

The former officer, who was also purged during the crackdown, produced property certificates showing he had bought about 1.3 hectares of land in the 1990s and built the villas with the help of his businesswoman wife.

Following the downfall of Bo - who has been accused of graft and abuse of power - and Wang, many others have spoken out about the lawless nature of their controversial crusade against organised crime, which snared nearly 6,000 people, including billionaire business executives, senior cadres, lawyers and gang bosses.

It is not known whether the mainland authorities will reopen the cases of Wen and many others allegedly wronged in the crackdown, redress their grievances and re-examine what happened in Chongqing during the four years that Bo ran the municipality.

In the eyes of his former colleagues, acquaintances and people who claim to be victims of the crackdown, Wang was a man of many faces whose dark side was hidden from outsiders.

He was one of Bo's most trusted aides and one of Chongqing's deputy mayors until his dramatic flight to the US consulate in Chengdu in February after Bo stripped him of his duties as Chongqing's police chief and reassigned him to another portfolio. That unleashed the worst political scandal on the mainland in decades and led to the downfall of Bo, once a front-runner for a top leadership position.

Like Bo, Wang was image-conscious and manipulative, craved media attention and is best remembered for his brash, ambitious and flamboyant style.

Obsessed with his public image, he hired more than 20 photographers to take his picture wherever he went. Local government sources said his retinue - including personal aides, chefs and bodyguards - totalled nearly 200 people.

While the belated revelations have provided important details about what really happened in Chongqing under Bo, who was sacked in March, an important chapter remains missing, with Bo himself a conspicuous omission from such stories.

Many people remain reluctant or unable to explain Bo's role in the scandal, from why he hand-picked Wang to lead the crackdown in Chongqing, to his involvement in his wife's murder of a British businessman and the exact circumstances behind his falling out with Wang.

Bo's wife, Gu Kailai , was given a suspended death sentence in August for the murder. Wang was credited with blowing the whistle on the murder case and implicating Bo and Gu in other crimes.

When Bo will stand trial remains unclear, as does the penalty he could face.

Wang reportedly kept a relatively low profile for a few weeks after he was parachuted into Chongqing by Bo in June 2008. But many observers said he grew eccentric, short-tempered and self-indulgent soon after becoming Bo's point-man in the anti-triad crusade.

Many of his former colleagues described him as a maverick with little respect for written rules and precedent.

Wang was meticulous about how he should be presented in the mass media and was most particular about his appearance, the sources said, with a penchant for luxury watches and expensive, Italian-tailored suits.

Wang's brash, flamboyant style ruffled feathers among Chongqing officials, and especially among colleagues bitter about his tight grip on the police and his relentless persecution of anyone who disobeyed his orders.

Some of the rules he rolled out for the force verged on the bizarre. For example, even officers in remote suburbs were required to take turns to travel a long way to eat at a special canteen. They had to line up for food and were banned from chatting.

"No one was allowed to talk or take phone calls while eating," one officer recalled. "It felt more like torture because we could be subject to serious disciplinary penalties if we're caught by duty officers patrolling with hand-held cameras."

Over the years, hundreds of officers who made minor mistakes, including some who worked closely with Wang, were subjected to various forms of punishment, ranging from demerits to demotion, sacking or even detention.

Sources said more than 2,000 Chongqing police officers who were sidelined by Wang had appealed for their cases to be re-examined, with about half reinstated or under review.

After ordering all police in leadership roles to step down from their positions and reapply through so-called open recruitment in 2010 in the name of combating corruption, Wang allegedly filled dozens of key posts with confidants from his power base in Liaoning and elsewhere.

Wang often claimed to be an expert in the arts, literature and architecture. He boasted of some 150 patents, ranging from book clips to police uniforms, boots and raincoats.

He also claimed to be a guest professor at nearly 30 mainland universities and to have published numerous research papers on forensic anatomy, but several police sources said it was all a bluff and he did not pen those papers himself.

They will chew me up and when they can't taste anything, they will spit me out onto the ground, and God knows whose shoes I will be sticking to by that time

Wang, who purports to be a Mongol and is a self-proclaimed martial arts expert, often bragged about nabbing criminals in Tieling , Liaoning, where he first attracted the attention of Bo, who was the province's governor from 2000 to 2004.

Starting as a traffic policeman in the 1980s, Wang rose to national fame after a television drama series, Iron-Blooded Police Spirits, was made in the 1990s based on his crime-busting stories.

Scriptwriter Zhou Lijun said Wang had a taste for the theatrical and the ostentatious, which came through in the television series.

But a deep sense of insecurity was apparently ingrained in Wang's mind early on. He once said he was as disposable as chewing gum in an official's mouth, Zhou recalled in his blog.

"They will chew me up and when they can't taste anything, they will spit me out onto the ground, and God knows whose shoes I will be sticking to by that time," he told Zhou in the 1990s.

Police sources said Wang lived in constant fear and paranoia. He wore a bullet-proof vest and slept in a different location every night after gangs put out a hit order on him in 2009.

Wang prided himself in having the nerve to chat with criminals on death row, hours before their execution, including Wen.

Although Wang has refused to reveal details of their last conversation, Wen has been widely quoted as expressing defiance and disappointment about the way he was treated.

"You'll meet the same fate as me," he told Wang.