The Hongcouver
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Chinese corruption prosecutors seek death penalty for mother of Wanting Qu, pop star girlfriend of Vancouver’s mayor

Qu Zhang Mingjie is accused of embezzling 350 million yuan in a real estate scam in Harbin, where she was a city official

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 27 July, 2016, 3:05am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 27 July, 2016, 10:32am

Last week, Wanting Qu, the Chinese pop star girlfriend of Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson, released a new song.

Titled Your Girl, the single is dedicated to her mother, Qu Zhang Mingjie. “Though I haven’t been able to talk to her, feel her or reach her in any way in the last two years, I know deep down in my heart, there’s a place that’s warm like the sun and bright like the moon. It’s a place for a daughter like me and a mother like her. I believe that place exists in everyone’s heart. I hope she can hear the song and it gives her love and strength,” the singer said, according to her record label, in a statement released on Wednesday.

Zhang likely needs all the strength she can get.

On the very day that her daughter was paying tribute, Zhang, a former official in Harbin city, was told at her Chinese corruption trial that prosecutors want her executed.

The accusations against Zhang are grave – she is charged with embezzling about 350 million yuan (C$69 million), in a real estate scam that reportedly left hundreds of impoverished farm workers in appalling conditions. The accusations are strongly denied by her defence, which told the July 19-20 trial at the Harbin City Intermediate People’s Court that her confession had been obtained illegally.

According to a lengthy account of the trial by the official Xinhua news agency, the case against Zhang centres on a 2009 deal to transfer control of a state-owned Harbin corn farm into the hands of Harbin Dongjiang Agricultural Technology Co, a private agricultural firm. But Zhang – the city official in charge of the transfer - allegedly conspired with the firm’s representative, Wei Qi, and co-accused Wang Shaoyu to doctor the terms of the sale.

“Zhang deceived, with multiple reasons, the management of the farm and senior officials in charge of the matter into signing a final agreement that included terms on the transfer of the rights of using state-owned land,” Xinhua reported.

It said that Wang – reportedly an acquaintance of Zhang’s who worked as an architecture professor - later represented her to sign a deal with Wei to split hundreds of millions of yuan in profits from their three-year deception in July 2012.

Although the Xinhua account does not clearly explain the exact purpose of the alleged fraud, private outlets covering the trial said the terms of the sale of the farm illegally included its land-use rights; instead of the rights being transferred to various city bodies, they went to Dongjiang. The land rights were then transferred to another company controlled by Wei, Harbin Xianfa Real Estate Development Co, with plans to transform the site into a huge housing project. Harbin Xianfa then hired Wang as general manager and Zhang’s brother, Zhang Mingzhe, as his deputy, thepaper.cn reported. Zhang Mingzhe’s son was also reportedly hired.

Workers ‘left without heating’ in frigid dorms

According to thepaper’s account, the victims of Zhang’s alleged scam were not only the state bodies that were deceived.

They included 420 staff and 146 retired workers who lived in dormitories on the 50-hectare farm.

The Xinhua account alludes to this, saying that Zhang failed to enforce the payment of resettlement fees to the workers, and instead allowed Dongjiang Co “to unlawfully transfer 61.6 million yuan into a bank account which was opened under the name of the farm, which was actually controlled by Dongjiang.”

Thepaper’s account is more stark: it says the live-in workers were offered a pittance in severance – one 20-year employee was given less than 2,000 yuan – and left to suffer in appalling conditions.

After the 2009 deal went through, the farm’s new owner simply stopped paying the workers’ pension insurance, health insurance, and other benefits. Alarmingly, thepaper reported, the boiler room that heated the farm’s dormitory was shut down in 2009, leaving workers to suffer frigid conditions in a province where the January low averages -24 Celsius. The dorm’s frozen water pipes burst. Workers resorted to coal fires to stay warm.

The deprived staff were so far owed more than 11.4million yuan, Xinhua reported.

“The court was told that Zhang had not only breached her duty as a civil servant, but also committed the crimes of embezzling public properties worth an enormous amount of money,” Xinhua reported. “Zhang was also said to have committed the crimes of bribe-taking and abusing authority, leading to a severe loss of public assets.”

In addition to embezzlement, Zhang is accused of taking a 100,000 yuan bribe from subordinate Sun Wenjun, who was Party Secretary of Yushu County, and county chief Liu Xiaoming, “as a reward for her to provide them with a benefit relating to land requisition matters”.

Xinhua said that Zhang and Wang were both subjected to cross-examination.

“Both defendants and their defence teams claimed that the confessions given during investigations had been taken using illegal methods so they should be rendered useless and could not prove that the defendants had committed the crimes,” the report said.

The state-run China Daily newspaper carried only a one-paragraph report of the trial, but included a crucial point omitted by Xinhua: prosecutors concluded by recommending that Zhang Mingjie be sentenced to death.

The case has been adjourned, without a date for a verdict or sentencing.

Wanting Qu did not respond to an interview request lodged with Nettwerk, her Canadian record label.

“I experienced so much emotion, so much confusion, anger, sadness and anxiety,” she said of her mother’s detention in her July 20 press release. “I knew the only way for me to survive was through songwriting, my therapy to stay sane… to hold myself together.”

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The Hongcouver blog is devoted to the hybrid culture of its namesake cities: Hong Kong and Vancouver. All story ideas and comments are welcome. Connect with me by email ian.young@scmp.com or on Twitter, @ianjamesyoung70.