South China Morning Post, April 11, 2010

The 'hotpot' culture that gives Chongqing its murky image


It is Sunday afternoon in Chongqing's bustling central business district, which is buzzing with activity as shoppers, tourists and workers stroll past high-end shops circling the city's landmark Liberation Monument. Several policemen are busy tapping away at computers at an outdoor police kiosk, which is covered by a large umbrella and surrounded by several police cars and motorcycles. Policemen - red lights flashing from their white reflective vests - can be seen patrolling the streets in pairs, a rarity in mainland cities.

The beefed-up police presence is said to be the brainchild of Wang Lijun , the new no-nonsense police chief, who was brought here from Liaoning province by former boss and now Chongqing party secretary Bo Xilai . The kiosks, which were set up throughout the city several months ago, are the front line in the unprecedented campaign against crime that began 10 months ago, dubbed dahei, or 'strike black', a reference to the Chinese word for underworld crime, black societies.

Talk to the average person in Chongqing and the response is unanimous.

'Chongqing is a lot safer since Bo Xilai came,' Liu Ying, a medical doctor, says as she walks across a street. 

'Things have got a lot better since Bo took charge,' a real estate salesman says. In the past there was a lot of petty crime and fights, and even public buses were controlled by gangs. 'That doesn't happen any more,' he says.

Catherine Chen, a local journalist, says: 'Now the police are at an accident scene within 10 minutes. I can see them everywhere on the street and I feel safer. More and more people are talking about this.' 

The crackdown, which has netted more than 3,300 people so far, has seen dozens of officials sentenced to prison terms, the confiscation of thousands of weapons, and some nine death sentences passed. The focus has been on senior government officials in what is known as the gongjianfa system, which includes public security, the procuratorate and the court system.

The biggest official to fall is Wen Qiang , a former deputy police chief and head of the city's justice bureau, who was accused of accepting payments for police promotions, providing a political umbrella to protect gangs and raping a college student. 

According to the state media, Wen accepted tens of millions of yuan in bribes, including 181 bottles of vintage wine, 80 pieces of jewellery and watches, 36 works of art, nine relics and 69 paintings, including a painting by the late master artist Zhang Daqian . The former official received a life sentence.

Former police chief Peng Changjian was also handed a life sentence for protecting 'mafia-style' gangs. 

One of the most interesting convictions was that of Wen's sister-in-law, Xie Caiping , known as 'the godmother' of the Chongqing underground. Xie ran a string of gambling parlours, including one opposite the high court building. Tongues wagged because she was also said to have kept a harem of 16 young men. She was given 18 years in prison.

The titillating revelations - unusual on the mainland - of official corruption, gang violence and sex that emerged from the trials rocked the city and created a national stir.

China has a history of underworld crime dating back to the Qing dynasty. The phenomenon died out after the communists came to power in 1949, but soon returned under the mainland's economic reform and opening in the 1980s. 

Chongqing was a sleepy port until a little over a decade ago, when construction of the Three Gorges Dam, two days boat ride down the Yangtze River, and the 'go west' strategy brought a lot of investment to the hilly city overlooking the country's longest river.

Many say the rise of organised crime is an extension of what is called matou wenhua, or wharf culture, a trend that goes back to the heady days when small cargo ships plying the river stopped at the docks. The boatmen and boat pullers formed close connections working on the river and dining together over Chongqing's signature spicy hotpots. 

'This code of brotherhood and personal loyalty are a part of Chinese culture,' says He Bingsong, a professor of criminal science at the China University of Political Science and Law. 'People are subconsciously affected by this whether they know it or not.'

While boatmen and boat pullers have long ceased to be a part of the more modern Chongqing docks, this mindset of a fraternity of brotherhood remains strong in the minds of Chongqing people, permeating the ranks of the police and government officials. With economic growth, it did not take too long before these connections spawned illegal business dealings.

Ding Rong, a Buddhist monk at the Wenquan Temple on the outskirts of Chongqing, who has been fighting corrupt bureaucrats infringing on the 1,600-year-old temple's land to build a modern spa, also points to Chongqing's traditional wharf culture, saying it leads to the creation of small cliques involving gangs and government officials.

'The wharf culture favours small interest groups at the cost of the greater public good,' says the monk, who is studying for his law degree at Xinan University. 'They don't listen to reason. They don't say this is right or this is wrong. What's right is right and what's wrong is right.'

He says that despite the publicity over the anti-crime effort the problem has not been solved yet, and that 'Chongqing still belongs to Chongqing people'. 

'The power of the underworld has not significantly receded,' he says. 'The ones who needed to survive have survived. The underworld still exists and it's intact.

'You may grab one or two people, but the problem is pervasive.' 

Ding says it will be difficult for Bo and Wang, who are both outsiders, to deal with the local special interest groups and factions. 'They won't be able to solve these problems at one fell swoop,' the monk says. 'The way to do it is to take care of the problem gradually, step by step.'

Chin Ko-lin, a professor of the school of criminal justice at Rutgers University in New Jersey, and an expert on Chinese gangs, agrees. Chin says that it is very likely that the most influential people involved in corruption and alleged organised crime may not even have been touched.

'The groups being targeted may not be the strongest or the most powerful,' he says. 'Very often, the real powerful people are so high up at the top that most people won't be able to touch them.

'I speak to the public security in many cities and they often talk about this - when there's a crackdown, when there's pressure, they have to come up with the numbers, the quotas,' Chin says. 'Often they go after the less powerful.'

Some cynics question whether or not there is a real underworld threat, hinting that Bo has exaggerated the degree of seriousness of the underworld threat for his own political ends. 

'We're all cynical about this,' a former Chongqing journalist says. 'It's totally unfair to treat these people like typical mafia. There is no underground in Chongqing - just well-connected businessmen,' she says. 

'Wharf culture means different factions; it's not about organised crime, but competing business interests.

'We don't feel like we're living in a mafia-controlled society. I don't think there is much violence in Chongqing.

'If you look very carefully at what these people have done, it's really not that bad.' 

He, the professor, says it is not important whether or not these groups use violence. 'They don't have to use violence,' he says. 'What's important is that they have the ability to threaten the use of violence. They can do this to get what they want.' 

Zhang Zhiwei, a lawyer who defended a local official accused of working with the underworld, concedes that the problem in Chongqing is partially political, but he insists that the existence of underworld organisations is very real.

'In the past, it was just small hoodlums and petty crimes,' he says. 'But when the economy began to grow, the crimes became more sophisticated.'

When asked how many underworld crime organisations exist in the city, and what some of the names are, he's stumped. 'Is it eight, 10 or 20 gangs?' he asks rhetorically, shrugging. 'It's hard to say. You can't define it.'

Ding says the trouble lies within the ranks of the police themselves. 'You can't describe this as the police versus the underworld,' he says while sipping a Coke at an outdoor restaurant near his temple. 'The police are the underworld. If you don't have a complete blood transfusion, you won't solve the problem.' 

This sentiment was confirmed when Wang, the police chief, announced last month that some 3,000 mid- and high-level officers would be required to resign and reapply for their jobs. The move was seen as an attempt to wipe out all remaining ties between the police and criminals. Wang was quoted by the Global Times as saying that the Chongqing police system faced more problems from inside than outside.

The city's Liberation Monument district is a microcosm of old and new, rich and poor Chongqing. The district is home to some of the most upmarket shops, including Cartier, Max Mara, Burberry and Emporio Armani. On a Sunday evening, wealthy people walk by toting shopping bags from such shops, competing for space on the pavements with the bangbang jun, or army of porters, who carry goods on bamboo poles around a city not built with the bicycle in mind. 

Meanwhile, women attracted from local farm areas a decade ago by the big city lights walk through the crowd with their shoeshine boxes, offering to polish shoes for just 2 yuan (HK$2.27), as less well-off immigrants to the city sift through rubbish bins looking for food.

While many say that Chongqing is no different to other cities, which are also plagued by corruption and crime, even locals concede the situation may have something to do with the local temperament.

'It has to do with the nature of Chongqing people,' says the former journalist. 'We're quick tempered.' 

'There's a problem with the quality of the people here,' complains Shen Zichen, a local art-history teacher. The city has a problem with gambling, drugs, prostitution and poverty, she says. 'I feel this is more of a problem than in other places.' 

Zhang says that Chongqing is a 'hotpot' of different types of people who were attracted by the rapid economic growth. 'In a situation like this, underworld organisations will emerge.' 

But observers differ on the degree of organised crime. Heishehui, or black society, the Chinese word for underworld crime, is often defined here as 'underground-like organisations' to differentiate from full-blown organised crime organisations.

'The whole issue is what is organised crime,' Chin says. 'The defence attorneys are claiming their clients are not underworld; the prosecutors are saying yes they are.' 

Chin says that it may be another 10 or 20 years before China has organised crime on the level found in the United States. 'We are one or two levels beneath the real mafia,' he says of gangs in China.

'Xie must have been shocked to be indicted as a leader of an organised crime group,' he says of the so-called 'godmother'. 'She thought she was just running a gambling business. 

'I don't see Xie as a mafia boss,' he says. 'I believe all of them were shocked to find out they're being indicted as mafia organisations.'

Chin says that organised crime is defined by the following characteristics: an economically strong organisation with a well-organised hierarchy that is pursuing economic gain and which employs the use of violence, and enjoys the protective umbrella of a government official.

The Rutgers scholar says that while Chongqing is not experiencing gangland wars like those that occurred in the US in the 1920s and1930s, by Chinese standards even a few instances of violence would be considered serious. He says that it was likely that these few instances led Bo to launch his 'strike hard' campaign.

While the state media has gushed about Bo's effort, propelling him to the status of rock star, the official's bold strike against gangs - unprecedented at its level anywhere in China in recent memory - has sparked widespread debate about how much support he has from the central government for the campaign, with some suggesting he is operating on his own in an effort to bolster a flailing political career and improve his chances of being selected to the powerful Politburo Standing Committee in 2012. 

'Some people say Bo Xilai's crackdown is because he wants to cling to the central leadership,' Ding says. The Buddhist monk has been watching Bo's career since the late 1990s. 'This is complete nonsense. They don't understand him and they don't understand Chongqing.'

Ding says that the central government wants Chongqing to be a base for the go-west strategy, and the growing crime and corruption is threatening China's economic development. 'The central government is not going to let the interests of some small officials get in the way of the economy,' he says.

He Bingsong agrees. 'Bo can definitely deal with the problem,' he says. 'Striking out against the underworld is a basic policy of the central government. The government won't waiver.'

Despite these claims, the central government has been curiously silent throughout the crackdown, possibly worried that it could get out of hand and have a wider-scale impact on the party. In what may have been a sign that he lacks support from the top, Bo has felt compelled several times to publicly defend his actions. 

Late last year he told the media that the underworld had forced his hand through their violence and growing brazenness. And last month, he told Hong Kong media representatives the crackdown against 'evil forces' was not a publicity stunt and that it would continue. 

He said further that cynics who had posted online comments that the campaign was a well-orchestrated show to win media attention were 'heartless'.

There has also been growing concern about the swiftness of the campaign, which some say has stepped over the bounds of rule of law. 

'I believe there are a lot of innocent victims,' the former journalist says. 'Justice needs time. When you're making cases at this pace, there is no justice.' 

Guo Guangdong , a reporter for Southern Weekend, lamented in a commentary that lawyers were officially discouraged from trying too hard to defend their clients, while the Chinese media carried intensive reports on so-called gang members, finding the suspects guilty 'through the court of public opinion', even before courts concluded the cases. The headline of the commentary was 'Why doesn't Bo Xilai publicly back up the defence attorneys too?'

Li Zhuang , a Beijing lawyer defending Gong Gangmo , an alleged mobster, was sentenced to 18 months in jail for allegedly coaching his client to say he was tortured by police. 

The news frightened other lawyers who had already been intimidated by government threats. In a dramatic courtroom moment, the lawyer enthusiastically admitted guilt. However, after being sentenced to prison, he attempted to recant, saying government officials promised him a suspended sentence if he pleaded guilty. 

A group of 20 prominent lawyers sent a letter to the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress and the Ministry of Public Security demanding that Li's rights as a lawyer and a suspect be protected, and urging that police from outside Chongqing should investigate his case. 

Despite the negative murmuring, Bo's crackdown won him the deep respect of locals, as well as national fame. He was named Man of the Year in an online survey conducted by the People's Daily. And a song written in praise of the flamboyant official refers to him affectionately as the 'mob-busting party secretary'. 'The corrupt shudder at the very mention of your name,' the song gushes.