After almost a year of fighting with bureaucrats in the southwestern Chinese city of Chongqing, Hu Cheng was ready to die.
He paused for a moment in front of the No. 1 Intermediate People’s Court and doused himself with gasoline. He then climbed a set of stairs, sat down and clutched a lighter in each hand. Before police tackled him to the ground on Nov. 7, 2011, he thought over the question of how life works in China.
“It seemed to me that officials could trample on the human rights of the Chinese people however they wanted,” Hu, a glum-faced 40-year-old in black-framed glasses, recalled during a recent interview.
In the 13 months since Hu’s aborted suicide protest, the fog-shrouded metropolis of Chongqing has been the epicenter of political intrigue that’s shaken the Chinese Communist Party.
The party boss who oversaw Chongqing when Hu nearly self-immolated, Bo Xilai, now sits in disgrace and awaits formal indictment on a range of alleged crimes. The fallout emanating from Bo’s undoing has included a murder trial and allegations of corruption gone wild. Even the district party chief whom Hu accused of taking part in a real estate scam, Lei Zhengfu, was brought down amid scandal and a videotape of his having sex with an 18-year-old.
China’s new leadership is calling for a crackdown on rampant corruption. Yet nothing has changed in Hu’s case. His experience, and that of the city around him, is a reminder that the nation still runs on the interests of the party and not the rule of law.
Hu’s complaint centers on the assertion that officials in Chongqing’s Beibei District, including Lei, were running a kickback scheme. After tearing down buildings in the area, including one that held the Hu family apartment, officials allegedly stuffed their pockets with payoffs when the property was flipped from a construction firm to developers. In the meantime, Hu said, the compensation offered to him was far below market price.
After his home was razed in December 2010, Hu looked to higher-level leadership for help. He filed petitions with court and government offices in Chongqing and got nowhere. He then traveled to Beijing to do the same – he was turned away and detained.
A district court had given the go-ahead to tear down the property, a judgment that Hu maintains was the result of a crooked series of events.
“The government carried out administrative interference of the court’s investigation in the case. That’s the reality of things,” said a lawyer who’s advised Hu since last year. The lawyer asked that neither his name nor that of his firm be used because, “they can do whatever they want to crack down on people.”
Hu, who ran a restaurant with his older sister, tried lodging a lawsuit in July 2011. Chongqing’s No. 1 Intermediate People’s Court declined to accept the case. He returned to Beijing that September and, he said, was pushed into a car, driven to the train station and sent back to Chongqing.
A couple of months later, Hu was at the courthouse carrying gasoline.
Chongqing police were reluctant to confirm Hu’s account of his attempt to light himself on fire. After calling eight police stations and a detention center in the city, McClatchy found an officer who agreed to read a summary from Hu’s case file over the phone. It corroborated his details of the event.
There are many others in Chongqing, however, who are unavailable for comment these days.
The Communist Party secretary of Beibei District, Lei Zhengfu, couldn’t be reached. Authorities sacked him last month after a video emerged of him having sex with a woman identified as an 18-year-old mistress.
The film came from a Chongqing police official with the explanation that it was made in 2007 after the head of a construction company “gave” the woman to Lei as a bribe and then tried using their sexual relations to blackmail him, according to Zhu Ruifeng, an online activist and former journalist who released the recording.
Lei reported the blackmail effort to then-Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai, who in turn ordered his police chief to handle the situation, Zhu said, citing the account of his police source. The woman in the video was detained for 30 days and the developer jailed for a year, according to Zhu, who said he had records to back up the claim. No action apparently was taken against Lei.
It wasn’t possible to interview the former police chief, Wang Lijun. A court sentenced him in September to 15 years of prison on charges involving bribe taking, abuse of power and defection. During his time at a U.S. consulate in February, Wang is said to have told American officials that Bo’s wife was involved in the killing of a British businessman.
The wife, Gu Kailai, was similarly unreachable. After being found guilty of murder in August, she received a verdict of death with a two-year reprieve.
Bo disappeared from public in March. He’s almost certain to be tried and convicted, with state media accusing him of involvement in everything from corruption to having “maintained improper sexual relationships with a number of women.”
Beijing cites the punishments meted out after the lurid chain of events in Chongqing as proof that officials are made to answer for their misdeeds. But some analysts see the campaign as nothing more than political score-settling dressed in the language of a court system tightly controlled by the Communist Party. Bo, the charismatic son of a late party elder, was widely considered overly ambitious for the comfort of the status quo.
“They always claim they are fighting corruption . . . but the truth is they are fighting the corruption of outsiders” – those in other factions – said Pu Zhiqiang, a rights lawyer in Beijing. “If they punished everyone, no matter who they are, then the Communist Party would have collapsed a long time ago.”
Pu represents Ren Jianyu, a former village official who recently was granted early release from a Chongqing re-education-through-labor camp. He’d been sent there last year for posting online items that were critical of Bo Xilai’s administration. Although official media described that turn of events as an opportunity to re-examine the nation’s labor camp system, Pu scoffed at the prospects of serious reform.
“The sex tape and Ren Jianyu being put under re-education through labor, these sorts of things didn’t happen only in Chongqing; they are very common all over the country,” Pu said in a telephone interview.
The fact that the party allowed the Lei tape to linger without disrupting Zhu Ruifeng’s website raised eyebrows. So too did Zhu’s freedom to give interviews to foreign and domestic journalists in which he said he possessed more sex videos featuring Chongqing leadership.
As with the Ren case, state-controlled news outlets gave broad attention to the Lei story.
Zhu said in an interview that he was encouraged by senior leadership talk about moving against corrupt officials. The newly appointed general secretary of the Communist Party, Xi Jinping, in the past month has signaled a fierce campaign to come against official corruption, warning that it could threaten the existence of the party and the state.
Zhu hinted at doubts.
“Corruption in China is created by the system,” said Zhu, who favors black suits during interviews and keeps his laptop in reach.
When Hu spoke with McClatchy at the end of November, he was back in Beijing looking to submit more petitions, meet with reporters and do anything else he could think of to try to get assistance.
“The higher authorities have their policies, but the lower authorities have ways of getting around them,” Hu said, staring into his empty coffee cup at a downtown McDonald’s.
He added: “The local governments do not care about the common people. They rob them at will.”
Twelve days later, Hu sent a text message to follow up the conversation. He’d been detained for “illegal petitioning” in Beijing and sent back to Chongqing.
Researcher Joyce Zhang contributed to this report.