Stories abound about Wang Lijun, the mafia-busting police chief of the southwest metropolis of Chongqing.
Many relate to his high-profile effort, starting in 2008, to break the mafia in the city on the orders of its well-connected Communist Party secretary Bo Xilai.
One is that during a trip to Italy to study its own mafia, Wang was kidnapped by gangsters who suspected he was a plant of the FBI, where Wang had spent time studying anti-crime techniques, says the Chongqing writer, Huang Jiren, who knows him well.
Hooded and threatened with execution, Wang, who speaks English, asked to say a few words to his captors, recounts Huang.
“I’m Chinese and I’m a member of the Communist Party,” Wang told them. “I’ve come here to try and figure out how mafias are produced by a Communist Party,” he continued, reminding the men of Italy’s own intertwined history of politics and criminality.
So intrigued were those present that they unhooded Wang, tells Huang, and sat him down to talk.
“Tell us about China,” they said.
Apocryphal or not – and Huang, chairman of the Chongqing Writer’s Association and delegate to the national Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, swears it’s a true story – the tale points to themes that recur in other Chinese media coverage of Wang.
For example, that he is a man of tremendous courage, ready to intervene personally in dangerous situations. He once spent 10 days in hospital in critical condition as a result, going on to be nicknamed “Robocop” among colleagues, after the 1987 movie about the police officer who returns to the force as a cyborg after a life-threatening injury.
Not that Wang is robotic in approach. Newly-appointed professor at Chongqing’s prestigious Southwest University of Politics and Law, he kept an audience of officials, teachers and students in thrall late last month with a detailed account of organised crime and psychology, according to blogger Yuyin Raoliang, who said he attended the three-hour talk, describing it as “thrilling”.
Wang, who is also a researcher on criminality at Peking University’s law department, as well as chairman of the China Crime Scene Psychological Association, gave the talk with no other apparent notes.
“He explained the profound in simple terms… He analysed organised crime and law and order from ancient times to today, overseas and in China, today and into the future, and its ideology and culture,” the blogger wrote.
Huang says Wang’s approach is a highly practical one, too, and that he personally designed the hundreds of open-air, mushroom-shaped police-reporting stations that have dotted Chongqing since the anti-mafia campaign.
The stations are credited with providing a heightened sense of safety in neighbourhoods previously regarded as crime-ridden.
All this gives Wang a reputation highly valued in terms of traditional Chinese culture – a man both “wen” and “wu,” or cultivated and martial. And as China struggles with the problem of mafia-style “black hand societies” – notably, another major anti-mafia campaign is taking place in the northeastern coastal city of Qingdao right now, with crime boss Nie Lei and two senior police officials arrested – Wang is very much a personality thrust into the public eye.
Born in Aershan in the autonomous region of Inner Mongolia, right on the Mongolian border, deep in China’s far northeast, little is known about Wang’s early life or family background. He gives very few media interviews: the People’s Daily noted in 2009 his style as “high-profile in work, low-profile in personal life.”
The report, entitled: “Cold-faced Yama,” referring to the traditionally stern King of Hell, noted that Wang rarely makes himself available to journalists. But in another article in 2009, People’s Daily Overseas reported he was born into an “ordinary railway worker’s family” in December 1958, making him almost 53 years-old.
“From a young age he liked to practise the martial arts,” the report said.
According to China Vitae, a biography site that draws its information from the official Xinhua news agency and the People’s Daily, Wang was also a “rusticated youth” from 1976-8, as China began getting back onto its feet after the death of Mao Zedong.
The phrase refers to urban youth who were sent to the countryside to learn from farmers. It is perhaps a little unusual in Wang’s case – as the son of ordinary workers, he may not have been a prime candidate for “re-education,” which was often aimed at the offspring of intellectuals.
Wang may have volunteered, but the puzzle is unexplained to date.
By 1992 – the intervening 14 years are left blank – China Vitae indicates Wang’s career had taken off. That year, he entered the Public Security University and Public Security Cadres College in Beijing, simultaneously becoming deputy director of the public security bureau of Tiefa city in northeastern Liaoning province, and, from a reference to Party involvement, had clearly joined the Communist Party. He was 32.
In 1995, Wang was promoted to a bigger city, Tieling in Liaoning, and by 2003 had stepped up the ladder again to Jinzhou.
By then Bo Xilai, the future Party secretary of Chongqing, was also working in Liaoning. He would rise to become governor and deputy secretary of its Party committee – which was when the two men first met.
According to Southern Weekly, Wang’s early years in these three Liaoning cities saw local mafia put out a Rmb5 million contract on his head, angered at his success in combating their operations. Wang and colleagues sent about 800 people to jail, the article reported.
The writer Huang Jiren also gives an account of a story Wang told him personally to illustrate the cruelty of the northern mafia that he faced.
Two mafia bosses were engaged in discussions about who was dage, or “big brother,” Huang quoted Wang as saying.
“To prove to you that I’m dage, I’ll shoot that passerby,” one said. The man did just that, killing him on the spot.
“That’s nothing. I’ll shoot a policeman,” the other said, and did so, killing him too.
“You really are dage,’” said the first man, who was unwilling to emulate the second man’s exploits.
Despite this violent backdrop, Wang seems to have survived largely unscathed and in June 2008, Bo brought him from Jinzhou to Chongqing.
The high-profile, anti-mafia campaign in the municipality of 32 million people started a month later. In all, said the People’s Daily, it led to the detention of 9,512 people, both criminals and police. Many were jailed and some executed, including Wen Qiang, the city’s top justice official and former deputy police chief, sentenced for shielding mafia bosses, massive corruption and rape.
When Wang arrived in Chongqing mafia gangs were making Rmb30 billion a year in loansharking and other operations. Using an eight-character saying, Wang described the campaign as a question of “getting rid of age-old malpractices inside” (the corrupt police force) and “getting rid of age-old rancour outside” (among the population, which had long resented the mafia’s reach into daily life, including such essentials as food production, delivery and sales, according to Southern Weekly).
Wang’s low-profile days now look like they are behind him: in the aftermath of the Chongqing anti-mafia effort, he was flooded with letters from people around the country asking him to smash their own local triads, Huang says.
He is also collaborating on a four-volume book about the campaign (Huang is lead author on the project) to be called The Chongqing Anti-Mafia Campaign Series which will be followed by a film and TV series.
But the ‘Godfather’ style film looks like being a controversial one, especially if Party secretary Bo tries to use it to promote his personal campaign for a place on the elite Politburo Standing Committee next year.
Wang himself could also be drawn more directly into the political arena, as the Chongqing mafia scandal rolls on, with Huang telling the New York Times that the police chief told him that city leaders knew the rot did not stop at Chongqing: “He said, ‘This anti-mafia campaign is only a first phase. We haven’t entered the deep waters yet.”’ Robocop will have to navigate those deep waters pretty carefully himself…
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