A deadly scam

Elaborately planned murders in Hebei mines shock nation

A miner walks along tracks used for transporting coal in an underground coal mine in Xiaoyi, Shanxi province

Not safe here: Chinese mines can prove deadly in many ways

In his 2003 film Blind Shaft, director Li Yang won at least 12 international awards for his grim depiction of northern China. His theme was the worthlessness of human life in an increasingly materialistic and amoral society.

The movie was shot in Shanxi and Hebei provinces and followed an elaborate scam played by two con-artists. Their scheme involved tricking a naïve young man who was looking for work. They explained that they had secured lucrative jobs working down a mine for themselves and a relative, but frustratingly the latter hadn’t turned up for work. So they would offer the victim the job vacancy, on condition that he pretended to be the missing relative and use his identity.

Once all three were down the mine, the villains murdered the young man, but made it look like a mining accident. Then they extorted compensation from the company management – a straightforward exercise since the mine was operating illegally and would rather hush the incident up.

They then repeat the scam with a different youth at a different mine.

The film was banned in China but Chinese media were reporting last week on an even more elaborate version of the same scam, this time involving 21 crooks but broadly doing the same thing in luring a young man to a mine, killing him and then extorting money from the owners.

The ringleaders were captured in August 2012 after a mine executive became suspicious and called the police; but given the complexity of the case, and the number of con-artists and killers involved, it is only now being brought to trial – which explains the sudden media interest in the sordid tale.

The gang’s victim two years ago was Li Zhihua, a migrant worker from Sichuan. He was ensnared by female gang member Wang Zhengxiu, who befriended the construction worker in Chengdu. Reputedly beautiful, she and Li spent a night together at a hotel – she generously paying the room bill – and he took to calling her his girlfriend.

In July 2012 – just weeks after they’d met – Wang promised Li she would marry him once he had made enough money from a mining job her relative had secured. Accordingly, he left for Hebei province to work at the mine.

When he arrived he was met by another lady who had arranged the job for Li. But unbeknownst to him she had switched his ID in making the application. The mining company thought they were hiring someone called ‘Luo Shiyong’.

The next phase of the plan saw Li sent to work down the mine with two other gang members, who then beat him to death, so disfiguring his face with hammer blows that he was barely recognisable.

They also used explosives at the scene to make it look like Li had been involved in a tragic accident.

At this point family members of ‘Luo Shiyong’ – also gang members – descended on the mine and demanded a compensation fee of Rmb1 million ($160,000) from management. Their case was lent credence when they identified the dead body, explaining where certain moles would be found and so forth.

However, the killers overplayed their hand and the management of the mine became suspicious.

China Youth Daily says the executives first became wary at the lack of grief on display from the people claiming to be the wife, mother and aunt of the victim.

When the police arrived on the scene, the family then dropped their compensation request.

Suspicion over their abnormal behaviour was compounded by the sudden disappearance of the two gang members who had murdered Li in the mine.

Police then found blood stains on the hammer and deduced from the victim’s body that he was not killed by an explosion, but from a beating. The authorities began rounding up the gang members and arresting them. It turned out this was the fourth such crime that the gang had committed, having swindled other mines out of Rmb1.85 million ($298,166) and killed three hapless men – all of whom were in love with the beautiful Wang.

The gang picked victims from some of China’s most impoverished areas, according to South Reviews, on the basis that their sudden disapperance probably wouldn’t raise a stir.

Media has since focused on the sophistication of the operation. By bedding the victims, Wang was able to pass information to her cohorts about physical identifiers such as birthmarks. Other gang members scouted out appropriate mines where the management was likely to avoid trouble. Each member would earn between Rmb30,000 to Rmb40,000 per shakedown, though those involved in the murder itself got extra.

China Youth Daily points out that of the 21 gang members, only one had a prior criminal record. The newspaper says the slayers’ own impoverished backgrounds partly explain their behaviour. When the gang killed someone at the fringes of society, it said, they saw it as just another “worthless life”. As they hammered into the victim’s skull “they do not just kill an individual, but they are in the process of losing their own humanity”.

The trial in Handan, a city in southern Hebei, will likely result in harsh sentencing – not just because of their individual crimes, but to warn others against copycat schemes.

In Blind Shaft one of the con-artists begins to have reservations when the villains are about to repeat the scam on a second victim. Sadly that script hasn’t been followed in the real world.

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