Last Saturday, China’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection sent shockwaves through the political and business community when it announced that Zhou Jiangyong, who had served as Hangzhou’s Party boss since 2018, was under investigation for “alleged violations of discipline and law”. While the agency did not elaborate on the 54 year-old’s suspected offences, there was speculation on social media that his family had purchased shares in Ant Group ahead of its proposed initial public offering in November, before the listing plans were scrapped by irate regulators.
Ant and its sister firm Alibaba, of course, are based in Hangzhou. It should come as no surprise that the city’s most powerful official has been rather chummy with its most iconic entrepreneur. In 2019, Alibaba’s founder Jack Ma was presented with the “Meritorious Hangzhou citizen” award by none other than Zhou to thank him for his copious contributions to the city’s economic and social development. The Hangzhou Party chief was a high-profile attendee too at Alibaba’s annual Singles’ Day shopping festival in the same year.
Fighting graft seems to be a never-ending theme in China. So little wonder that a TV drama about the battle against corruption has grabbed the country’s attention. Crime Crackdown follows the story of former police detective Li Chengyang, played by veteran actor Sun Honglei, who has been kicked off the force in Luteng (a fictional city) after being framed by his boss – a corrupt police official – to prevent him from investigating a criminal case.
Li is made of stern stuff and refuses to accept his wrongful ousting without getting some payback. So he becomes an undercover lawyer-fixer for the incarcerated mafia boss Ma Shuai. His plans don’t go smoothly, however, when Ma is murdered in his prison cell and Li grasps that some very big powers are at work. With the help of a young cop (played by heartthrob Zhang Yixing) Li risks his life to expose the nexus between mob gangs and the highest echelons of government. Actress Jiang Shuying, meanwhile, plays a reckless journalist who becomes embroiled in the conspiracies.
So far the reviews for the series has been overwhelmingly positive. On Douban, the TV series and film review site, the show received a rating of 7.9 out of 10. Many have compared it with one of the biggest breakout series of 2017 – In the Name of the People, which shared an anti-corruption theme (see WiC362).
Available on Beijing Satellite TV and Tencent Video, Crime Crackdown is only half way through airing but has already surpassed a billion views on the online streaming platform. Netizens say the fast-paced storytelling and acting quality makes the show compelling.
“The show has everything: suspense, action and the fight against corruption. All the actors delivered outstanding performances especially Ning Li’s Ma Shuai: the character is so ruthless that he would even break his own fingers to avoid interrogation. What an amazing show,” one gushed.
The show is reportedly based on the stories of real-life criminals. One plotline follows the head of a mob gang who controls the entire supply chain for fresh produce in Luteng – i.e. all the vegetable vendors in the city have to pay what they call ‘protection fees’ if they want to stay in business.
As it turns out, that story is based on Huang Hongfa, a gangster in the late 1980s who leveraged his father’s status as a public official to set up a criminal enterprise in Changjiang county in Hainan province. At one point, Huang’s empire included casinos, entertainment venues and illegal mining. He also controlled the city’s supply of fresh produce (as well as its waste management services), extorting as much as Rmb2 billion ($308 million) from his illegal operations.
It wasn’t until 2020 that Huang was caught and charged with organised crime and sentenced to death. His underground gang was the largest and longest-running of its kind in Hainan, according to the Hainan Provincial People’s High Court.
‘Sun Xing’, another character in the show, is based on the true story of Sun Xiaoguo, a gangster who was executed in February last year. In the series, a criminal called Gao He is serving a sentence for murder and is scheduled for execution. But his mother, a senior police chief, helps Gao switch identity with another prisoner named Sun Xing who is up for parole, allowing Gao to get out of prison and continue his criminal activities.
Sun Xiaoguo was a mobster from Yunnan province who’d raped three girls under 18. In 2010, he was released after receiving several reductions to his sentence. An investigation later revealed that Sun’s parents had bribed officials to have their son’s sentence reduced. After he was released, Sun changed his name to Li Chenlin and continued to be involved in a local gang’s activities. In 2018, he was arrested for assault, and during an investigation into that crime, investigators uncovered the corruption that led to his early release. In 2019, Sun was indicted once again and was executed the following year.
The popularity of Crime Crackdown coincides with government signals that its campaign against official malfeasance is alive and well. Two days before the revelation of the investigation into Hangzhou Party chief Zhou, another senior government official in Zhejiang province was also hauled in for questioning. Chinese state media reported that Ma Xiaohui, Party secretary of the small city of Huzhou, had “voluntarily surrendered” over suspected “serious violations of discipline and law”.
Prior to his ousting in Hangzhou, Zhou had warned his subordinates to be wary of how circumstances change: “When an era abandons you, it won’t even have the courtesy to say goodbye,” he opined. That now sounds like his own political eulogy. Stay tuned for a lot more drama to come…
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