Chongqing, a city of the Yangtze in southwest China, is regarded as the center of organized crime in China. Police there estimated that gangs there ran an illegal loan businesses worth as much as $4 billion — equivalent to a third of the city's annual revenue. [Source: Tania Branigan The Guardian (August 19, 2009]

Gangs in Chongqing are known for “having a long history, wide coverage, deep connections, huge membership, high quality, and vicious influence.” A computer firm employee who gave only his surname, Wang, told The Guardian, “Chongqing is a port city with a history of violence. It's what people always talk about over tea.”

Liu Guanglei, a high-level official, told the Chongqing Evening News gangs were involved in “prostitution, gambling, drugs and guns”, and that their crimes included murder and kidnapping. The city’s police chief said that organized crime was hiding behind legal businesses and had entered many industries through blackmail, extortion and illegal loans.

As well as prostitution, loan sharking and drugs, gangs were mainly involved with small businesses, Chongqing deputy police chief Wang Lijun said. “In the fish market the gangsters would fix a higher price and force everyone to follow it. Anyone who disputed their ruling was beaten. Since the crackdown, business is fairer.” [Source: Jonathan Watts, The Guardian, October 21, 2009]

Crackdown on the Chongqing Mafia

Police launched a crackdown on organized crime in Chongqing in June 2009 involved more than 2,000 suspects — including local politicians whose palms were routinely greased by triad bosses. As of mid August police said they were searching for 469 suspects from 14 gangs — on top of the 1,544 already detained. They are holding 19 alleged leaders and issued the photographs of 67 more for whom they already have warrants. [Source: Tania Branigan The Guardian (August 19, 2009]

Chongqing was also known as a hotbed of illegal gun trafficking. In January 2009, police netted 470 suspects and 183 firearms following a 40-day campaign. In 2008, Chongqing municipal public security bureau statistics showed 339 cases involving illegal guns.

The effort was led by police chief, Wang Lijun, has a reputation as a “mafia buster,” and Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai, who became the city's top official in 2007. According to the South China Morning Post, the 40-year-old Wang has 20 scars from knife and bullet wounds, and was once in a coma for 10 days due to his long-term battle with the triads.

Bo gained a national following with the campaign and became a hot topic among Chinese netizens. “Bo is the great saviour of Chinese ordinary people,” said one reader's comment on the People's Daily website. “Strike hard against gangsters and black lawyers. Drag all their [mafia] uncles out!” [Source: John Garnaut, Sydney Morning Herald, February 13, 2010]

Police say they have seized 48 guns, frozen or confiscated 1.53 billion yuan worth of assets — including those held overseas — and received more than 9,000 tip-offs. Local media claimed today that murders had fallen to their lowest seasonal rate for five years.

Reasons for Crackdown on the Chongqing Mafia

One newspaper suggested that the authorities launched the crackdown after gangs attempted to block new bus and taxi regulations, which powerful businessmen feared would cut their cash flow. [Source: Tania Branigan The Guardian (August 19, 2009]

Chen Tianben, professor of public security at the Chinese People's Public Security University, said, “I think the police action in Chongqing must be related to the recent political change of the local authority. But it is hard to say whether the change of the officials led to the crackdown, or the crackdown on the gangs dragged down more officials.”

The crackdown also begs the question of why something wasn’t done earlier. Chongqing’s previous leaders have included Communist Party luminaries such as Politburo Standing Committee member He Guoqiang (now China’s topmost anti-graft cadre), and Politburo member Wang Yang.

Police, Billionaires and the Chongqing Mafia

The Xinhua state news agency reported that scores of police officers were accused of protecting gangs. Wen Qiang, director of Chongqing's judicial bureau and a former police chief in the city, was under internal investigation, suspected of protecting criminals. Authorities are also investigating senior court officials over allegations of helping gangsters manipulate land auctions. [Source: Tania Branigan The Guardian (August 19, 2009]

Three yuan billionaires — Li Qiang, Chen Mingliang and Gong Gangmu — were arrested .The three men are veteran businessmen well known for their political connections and occasional philanthropy. Li Qiang, for example, used to run more than 20 enterprises in sectors ranging from transportation to real estate. He was elected a member of the municipal People’s Congress in recognition of his contributions to the community. Former police chief Wen had links to Li Qiang, who reportedly received numerous text messages urging him to flee in the minutes after he was detained.

Chongqing Deputy Police Chief Executed

In July 2010, Wen Qiang, the 55-year-old ex-director of the Chongqing Municipal Judicial Bureau, was executed after being convicted of corruption charges involving organized crime in April, according to the Chongqing court website. The highest-ranking person to be caught in a huge crackdown on violent gangs in Chongqing, he took bribes, shielded criminal gangs, hid his financial assets and raped a university student, China's official Xinhua news agency cited court documents as saying. [Source: AP The Guardian, July 7, 2010]

Wen served as the deputy police chief of Chongqing from 1992-2008 and then as the director of the judicial bureau until being arrested in September 2009, Xinhua said. He was regarded as being the center of an extensive network of protection of local gangs for over a decade. The supreme people's court, which reviews all death penalty cases, rejected Wen's appeal and upheld the sentence in May. “The facts are quite clear, the evidence is concrete and abundant, the conviction is accurate and the punishment is proper,” a court statement said.

Wen Qiang spent much of his time in court trying to explain more than 16 million yuan ($2.6 million) of suspected kickbacks. It emerged in court that the bulk of Wen's wealth was acquired from payments received in return for handing out promotions. “The trial of the underworld has become a trial of corrupt officials,'' one netizen wrote.

Wen was also the brother-in-law of the so-called “godmother” of Chongqing's criminal underworld,46-year-old Xie Caiping, who was sentenced to 18 years for running illegal casinos and bribing government officials (See Below). Nearly 100 local officials and police were prosecuted, with 42 found guilty of sheltering criminal gangs, Xinhua said. Hundreds of gang members were also arrested and tried.

Notorious Chongqing Gangsters Get Death Penalty

In October 2009, six gangsters in Chongqing were sentenced to death for murder, machete attacks, price fixing and other crimes. Among the most notorious of those sentenced to death by the number three intermediate court of Chongqing was gang leader Liu Zhongyong, who was found guilty of stabbing a man to death in March 2008 after a quarrel that started when Liu complained the victim was singing karaoke too loudly. According to the Xinhua news agency, Liu owned a coal mine and used mobsters to force other colliery owners to sell him cheap coal. After three miners died in an accident his gang beat up industrial safety inspectors. [Source: Jonathan Watts, The Guardian, October 21, 2009]

Another prominent defendant was Yang Tianqing, who was sentenced to death for blackmail, possession of illegal weapons and assault. From 2005 Yang recruited jobless migrants to run extortion rackets. They were also hired by local businessmen to attack rivals. In May this year the gang killed a man after being ordered to hack his legs off, the China News Agency reported. When gangsters were put in prison Yang reportedly paid their families a regular income to ensure the members would rejoin him on their release. According to the China Daily, Yang “tightened control on the gang by sponsoring members' livelihoods and arranging group drugs, binge drinking and prostitution.”

Four other men were sentenced to death, three on suspended sentences, which are often commuted to life in prison. Others are likely to follow.

Chongqing 'Godmother' Sentenced to 18 Years

In November 2009, 46-year-old Xie Caiping, a woman called the ''godmother'' of a mafia-style gang in Chongqing was sentenced to 18 years in prison for running underground casinos and bribing government officials. Xie is the sister-in-law of Wen Qiang, the city's long-serving deputy police chief, who was sentenced to death and executed for his crimes (See Above). [Source: AP, New York Times, November 3, 2009]

Xie cursed in court when her trial started, which drew a rebuke from the judge but delighted the public, which has reveled in tales in the local media that she kept 16 lovers.

Chen Yanling, a Chongqing resident who says she was beaten by thugs after refusing a corrupt cop's request to turn her teahouse into a casino, said she and other victims gathered outside the court waiting for the sentence. But they were angered by the result, with some people refusing to leave before police escorted them away. ''We didn't believe our ears when we first hear it's just 18 years. How many crimes has she committed?'' Chen said.

The court notice said Xie's gang ''severely broke the normal order of society,'' and illegally detained others and allowed loan sharking at the casinos. The casino took a cut of the profits won by gamblers, a notice on the Chongqing court Web site said. It said casino bosses hired stand-ins to take the blame when there was a crackdown and paid bribes to judicial officials.

No. 5 Intermediate People's Court said Xie earned more than 2 million yuan ($293,000) from the illegal activities. Twenty-one others were sentenced to between one and 13 years in prison, according to a notice on the Chongqing court Web site.

Chinese Gangster Known as Mickey Mouse and the Lawyer That Defends His Gang

Li Yi, a gangster known as “Mickey Mouse” went on trial in Chongqing in October 2009. T he alleged boss of a criminal organization that has menaced the town of Linjiang for years, Li and twenty-seven associates face a raft of charges ranging from arson to extortion to illegal possession of firearms to tax evasion.

Zhou Litai , a lawyer representing one of the suspects in the Li Yi gang case, was been criticized for taking on the case and accused of not supporting the local government's efforts to crack down on organized crime. Dubbed the “migrant worker lawyer” for finding justice for a migrant worker who died of work-related injuries, Zhou said he took up the case, “Because suspects have basic rights, too.”

Zhou was the legal counsel for Li Zhigang, a member of the Li Yi gang. He was hired by Li Zhigang's mother. The case claims that Li Zhigang with being a key member of the Li Yi gang and charges him with provocation, extortion, and taking part in organized crime. Zhou has argued that Li Zhigang is not guilt because the Li Yi gang does not satisfy the criteria for an organized crime gang. Zhou said: “Li Yi and his cohort are connected through local family relationships, and they established a series of group ties that threatened social safety and economic order in the town of Linjiang in Kaixian, so they can be called a gang, but they aren't a criminal syndicate.

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Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2011

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