China’s Reappearing Murder Victims
Image Credit: REUTERS/David Gray

China’s Reappearing Murder Victims


With a homecoming years in the making, Zhao Zhenshang was surely expecting to give his fellow villagers a surprise when he turned up after 12 years in the ether. Instead, the greatest shock was his: Zhao had long been thought dead. Indeed, a former neighbor was already a full decade into a 29-year sentence for Zhao’s murder.

This dramatic return from the grave – and the subsequent release of Zhao’s alleged “killer,” the unrelated Zhao Zuoha – made international headlines back in 2010. As the story went, the two had come to blows in 1997 over a woman, after which Zhao Zhenshang had fled the village. When a headless male body was found in the locale two years later, suspicion would fall on the other Zhao. After all, nothing had been heard from his fugitive neighbor following their punch-up.

“All the evidence the police got was fake,” Zhao Qizhong, deputy director of the Shangqiu public security bureau, would later tell China Daily. Despite judicial reluctance – the case was returned three times by prosecutors, citing lack of evidence – local police were determined to press the case. While bureaucrats wrangled, Zhao spent almost three years behind bars awaiting reckoning. In the end, his fate would be decided not by lawyers but politicians: in August 2002, the Shangqiu Political and Legislative Affairs Committee decreed he should be prosecuted for murder.

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The subsequent investigation into the miscarriage of justice unleashed against Zhao would come to absorb practically every department responsible, from the arresting officers to the presiding judges. But although most focused on the unique nature of Zhao’s vindication – his victim was suddenly, and most demonstrably, alive – to legal experts, the case was less singular.

Just three years before the Zhaos’ fateful fight in Henan, another apparent love triangle had led to a wife and mother vanishing from her home in Jingshan, Hubei. Zhang Aiqing’s (a pseudonym) 1994 then-disappearance did not sit well with her relatives, who suspected Zhang’s restless husband She Xianglin, a young man with ambitions and a mistress, of having taken one of their domestic disputes too far. And when a bloated female corpse floated to the surface of a local pond some weeks later, the mystery of Aiqing’s vanishing appeared to have been tragically resolved. The family’s identification of the body led straight to She, who would go on to serve 11 years for the crime.

From the very start, the case against She was hopelessly flawed. Aiqing’s brother voiced doubts from the start: the body, he felt, bore only vague comparison to his sister. Of course, the police explained, the family could apply for DNA testing, then in its infancy. But that would take weeks, they warned. It may not even be conclusive – moreover, this new technology would have to be paid for by Aiqing’s family (even today, the RMB20,000 ($3,211) fee mentioned would be prohibitive to many rural households. In 1990, the average income was about RMB139 per month). Caught on the horns of this ghastly dilemma, with their worst fears seemingly realized and a ready-made scapegoat in the wings, Aiqing’s family allowed themselves to be persuaded that the authorities had their daughter – and the police had their man. At a special meeting a few weeks later, the Jingshan investigative team would be showered with praise for providing a smooth and speedy resolution to the case.

The courts were less disposed to agree – even though, some 18 years after the Cultural Revolution, rural China still had “no law [and] no lawyers,” in the words of law professor He Jiahong. The Hubei Province High People’s Court first sent the case back for reinvestigation, citing insufficient evidence. In response, the families of both victim and accused began lobbying hard for justice. “Suddenly,” writes He in Back from the Dead: A Landmark Ruling of Wrongful Conviction in China, “the case that the government had lauded as a model of policing had turned into a hot potato that they could not drop.”

Back from the Dead provides a detailed, 60-page account of the entire She Xiangling case, narrating a sorry catalogue of bungled detective work, torture and confession, mixed with political maneuvering that resulted in one of China’s most notorious miscarriages of justice.

The politicking began almost as soon as the case began to waver under the Hubei People’s Court’s decision.  In the 1990s, well before Weibo, 3G and wireless Internet, the antiquated system of shangfang – petitioning – was, to all intents, the sole resort of redressing injustice in China. And indeed, She’s mother had tracked down an actual Party Secretary in a distant village, who verified that a woman matching Aiqing’s description had appeared, lost and confused, two months previously. The chopped affidavit She’s mother received was enough to make trouble for the Jingshan police in the midst of railroading her son. (Though it has a miniscule success rate, petitioning remains highly subscribed: in a 2004 Southern Weekend survey, of 10 million pleas registered annually by the China Petition Office, only one in every 500 were “resolved.”)

But Aiqing’s relatives were also working public opinion, gathering over 200 signatories to bear witness against She’s poor character as a husband and demanding due punishment. It’s the kind of pressure Chinese provincial courts respond to: the nebulous but ever-present threat of “social instability” and any unwanted scrutiny or oversight that might entail. (In an irony that He alludes to in the preface of Back From the Dead, 1994 was the year of the infamous O. J. Simpson murder case in Los Angeles. The likelihood of an O. J.-style acquittal, with its attendant racial tensions, would not only be impossible in China, but might be regarded as a complete breakdown of the rule of law.)

Their reputation challenged, Jingshan police duly responded: She’s mother and brother were detained and intimidated, for months and weeks respectively, for presenting “repeated” petitions. She’s mother, once “a sturdy village woman… was half deaf and blind” when she died shortly after her release, He explained at a recent book talk in Beijing.

Still, with no physical evidence, a disputed corpse, and even shakier motive (a dispute over the shared affections of another female villager was mooted by police), the court still wasn’t prepared to condemn She to death. After prolonged negotiating, the local Politics and Law Committee agreed on a legalistic compromise – “If the proof is unclear, the sentence should be lighter” – and came up with a complicated plan to contain the toxicity of their flawed investigation, while still ensuring She Xianglin received the “appropriate” punishment. In 1998, the Basic People’s Court sentenced She to 15 years; three months later, the Intermediate People’s Court rejected his appeal and upheld the Basic Court’s verdict. Without a death sentence to contemplate, the higher Hubei People’s Court was adroitly prevented from further complicating matters.

Backroom dealings over ramshackle cases like those of She Xianglin and Zhao Zuoha sometimes result in long prison sentences, rather than the standard execution – in which China now leads the world. Although their lives were irrevocably damaged, both She and Zhoa were relatively fortunate compared to the fate of a luckless Hunan butcher, Teng Xingshan, executed in 1989 for the murder of a maid called Shi Xiaorong.

When Shi embarrassingly showed up, alive and kicking in Guizhou, four years later – having been abducted, sold and trafficked to Shandong in 1987 – Teng’s wife did not dare petition the court to clear her husband’s name for another 13 years – she was, she said, “so poor and… afraid” of the local government’s possible retribution. When her daughter, Teng Yan, was finally delivered the news, she sought legal aid, and authorities were appointed to investigate. After six months, and 16 years after his death, Teng was formally exonerated by the local government.

Zhao and She’s existences went on, of course, but their lives were more or less shattered by the time of their release. Believing her husband a convicted killer, Zhao’s wife remarried, taking two of their children and leaving two others for adoption; Zhao’s house, on his return, was reportedly a ruined husk. He wanted “at least RMB1 million ($146,400),” Zhao told reporters, for the suffering: “but I know they won’t just give me what I want.”

When She was acquitted, meanwhile, he immediately visited the graveyard of his mother, who died trying to clear his name, before later meeting – under intense media scrutiny – with the adult daughter he had not seen since she was six. Representatives from the police, courts and local government offered a combined compensation of RMB902,000.

If being falsely imprisoned for more than a decade was not enough, She he had undergone severe torture in the years leading up to his trial. “After ten days of beatings… my whole body was bruised, and I couldn’t walk or stand,” he wrote in his prison diaries. “I would comply without hesitation to their demands so long as they would let me rest.” Zhao underwent the same, telling relatives he was forced to consume “chili-infused water” (a technique used by the Japanese against the prisoners during their wartime Occupation) and police set off fireworks above his head.

Torture is – or at least, until very recently, was – regrettably systemic in Chinese investigative practice. All police forces prefer confessions, and Leninist-style systems particularly embrace their propaganda value. Likewise forces everywhere are under pressure to solve cases – in Chicago, for example, the phenomenon has become rampant – but perhaps especially so in China. Officers are judged according to various performance indices, including a “solving rate.” In Henan, the Public Security Department issued a statement in October 2013 “strictly banning unscientific assessments like ‘number of criminal detentions,’ ‘case numbers,’ and ‘clear-up rate’” used to rank performance, news portal Dahe reported. According to the report, the decision was made to address the issue of “wrong, false and unjust sentencing.” The Henan Business Daily quoted a detective who explained the indices created huge pressure: “if they fail the assessment, not only the officer himself, but his department will be affected too… unusual measures, like ‘interrogation,’ have been taken to solve crimes.” Cases brought by prosecutors often use confessions as a major plank in the case, sometimes the sole one – even if they are retracted in court by the defendant (as was the case with She).

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