Cracks in the armour as voices refuse to quieten

Long Meiyi was 19 when she met the mining magnate who allegedly raped her at one of Beijing's most gaudy and exclusive nightclubs, the Softly Shaking Bar. She had initially received his overtures with the confidence that came from being raised in a family of senior officials in a country where political power and connections frequently trumps all else. The stepfather who raised her was vice-mayor in the industrial city of Liupanshui, in south-west China's Guizhou province, and her mother held a senior role in the city bureau of the Ministry of State Security, China's secret intelligence service. Grandparents on both sides fought for the communist revolution. But, when the girl's complaint vanished into the vortex of the city's legal-political system, the family found that the local red aristocracy had been outplayed by the provincial nouveau riche.

Long's case caused a sensation in the Chinese blogosphere because her stepfather, Tian Wancang, was responsible for Liupanshui's "stability preservation" apparatus, which has been China's greatest bureaucratic growth industry in recent years. Tian shared responsibility for running the city's police, procuratorate, courts and also the notorious ''letters and complaints'' system that ostensibly provides redress for administrative injustices while collecting intelligence on disgruntled citizens.

Tian's overriding task in managing the city's political-legal system was to preserve the veneer of a "harmonious society" over the top of China's increasingly fractious reality by preventing aggrieved individuals from petitioning for justice in the capital. But he found the stability preservation machine he helped create was more powerful than he was. A year after his daughter's alleged rape, he joined her in Beijing, with a dust mask to hide his identity, to coach her on how to outfox the system and successfully lodge a complaint.

Long met Zhou Shili, the mining magnate, on Boxing Day 2008, at the Workers' Stadium nightclub precinct, just after the Beijing Olympics. Zhou's Qingli Group owns coal, phosphorous and non-ferrous metal mines. This year, the company expects to dig 1.2 million tonnes of coal, which would alone generate 270 million yuan ($41 million) in profit, according to the company website. Zhou was also a standing committee member of the provincial China People's Political Consultative Conference, a prestigious advisory body, which entitles him to mix easily with top provincial political leaders. His most important patron was the chairman of the conference, Huang Yao, the deputy party boss of Guizhou province.

When Long told Zhou she was preparing to enter China's most prestigious performing arts academy, he handed her a business card and said he was scouting for talent for his film production company. She wrote down her phone number and family details as asked. He took great interest in the name of her stepfather, who he knew to be vice-mayor of the second-largest city in the coal-rich, dirt-poor province of Guizhou.

Zhou had wanted to open a mine in the coal-filled hills around the grimy industrial city of Liupanshui but he lacked the local guanxi - the ubiquitous Chinese system of reciprocal personal obligations - that he needed to open doors and cut through layers of bureaucracy and regulation. Zhou set Long at ease by talking of mutual connections, particularly Huang Yao, who had gone to school with Long's stepfather and was also a member of the same Yi ethnic minority. Over the following days, Long says, Zhou kept calling. He offered to give her father a high-paid job as honorary chairman of the coal project, if only she could arrange a meeting.

"I refused him repeatedly," Long says. "But he kept asking, and reluctantly I agreed." On January 1, 2009, Zhou and Long flew together to Guiyang, the capital of Guizhou.

The Guizhou landscape is lush but famously rocky, making it difficult for peasants to eke out more than a subsistence living by growing corn and chilli. It is China's most impoverished and least egalitarian province. But the main road in Guiyang now features Bentleys and shiny luxury malls in which the coal barons of Liupanshui and their official patrons are reinvesting their profits.

Zhou got his chance to meet Long's mother when he phoned at a time when they were shopping together. He rushed to meet them and pay their bill and succeeded in convincing them to join him for lunch.

Long's mother was appalled at Zhou's brazen badgering for coal connections and told her daughter not to see or talk with him, even by phone. While Long had declined much of Zhou's hospitality, she had accepted hundreds of dollars worth of gifts including a plane ticket, food and clothes. She had been edging towards the guanxi labyrinth of debts and obligations.

Long invited Zhou for a meal to explain her mother's views, and Zhou exploded. She says he shouted, "Do not even think about vanishing before finishing the task." The following day he was waiting at her Guiyang hotel when she returned to collect her bags for the return flight to Beijing. The last thing he said before beating and raping her, says Long, was, "When you receive gifts, you reciprocate."

Zhou flatly rejects the rape allegation. "Everything she said is untrue. It's a fabrication and a frame-up," he said in a telephone interview last weekend. "I don't know what her ultimate goal was. She's happy when I am down and unhappy when I succeed. She has a mental problem."

Rape allegations are notoriously tricky to prosecute in any system, but in China they are doubly so. The Communist Party explicitly controls the courts and money can buy almost anything that isn't seen to challenge the party's grip on power. Whatever took place between Long and Zhou at 3pm on the afternoon of January 8, 2009, few would trust the legal system to get to the bottom of it.

Last month, a mother was sentenced to 18 months re-education in a labour camp for ''seriously disturbing the social order and exerting a negative impact on society''. Official reports acknowledged that her offence had been to protest in front of government buildings and otherwise petition for justice on behalf of her daughter who at age 11 had been kidnapped, raped and forced into prostitution six years earlier by officials in Hunan province. The mother was released after a national outcry.

One retired official who had held one of the top posts in the Liupanshui procuratorate, which is responsible for criminal prosecutions and investigations, said the outcomes in 10 per cent or 20 per cent of the cases he handled were influenced by money. He told the Herald it was common for businessmen to pay to have an adversary detained. He said virtually all positions in the city government were up for sale. A position as deputy mayor, for example, would cost at least 5 million yuan ($757,000) depending on the strength of existing guanxi, and such a job would easily reap an investment return of 30 million to 50 million yuan. In the view of this official, who retains close connections to senior serving officials and had worked under Tian, policy outcomes and individual justice were almost irrelevant to the workings of the system he served. "The most important factor to survive in officialdom is RMB [renminbi]," he said.

L

ong says she delayed going to police because her mother was anxious for her to avoid humiliation and Zhou had threatened to release a videotape of her in bed, which he claimed to have made. Even so, on Saturday, June 13, 2009, five months after the alleged rape had occurred, she filed a statement at the police station in China North Road, Guiyang. The officer on duty gave her a sympathetic hearing, she said, and investigators soon identified Zhou's DNA on the hotel sheet which she stashed into her bag and paid for on her credit card when leaving the hotel. He had hand-washed the sheet, she says, but not thoroughly.

The Herald has listened to more than an hour of taped conversations, which Long had secretly made on the advice of a friend. In one of them, recorded four days after she had gone to the police, Zhou says they had slept together because they had been ''lovers'' and suggests that they should meet. She told him he was a rapist, that she feared that he would kill her and that if he wanted to meet then they should do so in court.

For business success Zhou depended not only on having a prodigious political network but also on being seen to have it, in a system where wealth is chronically vulnerable to officials and business people higher up the food chain. In other tapes, reviewed by a journalist at Phoenix magazine but which she says police have since destroyed, Zhou boasted to Long about the personal connections that had enabled him to acquire and defend his mining interests. He boasted to Long of playing endless rounds of mahjong - a game, often played for money, that is almost a religion of Guizhou - with Huang Yao, the chairman of the provincial China People's Political Consultative Conference, who was also a classmate of Long's stepfather and the deputy Communist Party boss of Guizhou. Zhou says he would routinely lose 100,000 yuan a game with Huang's associates. He complained afterwards that they were as "greedy as lions". In November 2009, Huang was detained and later given a suspended death sentence for taking more than 9 million yuan in bribes. Zhou was not mentioned in brief official reports about the case.

Zhou says the fact that he has not been arrested proves his innocence and the fact of his innocence proves the integrity of the legal system. "People say 'the poor never struggle against the rich; the rich never struggle against the powerful' but her mum is this and her father is that and this shows that we can fight against them and she failed to achieve her goal," he says. "We thank the Communist Party and the sound legal system of China."

Zhou had cultivated connections above the heads of Long's parents and beyond Liupanshui. These official partners were in his debt and potentially exposed if he fell. Long gradually saw that she was not taking on one person but the whole vast machinery of wealth, politics, and unfettered administrative power.

Preserving the appearance of stability had come to override all other performance indicators across the provincial bureaucracy. China's official domestic security spending rose 15.6 per cent in 2010 to 530 million yuan, for the first time outstripping that of the People's Liberation Army. A leading researcher warned that an obsession with what he called "rigid stability", at the expense of individual justice, was creating a self-reinforcing cycle of oppression and instability that could take the nation to the brink of turmoil. The petitioning system had a near-perfect record of failure, said Professor Yu Jianrong.

After Long lodged her police complaint, and while Zhou continued to make conciliatory overtures to her, he began to demonstrate what Chinese call "mobilisation capacity". She says the policeman who took her complaint began avoiding the family. Investigators said the hotel closed-circuit surveillance system had been broken and they declined to accept important evidence. Supporters were threatened. Her parents were sidelined from their jobs.

As Long's criminal complaint vanished into the vortex of the "stability preservation", her parents joined her in Beijing. From January 2010, they would rise with her at 5am, trailing behind her and wearing dust masks to avoid being recognised. They coached her on how to avoid the police and freelance "interceptors" engaged by the city and provincial governments to kidnap petitioners before they could lodge a complaint at one of several central "Letters and Visits" offices. The routine involved frequently changing SIM cards and living in basement hotels that did not require identification.

Unlike ordinary petitioners, whose parents are not senior officials, she was never detained for long or sent to a labour camp. "Most black jails I went to were small, dirty houses in far away and unknown places," she says. "But I never stayed a night." Each time she was taken back to Guizhou she promptly returned to Beijing to resume petitioning. Zhou, it seems, was too powerful to be brought down, but so was Long. "Yes, she really did like petitioning," says the head of the Liupanshui foreign affairs office, Ding Xinjun, with a nervous laugh.

On July 20 last year , the People's Daily, the mouthpiece newspaper of the Communist Party, printed a full denial of Long's story. Not only did the journalist decline to return her phone calls but it also published her real name for the first time. That's when she escalated the case to the highest level possible in China by contacting a foreign journalist. "I am the daughter of the petitioning mayor," Long told me over the phone last September. "Would you like to meet?"

Long, now 22, speaks softly but firmly. She carries herself with chin high and shoulders back. She let me finish an anxious spiel about the likely consequences of reporting her story and then gave a far stronger warning in return. "You don't understand [the system's] methods of operation," she says. "I do, and that's why I am so scared."

In July, she sent a series of increasingly frantic text messages saying authorities had cut off her phone, threatened her friends and landlord, and finally that people were beating on her door. And then she vanished.

My assistant and I arrived at the Liupanshui train station on August 30, knowing that the stability preservation bureaucracy would have been alerted by my journalist identification from the moment we booked our tickets.

We moved into a crowded car park and roughly half a dozen burly men in polo shirts wrestled two short adolescent boys to the ground, just next to us, pulling their shirts over their head and handcuffing them amid shouts and general mayhem. One of the men turned to me and flashed police identification. "We have been watching those guys for a long time and we just prevented them from picking your pockets," said the man, later identified as Detective Wang Linjun, head of the plain-clothes division of the local police station. "You must now come with us to the station to sign a statement because you are witnesses to a crime." There was a stand-off, for perhaps half an hour, as I pointed out that I had not witnessed even the mock-crime they had staged for us. But our compliance was not optional.

The local police chief, Mr Liu, was an amicable fellow who was pleased that no petitioners from Liupanshui had successfully lodged a report in Beijing so far this year. "The cases are now being digested locally before they get to Beijing," he said. We spent most of the day in police company before being escorted in a police cavalcade and straight on to a first class carriage of a Guiyang-bound train.

This week, Long re-established contact for the first time since July. In emails, she detailed how she had been detained and beaten in Beijing and then met by a top Guizhou official who personally ensured her removal to Guizhou. She had no contact with any friends or relatives for five days, until July 26. Her mother secured her informal bail in exchange for guaranteeing that she would not leave the family home until after the 18th party congress, so that the appearance of stability could be preserved for the unveiling of China's new generation of leaders.

"China is a country of rule of law," as the head of the Liupanshui Foreign Office had assured, after rushing to welcome us at the police station. "She hasn't broken the law. If she hasn't broken the law, why would she have an issue of safety? A Chinese citizen has a right to petition!"

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