How the government handles the myriad cases and the mounting evidence of wrongdoing poses yet another test for a Chinese leadership that is anxious to contain the growing scandal, but that also claims to be publicly committed to upholding the rule of law.
Many of the relatives have been making the trek from the southwestern interior city of Chongqing to the home of Li Zhuang, a prominent Beijing lawyer, who they hope can help them get justice for their relatives languishing in jails back home. Most come secretly, and do not want themselves or their relatives to be identified for fear of retribution.
“My place has become the petitioning office for Chongqing people,” said Li, who was receiving a steady stream of visitors on a recent morning. “They know I am against what Bo Xilai did in Chongqing.”
Before his sudden fall last month, Bo was a charismatic rising star in China’s opaque political system. His ascent was disrupted by a wide-ranging corruption and murder probe that has already snared his wife, a household aide and a number of his top associates. Bo’s removal, and the ensuing investigation into the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood, has embroiled China’s Communist Party in its worst internal strife since the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square.
In Chongqing, Bo was perhaps best known for leading a ferocious assault on crime called “da hei,” or “strike the black,” that was led by his right-hand man, the former police chief Wang Lijun, who later betrayed him.
The thousands jailed in the campaign, also called “hard strike” in the Chinese media, included gang members, wealthy businessmen, police officers and local government officials. About 1,000 people were sentenced to forced labor, and dozens executed, many after hasty trials that ignored even rudimentary judicial procedures. Many have alleged that they were tortured while in custody and confessed under duress.
Li, the lawyer, listens to the relatives’ stories and gives them advice where he can. But he tells them he is not in a position to offer legal services. In fact, he was one of the victims and is trying to have his own conviction overturned.
Li went to Chongqing in 2009 at the request of family members of Gong Gangmo, who ran a motorbike company and was accused of being part of a criminal syndicate. But Gong told the court that Li encouraged him to lie and to claim he was tortured — so Li was then arrested and jailed for 18 months after a quick trial and despite his protestations of innocence.