China's latest campaign against gang-related crimes will prioritize targeting officials who serve as "protective umbrellas" and gangsters at the grassroots level, which experts said will play a key role in consolidating the country's political power particularly at the local level.
The emphasis on laws, facts, evidence and procedures while carrying out the campaign, as has been ordered by the central leadership, will also help reduce the chance of prosecuting the wrong cases, experts said.
The Communist Party of China Central Committee and the State Council jointly released a document on Jan 24 starting a new round in the campaign against gangs and other crime organizations.
As gangs and organized crimes are often deeply interwoven with corruption, the campaign will target those local officials who offer protection for the criminals, it said.
In recent years, gangs have tried to take control of political power at the grassroots level, and they had begun to target logistics and transportation industries instead of the traditional sand extraction and construction industries, according to Xinhua News Agency.
"Faced with such new tendencies, it's necessary to carry out a special campaign targeting gangs or they'll become a serious hidden danger to social stability and undermine the Party's ruling foundation," said Xiong Qiuhong, a criminal law researcher with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
Previous cases have shown that behind gang-related crimes are usually corrupt officials who offer shelter. The China Discipline Inspection and Supervision Newspaper-the official publication of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, China's top anti-graft watchdog-has reported that many gang members at the grassroots level are often "influential figures" who have special relationships with county or even city officials.
To conceal their true nature, some gangs have set up in recent years companies and associations to carry out gang activities. They also use the profits to bribe local officials, who will later offer them protection, the report said.
In November, all 27 members of a gang headed by Zhu Qunyang in Xi'an, capital of Shaanxi province, were sentenced to jail terms up to life for organized crimes such as kidnapping, robbery and blackmail.
A police investigation shows that the gang has been active since 2004, when members started to set up illegal gambling facilities. Under the protection of Liu Wuzhou, former deputy Party chief of Xi'an's Zhouzi county, county police turned a blind eye to the gang's criminal activities, the court verdict said. Liu had been sentenced to 10 1/2 years for taking bribes in 2015.
Weng Ming, a researcher at the Rural Development Institute of Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said county and township officials are the ideal "umbrella" operatives in the eyes of gang members because they have real power at the local level.
What's more shocking is that Zhu, head of the gang, even became the deputy director of the villagers' committee of Tuanbiao village in 2011. On top of the title of gang leader, he also became a "village tyrant" that no villager dares to say no to.
Slapping a villager in the face in front of a news crew, openly bribing villagers to vote for them in village elections and threatening with knives those who don't obey their orders are just some of the acts from "village tyrants" according to media reports in recent years.
Liang Genlin, a Peking University law professor, said such corruption and crimes occurring at people's doorsteps would directly affect the public's sense of happiness and security.
Gangs and organized crimes at the grassroots level can make people hold gauges against local governments, which will affect social stability, Liang said, adding that he believed gang crimes in rural areas will be a major target in the latest campaign.
Police across the country have put up public notices asking people to come forward with leads in gang activities, such as exposing corrupt village chiefs and people who use their family connections to control village affairs, such as rigging elections.
On Wednesday, Shen Deyong, vice-president of the Supreme People's Court, said at a conference that courts nationwide should attach greater attention to cases involving gangs that threaten political security and political power at the grassroots level, dominate certain markets and trade, run gambling, prostitution and drug business as well as take part in transnational crimes.
The rule of law
Shen also urged courts to handle such cases strictly in accordance with the law and fully protect the rights of the defendants.
China has been launching campaigns targeting gang and organized crimes since 2000, but it has never been emphasized so much that evidence and procedural justice should be strictly followed in the campaign, experts said.
Judicial authorities should check the facts, evidence, procedures and laws applied while handling such cases, said the document jointly released by the CPC Central Committee and the State Council. It clearly bans forced confessions and requires each case to be handled on the basis of irrefutable evidence.
The rule of law is the key and an important guarantee of a successful campaign, said Wang Jinxi, a professor at the law school of China University of Political Science and Law.
"Past experiences have shown that the weak implementation of procedural laws and less attention to lawyers' opinions have caused some wrongful cases," he said. "So the fight against gang-related crimes must be carried out within the framework of laws. Targeting crimes and protecting human rights are of equal importance."
Wang Minyuan, a criminal procedural law professor with the Zhejiang University, said the emphasis on procedures in the latest campaign is "progress" and lays a solid foundation for its final success.
Change of the name
Wang Jinxi also said the change of the name of the campaign means a lot. Instead of using the conventional expression of "fighting gangs and organized crimes", the latest campaign is to "sweep out" such crimes.
"Instead of fighting the crimes themselves, the campaign will tackle the source of the problem. It sends out a signal not only to target crimes, but also to improve comprehensive social governance," he said.
Liang Genlin said the prevalence of gang crimes has deep social reasons and to punish gangsters is like to cure the symptom not the disease. "If political governance at the grassroots is effective, there would be no room for such crimes," he said, adding that the fundamental way out is to improve comprehensive governance and erase the environment that fosters such crimes.