HONG KONG — In recent weeks, news surfaced in China about the fate of some of the so-called “heroes” of Chongqing's anti-mafia campaign, one of the most controversial marks left by purged politician Bo Xilai in the city he governed. The campaign led to thousands of arrests and several high profile executions, but also drew allegations of police and court abuses which authorities have been slow to redress.
In its heyday, Bo Xilai’s campaign against organized crime helped build his reputation as a rising star in the Communist Party.
But month’s after Bo’s high-profile downfall on corruption charges, Chinese media reports have detailed the fate of the policemen who helped him during his fight against Chongqing’s local mafia.
One of them committed suicide, apparently because of health problems. Four are detained or serving jail sentences. Others are still working in Chongqing's police forces and have since been promoted.
During Bo’s trial, prosecutors steered away from the anti-mafia campaign in Chongqing. They did not mention Bo's role in ordering or allowing police abuses which became more public following his downfall.
Even now, there is little information about the extent of the crackdown.
Lawyer Li Zhuang was jailed in 2010 on charges that he forced his client, a Chongqing crime boss, into forging testimony.
“There is no public information about the amount of assets confiscated, the amount given back, how many people have been arrested and sentenced, how many people have been executed or sent to labor camps, how many people have been beaten to death or injured by police. All these figures are still a secret and they have yet to be disclosed,” he said.
The “strike the black” campaign started as an effort to get rid of gangsters alliances and the umbrella of political protection they had used to gain power in Chongqing.
One of the earliest cases targeted former police chief Wen Qiang.
According to media reports he had effectively shielded at least nine criminal gangs. He was sentenced to death and executed in 2010, and his trial marked the rise to power of his successor, police chief Wang Lijun.
Critics say the campaign quickly veered into excesses, with confessions extorted through torture and a general disregard of due process during trials.
Prosecutors also targeted the richest private entrepreneurs in the city, and confiscated their wealth.
Ming Xia, a professor of political science at the City University of New York, has been researching the nexus between organized crime and political power in China.
“Local governments, if they want to implement the law, if they want to maintain order, without the collaboration of local mafia groups they cannot become effective,” Xia noted.
Such relationships, Xia said, ensure that local governments enrich themselves using bribes from some of the gangs' illicit profits.
At the same time, he said, when criminal organizations become too big the government can easily target them and public support gives them much leeway to disregard the rule of law.
“If you have a hotel, if you have a company, and if you do any crime committed within the company, then they can say these crimes are committed through this organization. So it is organized crime, they can take away all your property no matter if you got it through legal ways or illegal ways,” Xia said.
While some of the assets have been returned to the families of the people sentenced, Li Zhuang says the government in Chongqing has not reversed wrongful convictions.
The reason for the delay despite many appeals filed by family members, Li Zhuang says, is the domino effect that would entail.
“Every single case, every wrongful conviction can be linked back to all the other cases, the scale of it is huge and the problem remains very sensitive,” he said.
During the peak of Chongqing's anti-mafia campaign, when policemen like Wang Lijun were hailed as heroes and given medals, Chongqing's methods to fight the mob were made into a nationwide model.
By purging Bo Xilai, analysts believe the central government has sent an indirect signal against such large scale campaigns.
“It would be very rare now for such outrageous anti-mafia campaign, the way Chongqing did it, to happen in other places in China,” said He Weifang, a prominent legal scholar at Beijing University.
But he added that the most positive effect will come when authorities will establish the mistakes they made during the crackdown, and re-examine wrongful convictions.