LIUPANSHUI, China — In July 2011, a Hong Kong newsmagazine published the story of a Chinese vice mayor desperate enough to petition the Chinese central government for justice after his daughter said she was raped by a mining magnate in January 2009. The daughter had initially pursued redress through official channels, responding to the alleged assault with the confidence that came from being raised in a family of senior officials in a country where political power and connections frequently trump all else. But when her rape complaint vanished into the vortex of the city's opaque and highly politicized legal system, the family found that they had been outplayed.
Unsurprisingly, the story caused a sensation -- but it did nothing to change the outcome. And so in September of last year, I received a call from a woman who introduced herself as "Long Meiyi, the daughter of the 'petitioning mayor.'" In a sign of increasing helplessness, she had decided to reach out to a foreign journalist to publicize her case. Over a series of conversations across many months, the now 22-year-old Long told me the story of how the system stopped working to her advantage.
Long and her family were part of the provincial red aristocracy, who by dint of their position and guanxi -- the ubiquitous Chinese system of reciprocal personal obligations -- existed essentially above the law. The stepfather who raised her, Tian Wancang, was vice mayor of Liupanshui, an industrial city of 3 million people in southwest 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.
Long's ordeal is extraordinary and deeply ironic, in large part because her stepfather was responsible for Liupanshui's "stability preservation" apparatus. Tian was one of the top officials overseeing the city's police and courts -- as well as the notorious "Letters and Complaints" system, which ostensibly provides an outlet for disgruntled citizens by allowing them to petition the central government but also collects intelligence against them. In China, where there is no independent judicial system, citizens appeal to Beijing in the hope that even if local officials are corrupt, the central government might deliver justice. It's a slim hope. Most petitioners are physically prevented from reaching the designated offices and have to settle for displaying their documents at prominent locations, in symbolic acts of protest and desperation. Tian's role was to quiet complaints against the powerful and the state -- until the person complaining was his daughter, and he found that the stability-preservation machine that he helped run was more powerful than he was.
Long's stepfather is now ill, according to colleagues, and could not be reached for this story. Long's mother answered her mobile phone but declined to answer questions. The mining magnate Zhou Shili, however, spoke to Foreign Policy in early September, rejecting the rape allegation. "Everything she said is untrue; it's a fabrication and a frame-up," he said in a phone interview. "China is a country with rule of law, and she can't persecute me just because her father was deputy mayor," he said. "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."
Long says she met Zhou Shili, the mining magnate, at one of Beijing's most gaudy and exclusive nightclubs, the Softly Shaking Bar, on Dec. 26, 2008. Zhou is the controlling shareholder and general manager of the privately owned Guizhou Qingli Group, which owns coal, phosphorous, and nonferrous metal mines. This year, the company expects to dig 1.2 million tons of coal, which would alone generate $42.6 million in profit, according to the company's website. Until last year, Zhou was also a standing committee member of Guizhou's Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), a prestigious political advisory body that entitles Zhou to mix easily with top provincial political leaders.
According to Long, Zhou told the then-19-year-old that he was 30 years old (he was 40), and he reassured her by establishing a long list of close mutual connections. Zhou had strong provincial connections but seems to have lacked the local guanxi necessary to open doors and cut through layers of regulation. Over the following days, Zhou kept calling, says Long. She says Zhou offered to give her stepfather a high-paying job as honorary chairman of the coal project, if only she could arrange a meeting with him. "I refused him repeatedly," says Long. "But he kept asking, and reluctantly I agreed."
On Jan. 1, 2009, six days after they first met, 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 chili peppers. It is China's most impoverished and least egalitarian province. The main road in Guiyang, less than 200 miles from Liupanshui, features Bentley cars and shiny luxury malls in which the coal barons of Liupanshui and their official patrons flaunt their profits.