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.
Zhou, Long, and her mother met for lunch, where Zhou spoke openly about his business ambitions. Long's mother was wary and told her not to see or talk with him, even by phone. Long shared her mother's dislike of his badgering for coal connections, but like most any teenager, she also resented her mother's suspicions. Long had declined much of Zhou's hospitality, but she had already by her own account accepted hundreds of dollars in gifts, including a plane ticket, food, and clothes. She was edging toward the guanxi labyrinth of debts and obligations.
On Jan. 7, 2009, according to Long's account to Foreign Policy, Long invited Zhou for a meal at the Mao Family Mansion restaurant in Guiyang to explain what her mother had told her, at which Zhou allegedly exploded. She says that he shouted: "Do not even think about vanishing before finishing the task!" The following day, she alleges, Zhou was waiting at her Guiyang hotel when she returned to collect her bags before heading back on a flight to Beijing that her mother had booked for her. According to Long, the last thing he said before beating and raping her was: "When you receive gifts, you reciprocate."
Rape allegations are notoriously tricky to prosecute throughout the world. In China, the problems are compounded because the Communist Party explicitly controls the courts, and money can buy almost anything that isn't seen as challenging the party's grip on power. Whatever took place between Long and Zhou at 3 p.m. on Jan. 8, 2009, it's not clear that the Chinese legal system can deal with it. Cases of this sort are depressingly common. In August of this year, a woman was sentenced to 18 months of re-education in a labor camp for protesting in front of government buildings in Hunan province to petition for justice on behalf of her daughter who, at age 11, had been reportedly kidnapped, raped, and forced into prostitution in October 2006 by local officials. The mother was released after a nationwide outcry.
Long's mother advised against reporting her complaint to police, to avoid public humiliation, according to Long. Nevertheless, on June 13, 2009, five months after the alleged rape had occurred, a colleague of Long's mother joined Long at a police station on China North Road in Guiyang to file a statement. The officer on duty gave her a sympathetic hearing, she said, and investigators soon identified Zhou's DNA on a hotel sheet she had stashed into her bag and paid for on her credit card while leaving the hotel. After the alleged rape, he had hand-washed the sheet, she claims, but not thoroughly. Zhou acknowledged the existence of this evidence in an interview with Chinese media, but claimed that their relationship was consensual. "This only explains that we had sexual relations, not that I raped her," Zhou told a Hong Kong media outlet in July 2011.
Foreign Policy listened to more than an hour of what Long says are taped phone conversations that she made (without Zhou's consent) on the advice of a friend. In one of them, which she says was recorded four days after she had gone to the police, Zhou says they had been "lovers." In other tapes, reviewed by a journalist at Phoenix Weekly, a Hong Kong magazine, Zhou allegedly boasted to Long about the personal connections that had enabled him to acquire and defend his mining interests. His success depended not only on having a prodigious political network but also on being seen to have it, necessary in a system where wealth is chronically vulnerable to officials and businesspeople higher up the food chain.
Zhou had cultivated connections above the heads of Long's parents and beyond Liupanshui. Long says he told her, but she never confirmed, that one of his key business partners was a son-in-law of China's former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping. Whoever Zhou's most important partners were, Long believes, they were in his debt and potentially exposed if he fell. Long said that she gradually saw that she was not taking on one person, but a whole machinery of wealth, politics, and unfettered administrative power.
After Long lodged her police complaint, Zhou began to demonstrate what Chinese call "mobilization capacity." Long says that in the weeks after she filed the complaint in June 2009, the policeman who took her complaint began avoiding the family, and investigators at the China North Road police station declined to accept receipts that showed, for example, that she had paid for the bedsheet when checking out of the hotel. Frustrated, Long's mother threatened to put on her police uniform and petition in Tiananmen Square if they closed her daughter's case file. Soon it was clear the case was going nowhere, and Long, running out of options, resolved to petition. Her family first accompanied her to Beijing to petition together in January 2010.
But the petitioning system had a near-perfect record of failure, a truth Long and her parents would find out for themselves.
The parents wore dust masks to avoid being recognized and trailed behind their daughter to further confuse her followers. They coached Long on how to avoid the freelance "interceptors" engaged by the city and provincial governments to kidnap petitioners before they can lodge complaints at one of several central "Letters and Visits" offices. A huge, lucrative extralegal security apparatus has grown alongside Beijing's campaign for stability preservation. A parallel bribery network also exists to cancel complaints of petitioners who do get through. "If petitioners manage to get their cases registered … the responsible local government attempts to erase the registration by networking and bribing relevant senior officials, because the record of local petition can jeopardize their political career," wrote Juan Wang, a researcher at Griffith University, in a paper delivered last year to a conference on stability preservation at the University of Technology, Sydney.
Long said she spent more than two years moving among the unregistered hostels that exist in Beijing basements and do not ask for registration documents. On the rare occasions when she was able to evade the police and freelance interceptors, she registered her complaint at the Letters and Visits offices attached to the State Council, the Supreme People's Court, and other important central departments. Like nearly all petitioners, she never heard a response.
The interceptors, hired by Guizhou province and Liupanshui municipality, knew her well. They were trained to monitor arriving trains and buses and patrol the access routes to petitioning destinations, working cooperatively with police to hand her over to the retrievers, but unlike with ordinary petitioners whose parents are not senior officials, they rarely detained her for long. "Most black jails I went to were small, dirty houses in faraway and unknown places," she says. "But I never stayed a night." The child of senior Guizhou officials petitioning in Beijing is rare; indeed, Long may be the only one in modern history. She says her mother was gradually sidelined from meaningful duties in her internal intelligence work. Subordinates who worked for her stepfather told me that he was investigated for corruption after Long's allegations against Zhou and was effectively sidelined prior to his official retirement, though there was no official notice. Despite all this, Long persevered, though she was frequently escorted out of Beijing and back to Guizhou by authorities. Yet she kept making her way back to Beijing to recommence the ritual. "She really did like petitioning," said Ding Xinjun, head of Liupanshui's foreign affairs department, with a nervous laugh. Zhou, it seems, was too powerful to be brought down, but so was Long.
And today? A Guiyang city policeman who had handled the rape investigation, surnamed Yu, told Foreign Policy that the ongoing case is being managed at the provincial level. But an official at the Guizhou provincial Public Security Bureau who had handled the case, Deng Jun, said inquiries should be directed to Liupanshui. Ding, at the city's foreign affairs department, initially said the case had already been resolved in court, before backpedaling without further explanation. The Politics and Law Committee, which oversees the provincial police and courts, said to talk with "Letters and Visits," without specifying which one.
Eventually, Long went public. First, Long says, she posted on her blog details of her story. In June 2011 she escalated her campaign by talking with journalists from the Hong Kong magazine Phoenix Weekly. The "petitioning mayor" caused a sensation. "How terrible and evil it is when privilege loses all control," read the most popular online comment on the story, which received more than 4,000 likes on Phoenix's website. It continued, "Only when one becomes an ordinary person can they know why democracy is important."
Response was swift -- but not of the kind Long hoped for. A journalist who works for Phoenix Weekly and was involved in the story told Foreign Policy that thugs attacked him soon after publication. A few Hong Kong journalists from Phoenix Weekly and other publications say that when they were in Guizhou for the Ethnic Minorities Games in September 2011, the province's ambitious Communist Party secretary, Li Zhanshu, called them in to deliver a special warning about not "harming Guizhou's image," a message the journalists linked to Long's story. (Li has since received a major promotion in Beijing).
The Chinese news portal Sohu interviewed Zhou in July 2011; he denied all rape charges and said he and Long had an extramarital affair. (Long says she never had consensual sex with Zhou.) He said he would step down from his standing committee position on the CPPCC government advisory body because he was causing a headache for the leadership, which he promptly did, even though he said he was guilty of no wrongdoing. Long says her parents came under great pressure to sign statements denying they had ever petitioned.
On July 20, 2011, the People's Daily, the mouthpiece newspaper of the Communist Party, printed a full denial of the story of the "petitioning mayor," which relied in part on comments Long says her stepfather never made. It did not contact her for the story, but it did publish her real name for the first time. That's when she escalated the case to the highest level possible in China -- by contacting me.
Long, now 22, speaks softly but forcefully. 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 said. "I do, and that's why I am so scared."
* * *
This July, after we had spoken dozens of times, Long sent me a series of increasingly frantic text messages saying that authorities had cut off her phone and had threatened her friends and landlord, and that people were beating on her door. Then she vanished. When my assistant and I arrived at the Liupanshui train station on Aug. 30, we knew that the stability-preservation bureaucracy would have been alerted by my journalist identification from the moment we booked our tickets.
My assistant and I walked from the train into a crowded car park. We saw roughly half a dozen burly men in polo shirts wrestling two short adolescent boys to the ground, just next to us, pulling their shirts over their heads and handcuffing their wrists 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 plainclothes 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 standoff, for perhaps half an hour, as I pointed out that I had not witnessed even the apparently mock crime they had staged for us. But our compliance was not optional. We spent most of the day in police company before a police cavalcade escorted us straight onto a first-class carriage of a Guiyang-bound train.
In mid-September, Long re-established contact for the first time since July. In emails she detailed how she had been detained for two days in Beijing, where she says she was beaten and then met at 3 a.m. on July 23 by a top Guizhou official, who personally ensured her removal to Guizhou. Neighbors at Long's Beijing apartment recall an incident involving a large number of police at the time. Her mother secured her informal bail in exchange for guaranteeing that she would not leave the family home until after the 18th party congress, the annual meeting of top Chinese Communist Party officials, so that the appearance of stability could be preserved for the unveiling of China's new generation of leaders. As of this article's publication, that is where she likely remains.
"China is a country of rule of law," the head of Liupanshui's foreign affairs department had assured us, 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!"