Note: As we were finishing off this story about serial killers and mass murderers in China, news broke of a massive manhunt for murderer and armed robber Zeng Kaigui.
Yang Shubin looked the part: fat and rich. At nightclubs, he would say he ran a power station and buy expensive drinks. Women quickly swarmed around the flashy businessman who offered double the regular price for an evening’s company and would sometimes even bring gifts. When the long nights drew to an end, Yang had no trouble persuading a girl to leave with him.
They probably thought themselves fortunate to land such a generous customer. After all, becoming mistress to a wealthy businessman is the ultimate career move for a karaoke girl in China. On returning to his apartment, therefore, they would have been surprised to find a woman already at the home: 20-year old Ji Hongzhie, Yang’s girlfriend — and partner-in-crime.
With the help of a pair of childhood friends from Heilongjiang, Wu Hongye and Zhang Yulian, they would tie the woman to a chair, then beat her with sticks and iron bars, demanding bank details. Yang liked to slap their bare flesh with a spatula while his girlfriend needled their breasts, arms and legs. Later, after withdrawing the cash — the amounts ranging from 60,000 to 500,000 yuan — they would force some victims to call their colleagues to persuade them to come over to the trap.
The bodies would later be chopped up, boiled and fed through a meat-mincing machine. Large bones would be crushed up with clamps, and added to the meaty paste which the gang would dump in drains or trash cans outside hotels and restaurants. Between 1998 and 2004, they made about 2 million yuan this way but, despite staying on the move, decamping from Shenzhen to Zhejiang, there were worries about getting caught.
In Guangzhou in 2001, one pair of sisters, kept captive for 13 days, spotted axes, saws, tape and garbage bags through a doorway. Realizing the TV had been on the same channel for hours — suggesting the apartment was empty — the two struggled loose and escaped. One had been so brutally tortured she needed breast implants.
After barely evading capture on that occasion, the gang’s luck was running out. The following year, in the northern city of Jilin, a resident of an apartment complex investigating a blocked pipe found mangled body parts. Arrest warrants were issued but all four of the gang members escaped on September 11, 2002 — then vanished. For nearly a decade, it seemed as if they had gotten away with murder, slipping into China’s migrant population without even a trail of public outrage or scrutiny.
But Harbin policeman Xu Jianguo did not forget. Having grown up in the same neighborhood as both the head gang members, Yang and Wu, Xu had a personal interest in seeing the case through to the end. And in 2007, the Harbin Public Security Bureau learned it had gotten hot again: Yang’s family was reported to have moved abruptly, en masse, whereabouts unknown. An intensive investigation eventually led Xu, now with his own dedicated task force, to Baotou in Inner Mongolia, and the busy family home of one Wang Xuekai. Wang shared his quarters with 11 others, including brother Wang Xueli, Xueli’s girlfriend Ma Haiyan and Wangxue Guo — all, it was to emerge, expertly forged identities. On November 3, 2011, an armed team raided the property and arrested the gang of four; a month later, with the world focused on a peasant uprising in Wukan, their capture was publicly announced.
Almost ten years after their last victims — two prostitutes robbed of 160,000 yuan — were found stuffed down a drain, Yang Shubin’s kill team were discovered playing happy families, running a successful foot massage parlour and billiard room. The Harbin police view the case as both a major success — and an unprecedented case in recent history.
But the case is not unprecedented.
“China has a serial killer problem,” Beijing criminologist Professor Peng Weimin (a pseudonym at his request) told me over a two-hour dinner of dumplings in Beijing. Sipping from his beer, small flecks of grey in his donnish black hair, Peng reeled off a series of anecdotes concerning various killers from the past. He knew the details of some cases, but often he was able to offer just outlines: prostitutes that washed up on a river bank in Shenzhen, tales from a north-eastern city where dozens of schoolchildren never came home.
Some of the serial killers whose crimes have been documented in the Chinese media and academic journals include the below (note that some of these are taken from yeshi (野史- unverified popular histories).
Tu Guiwu, a loan shark who stabbed and dismembered eight in Chengdu;
Chen Yongfeng, sentenced to death at the age of just 20 for murdering 10 people and throwing their body parts in a river over three months in 2003;
Li Zhanguo, a multiple sodomist who killed at least 11 between 1991 and 1995, exclusively targeting male villagers with severe learning difficulties;
Wu Jianchen, another serial rapist from Hebei responsible for 15 murders in 1993;
Huang Yong, a pederast who killed either 17 or 25 teenage boys between 2001 and 2003;
Chen Zhengping, arrested in Henan in 2002 for the deaths of at least 42, including children, after lacing rice balls at a rival snack bar with rat poison;
Peng Maiji, who used a meat cleaver to murder 77 in Shanxi, Jiangsu, Anhui and Henan, executed in 2000;
Wang Qiang, executed in 2003 for the murders of 45;
Li Shangxi, Yang Mingjin and Li Shangkuan, a Guanxi trio who committed 26 murders together between 1981 and 1989;
Yang Xinhai, the “Monster Killer” perhaps the most famous Chinese serial killer and mass murderer.
In 2006, after an hour-long, closed trial, Yang Xinhai was convicted of killing 65 men, women and children (the highest tally of victims of a single killer in the US, by contrast, is 48).
Yang Xinhai was an intelligent but introverted child, born into desperate poverty in Henan, who dropped out of school and began drifting through Shanxi, Shaanxi and Hebei taking work as an occasional labourer.
Aged 20, Yang Xinhai did his first stretch of prison time for theft; eight years later, he served three years of a five-year sentence for attempted rape, before being released in 1999. At some point in those three years, Yang Xinhai went from being a sullen petty criminal to an all-out maniac.
Nothing quite explains the escalation or intensity of Yang Xinhai’s actions after he got out of jail – he bicycled around Henan, Hebei, Anhui and Shandong breaking into homes at night and murdering the occupants, often whole families – his biggest single “kill” was five. He used hammers, shovels and axes to bludgeon and chop his victims. Sometimes he had sex with the women’s bodies.
The Chinese press cited the usual factors behind his going amok: greed, irrational hatred of women – his girlfriend supposedly broke up with him — and “revenge against society.” Commercial gain, girl trouble or a kind of all-purpose societal rage are habitually used to explain away otherwise-unfathomable crimes such as Yang Xinhai’s; there is, experts shake their heads, no method to the madness. Indeed, it was only a random spot-check at a nightclub in Cangzhou that caught him. Yang, whose details were on file from previous convictions, was wanted in four provinces for mass murder. Yet it took a background check for the cops to realize they had the country’s most-wanted non-political criminal in their cells.
“There used to be strict hukou [household registration] regulations which forbade people from flowing around,” said Professor Peng. “It doesn’t work like that anymore these days: people can go anywhere they want, which means police don’t have effective control of who’s in their district doing what.”
Allowing free-flow of labor to modernize industry has also enabled predators — and victims — to roam the provinces as anonymous hired hands and has helped create the kind of society that enables those who reject it to strike back the hardest.
“When I killed people I had a desire [to kill more]. This inspired me to kill more,” Yang confessed. “I don’t care whether they deserve to live or not. It is none of my concern… I have no desire to be part of society. Society is not my concern.”
Beijing, considered one of the world’s safest cities, provides no refuge from serial killers.
There’s Li Pingping, a Beijing taxi driver who killed his former boss and family in 1995 and a further four prostitutes with the bad luck to catch his cab between 2002 and 2003. He was apparently angry that they out-earned him.
14 prostitutes operating near the Great Wall Sheraton were also killed by Beijing-born Hua Ruizhou in 2003.
In May 2011, Song Jinghua was executed for killing nine in a bizarre bid to avenge his brother, who was caught and executed for another murder after, Song suspected, his girlfriend tipped off police. Song was only caught in 2007 when a neighbour spotted him trying to conceal a human head.
“And in the 1990s, there was another guy who was especially killing prostitutes in Shijingshan district in Beijing,” added Peng. “It originally started because he used to have sex-workers as neighbours. They annoyed him by coming home late and making too much noise.”
A long day’s drive southwest of Beijing and or northwest from Shanghai, Henan is China’s least celebrated, most populous province. Henan is a by-word for criminality. It’s hard to exaggerate the contempt in which the central-eastern province is held by outsiders. If hearsay is to be believed, Henan is to blame for virtually every thief, grafter and deadbeat the country has ever had to offer. It also may be the serial-killer capital of China.
According to Professor Peng, “Henan alone has several cases. Recently, there was one guy who killed six well-off men. He had a homicide charge hanging over him originally, so he had to escape. What he did was ride a scooter-taxi around, taking passengers and killing some. The murders were for money. There are also serial child killers. There was one who put up a wooden rocking-horse in his backyard to lure kids there and kill them. He was convicted of killing six, although the bodies found in his yard amounted to more than 10.”
Another pair of killers from Henan fled the province in 2003 after one, Shen Changying, stabbed a man to death. He and his brother Shen Chanping, 22, went north to Hubei, where they abducted and robbed a prostitute, killed her and dismembered the body. The next potential victim, Li Chunling, 23, persuaded them to spare her in exchange for luring more potential marks back to the apartment. Li Chunling was made to kill the woman she brought back before things got even more twisted: the pair of killers removed the girl’s kidney and ate it, before dissolving her body in sulfuric acid. The robbery-cannibalism continued across Shanxi, Anhui and Inner Mongolia, recruiting more female accomplices as bait before one of them finally escaped and went to police, who caught the brothers in the act of dissolving pieces of their latest victim.
In 2005, they were sentenced to death for the murders of 11 women, all picked up in KTV bars and “hair salons,” while their three female accomplices received between 3 and 20 years’ imprisonment.
More recently, in September 2011, Chinese journalists began arriving in the city of Luoyang in Henan. The story they were following was grim, if familiar: Gangs selling “hogwash” or “gutter” oil, recycled from restaurant drains, had been busted with 100 tons of the stuff in Shandong, Zhejiang and Henan. Authorities were touting it as a major safety initiative but many suspected there was more to the official version.
After crusading local television journalist Li Xiang, who broke the story, let his Weibo followers know he was “following illegal cooking oil dens closely,” he was found dead – stabbed 13 times outside his apartment in the early hours of a Sunday morning. The police insisted this was nothing more than an unfortunate coincidence. Rather than being silenced by shadowy interests, Li Xiang was simply the victim of a botched mugging: two local ruffians were subsequently charged with robbery and murder.
Ji Xuguang, a reporter with Southern Metropolis Daily, one of China’s most progressive newspapers, was also in town to see if, like the gutter-oil story, there was more to Luoyang and Li’s death than its ongoing Civilized City campaign would have him believe.
In fact, there was something going on but it had nothing to do with Li Xiang. Police had received information from the relative of a woman who claimed to have escaped from an “underground sex dungeon.” Five other women had also been held captive, tortured and raped; two were now dead, though at whose hands is somewhat disputed.
Their gaoler was Li Hao, 34, a former fireman and employee at the technological supervision bureau in Luoyang who had spent the past 22 months cruising karaoke bars in Luoyang picking up victims, while his wife thought he was working as a part-time night watchman.
The women were kept in a remarkably sophisticated underground prison four meters under a rented basement behind seven iron doors, fed enough to keep them weak and given access to laptops for entertainment. Li Hao killed one, allegedly with the connivance of one of his prisoners — a kind of Stockholm Syndrome apparently pervaded the dungeon, with detainees competing for Li Hao’s attention — and another girl was put to death for “disobedience.”
After Li Hao was caught fleeing, the police hoped to deal with the matter quietly. But Ji Xuguang, working for a powerful media organization outside their jurisdiction, had inconveniently got hold of the story. Ji Xuguang was stopped and questioned closely by police (though not, he stressed to me when I spoke to him over the phone, arrested or “detained,” as the New York Times later suggested) and warned he was infringing upon potential “state secrets” – a catch-all term often used to harass or persecute reporters who publish unfavorable stories.
Ji Xuguang exited the province and published.
The alleged serial rapist-murderer Li Hao suffered full and swift consequences: after a week, the Guangzhou Daily reported Li Hao was “fired from [his] inspection team under the Bureau of Quality and Technical Supervision of Luoyang”; he was stripped of his Party membership and will be put on trial. All four police under whose auspices the crimes took place were dismissed. Controversially, the women he’d held were also detained and even accused of conspiracy to commit murder.
Although Li Hao’s acts don’t quite fit the definition of “serial killer” espoused by some experts (which requires three separate murders), kidnapping six and killing two doesn’t seem a bad place to start. How does someone get away kidnapping and killing – in a supposedly authoritarian regime – for so long, without anyone noticing?
When I asked Professor Peng this question, he resignedly admitted, “They were hookers. Their status was low, so no one cared.”
Targeting sex workers and migrants and staying on the move is the formula that many of China’s serial killers use with considerable success. Lackadaisical cross-provincial law enforcement is one of the two biggest flaws in China’s policing system (the other is press censorship, which keeps crimes from being exposed and tracked in the media).
“Regarding crimes committed in other places, the police will avoid getting involved as much as possible,” said Peng. “Solving other police forces’ cases won’t contribute to their performance assessment… the slogan “Homicides must be solved” is talking about cases in one’s own district. You’ll be blamed for failing to solve them, and [you won't get credit] for cases in other places. Assisting others is not their responsibility.”
Of course, a culture of local police looking after their own is hardly exclusive to China. But it gets worse: “It can be tricky when police actually catch criminals from other places. They can’t be sent to the local reformatory because they don’t belong there. They can’t be sent back to their hometowns because of the costs.” These might include train tickets, accommodation or hospitality for their opposite numbers in the public security bureau. With rare exceptions, such costs fall on the arresting division.
The result is cops dealing with crime by focusing on local criminals and deploying scarecrow tactics — creating the illusion of a heavy security presence in the community via “flashing police lights and CCTV cameras” — to deter migrant criminals from settling in their areas. The obvious solution would be an autonomous, state-run centralized bureau of criminal investigation – like the FBI.
“Currently, when a homicide occurs, a central investigation team will be set up by the Crime Investigation Bureau [CIB] under the Ministry of Public Security and sent to the location where the major investigation started, organising and supervising the case’s solution,” Peng said, outlining the official view: “In the US, states are independent from each other so it’s necessary to coordinate them but in China, the policy issued from the central government will be passed down and carried out thoroughly to the bottom of the system, so there’s no need for such a coordinating system.”
Certainly, China’s police are evolving. There are a few forensics labs in major cities and a nationwide database that registers suspects and fugitives from across the country — the same one that caught Yang, the “Monster Killer”. The centralized CIB employs veteran policemen as well as scientific and academic staff like forensics specialists and lie-detection experts. But it often serves a political end. The official line towards crimes like murder since 1983 is “the heavier, the faster, the better,” was softened in 2009 to “heavy and light punishment combined.”
The CIB is normally brought in to deal with cases that threaten public stability — for example, the notorious 2010 school stabbings by Zheng Mingsheng — and answer to ministerial ends. In the case of Zheng the school stabber, the ministries for education and public security jockeyed with each other to issue sterner denunciations and assurances over future security, against the advice of experts, who warned that propaganda slogans were worthless against “big, unpredictable cases committed by nobodies.”
Meanwhile out in the sticks, where the mountains remain high and the emperor is still far away, statewide policies are frequently ignored. The Ministry of Public Security issued police forces with new directives in 2003 to warn the public of potential serial killers after the much-publicized case of a child-murderer from Henan (again!), the main feature of which was a spectacularly inept police investigation:
Huang Yong was a 27-year-old former PLA soldier turned migrant worker who’d ended up alone in his parents’ home in Dahuang village, Pingyu County, a tumbledown abode of ramshackle brick houses, barely surviving trees and rubble-strewn yards. While most Henan youths had headed east looking for work, Huang stayed behind while his parents worked in the city and sent money home, which Huang used to support his habit — hanging around Internet cafes in Pingyu city, offering advice to teenage boys who’d drop by after school to play computer games. In September 2001, the family of one raised the alarm after their son didn‘t come home. Both police and, later, the schools involved refused to offer help finding them.
“The police kept quiet in case of social panic, so other parents weren’t aware and couldn’t take precautions,” Peng said. “More and more kids went missing.” One escaped with bruises around his neck and went to authorities with his story; apparently convinced it was a prank, they sent him home. A week later, Huang Yong was arrested.
To this day, the official number of victims is fiercely disputed among local villagers, who also claim Huang kept victims’ genitals in a jar and became murderous after his girlfriend had an abortion and left him. The authorities say Huang watched too “many kung-fu and violent films” and haven’t deviated from the initial figure of 17 victims: all boys, all chosen, according to the court, because females were “less heroic” and older men “more vigilant.” But a year after Huang was tried and executed, a group of grieving parents visited the late killer’s residence during the annual Tomb-Sweeping Festival and uncovered more remains in his abandoned yard. Some have been petitioning Beijing for justice since before even Huang’s arrest, receiving only harassment and attempted bribes for their troubles.
The new edict, ordering officials to warn of potential murderers in the community, should have prevented the public from being kept ignorant of future investigations. But three years later, Ministry of Public Security spokesman Wu Heping was facing the cameras in Beijing and telling reporters much the same story. The location was different but the modus operandi of both police and killer was almost exactly the same: 33-year-old Gong Runbo, a convicted rapist who’d been trolling internet cafes in Heilongjiang Province looking for impressionable kids much like Huang. Over 10 pairs of children’s shoes were allegedly later found in Gong’s abode but police say there was only evidence enough to charge him with six deaths.
“Six kids may have died for our failings,” Wu admitted. The police had known someone was abducting children but kept it quiet, in disobedience of the 2003 directive. And the Ministry knew who the blame lay with: “Despite the government’s ban on minors in Internet bars,” Wu chafed, “Gong was taking these kids in and out without being confronted or reported by the local cafe.”
2003 was a bumper year for serial killers. Yang Xinhai the Monster Killer’s capture coincided with two other major cases. Huang Yong, the aforementioned killer of 17 or 25 teenage boys was arrested, and so was another pair of killers: 43-year old Ma Yong and his 20-year-old female accomplice Duan Zhiqun who were arrested in Buji, Longgang District near Shenzhen for the murder of 12 female migrants picked up in labour markets, dismembered and dumped in a local river.
The official reason given for the murders of a dozen desperate workers was textbook China: The victims “had mobile phones” and “looked physically weak”. The killers “were motivated by money,” Xu, a Buji government spokesman, said.
If murdering migrants for money doesn’t seem to make sense, consider another deeply troubling case from 2009 in Shenzhen. The “special economic zone” is principally famed for its preferential policies to attract foreign investment and promote domestic entrepreneurialism, but Shenzhen is fast catching up with Henan in being known for its serial killers. According to one sociologist, “Shenzhen’s most special trait is its people’s high mobility and mutual strangeness… which means many social norms go unobserved here.”
The remark referred to a series of child kidnappings and murders that haunted the boom city in 2008 and 2009. According to the Global Times,
Shenzhen, one of the richest cities in China, is now haunted by kidnappings. Deputy Police Chief Shen Shaobao was quoted by the Guangdong and Shanghai media stating in a July press release that the city averaged 44 kidnapping cases a month in the first quarter. A total 52 kidnapping cases were reported in the first 20 days of April.
Child kidnappings are old news in China – 190 children disappear every day, mostly, it is believed, to trafficking gangs, though no-one really has any idea how many simply fall prey to independent, transient abductors. The victims’ families are normally poor, rural and illiterate. Their cases are dealt with perfunctorily — if at all — by overworked or uninterested police forces and there’s very little parents can do for their missing offspring.
In the Shenzhen cases, though, the families were well-to-do — and vocal in their distress. Despite their protests, which were covered in the media, the police were as dozy and unforthcoming as ever, an attitude which compounded the pain and even exacerbated the problem.
“I wish the police had publicized the cases,” one bereaved father told the Southern Metropolis Daily, adding that, had he only known of the existence of the kidnappings, he might have been able to prevent his own son’s disappearance.
Wang Weilan, a reporter who covered the case for the Global Times, witnessed first-hand the authorities’ stonewalling of inquiries. “The police refused to give any information,” she told me. “They either said, ‘It’s still under investigation,’ or ‘I know nothing about that. The leader in charge isn’t here’ or ‘Give us a fax about your questions’ and then they totally ignored the fax.” Chinese government bureaus are possibly the only ones that still routinely direct official inquiries to be delivered via fax, a neat trick that abrogates any responsibility for answering.
Keeping a lid on rumours – sometimes called “fake news” — is something of an obsession in China, where the dissemination of incorrect information is actually a crime that can land an unwary gossip in jail. The culture of secrecy and the prevalence of fake news effectively feed off each other. In 1997, Shanghai was awash with talk of a woman-hating murderer on a motorcycle; the killer was targeting girls with long hair and bludgeoning them to death with a hammer; he was taunting authorities with letters, boasting of his deeds — he had killed ten, they said, and wouldn’t stop until 100 were dead; a police chief tasked with stopping him had already resigned in despair.
While Shanghainese women rushed to get haircuts, the city’s media stayed stubbornly silent. Finally, as panic mounted, the police abruptly announced they had got their man: a migrant worker called Wei Guangxiu had been arrested and charged with attacking 13 middle-aged women and one elderly man. For the public, though, the story didn’t end there. “The rumors have poisoned and bewitched people’s minds,” a senior officer afterwards lamented. He was right: most people suspected Wei was a scapegoat.
“Local police, for the sake of regional peace, sometimes fail to do inform the public,” said Professor Peng, who added Beijing that technically directs them to do just the opposite. “The reason partly comes from public pressure too. The public reckon the police are incompetent if there’s any case they can’t solve… the public’s petition channel is far less developed than in the West and media is still the major pressure that the police face.”
“Social stability” — maintaining a grip on power as well as public perception– trumps concerns such as public safety. The scarcity of reliable information in Shenzhen even extended until after the inevitable guilty verdicts were handed down. “The court wanted to be very careful about the verdict,” Wang Weilan said. “People were very angry about the cases: They had to consider [that] anger.”
While the relaxation of the hukou system has enabled people to disappear and be disappeared, the country’s economic explosion has placed a desperate strain on social tensions; the sprawling disparity between the have-nots and the have-a-lots has never been greater. “Shenzhen is a city of migrant workers and successful people,” Weilan noted. “The former is desperate, the latter is established… When they share the same city, problems occur.” The city’s population of nine million has a GDP per capita of around $13,000, the highest in China (the average is $7,544). “Many people in Shenzhen come to the city as first-generation immigrants,” she added. “They don’t have roots here and thus have fewer conventional constraints. The criminals are more reckless.”
In society, those who choose children as their victims are considered the lowest caste of criminal, despised even by their own kind. In China, crimes against children are arguably even more sensitive. There is a traditionally filial culture, where offspring are expected to provide for older generations and the country’s family-planning policy can mean an only child is a family’s sole source of survival. Yet even in this most sensitive of areas, the police cut a swathe of incompetence.
Still, victims’ families are at least promised swift justice. With a conviction rate of 98% (according to Criminal Justice in China: a History by Klaus Mühlhahn, Harvard University Press, 2009), an arrest is tantamount to a death sentence. The sentence is carried out almost as swiftly as it is handed down, usually within three months; Huang Yong was convicted of 17 murders less than a month after being arrested and executed 15 days later (“the heavier, the faster, the better”). Cheaper, too: while the average Death Row inmate costs the great state of Texas $2.3 million in legal and incarceration bills to incarcerate and then execute, for example, the taxpayer goes relatively unburdened in China.
So villains are quickly scrubbed off the face of the earth, and with them goes any chance of understanding what made them turn to serial murder. In one example Professor Peng gave of how determined authorities in China are to keep civilian expertise at bay, Li Meijin, a University of Public Security expert, eventually had to submit her questionnaire to the police for Qiu Jinhua, a Shaanxi serial killer of 11, via a contact at the People’s Daily.
After the 2003 execution of Yang Xinhai, the People’s Daily offered some reassuring news for the reading public: the Ministry of Public Security had called a “special meeting… ordering police around the country [to] try harder to deal with severe crimes involving murder [and] kidnapping.”
Eight years later in 2011, the propaganda department was hard at work on the Luoyang sex slaves case, issuing a September 22 order to local media in Henan to desist reporting on it. It was a busy month for them: the US-based China Digital Times revealed more directives hushing up a series of “vicious murder cases” in Guiyang County in Hunan — and an even juicier story that wouldn’t see the light of day, back (once again) in Henan.
The townsfolk of Fangyuan, an isolated “no man’s land” (according to a now-deleted Southern Metropolitan article) awoke one morning “shocked” after discovering a neighbour had been arrested and charged with being a serial cannibal; Xiao Lansheng had stayed up just the night before playing cards with them. In his spare time, Xiao Lansheng is alleged to have raped, butchered and turned into medicinal wine the bodies of “at least” five 12-year-old schoolgirls. Hair, a human skull and female underwear were found at his property, a former Buddhist nunnery later used as living quarters for 1970s “educated youth,” and accessible only via a dirt road.
Here “he distilled their hearts to make baijiu and squeezed oil from their hands and feet.” Another reports claimed he “invited friends and family to eat them, saying they were exotic animals hunted from the mountain.” A media blackout was quickly imposed.
Awkward questions, rumors and the all-consuming concern for public face: It is these concerns, not marauding murderers or public safety, not vulnerable women or missing children, which keep officials awake at night –and the bogeymen safe in their beds.
As this story was being edited, China added yet another serial killer to its expanding list. A massive manhunt is currently underway for former cop Zeng Kaigui — with 13,000 officers, two helicopters, road blocks and a massive publicity campaign keeping citizens aware of the danger.
That sounds like a proper serial-killer investigation, so what’s changed? Nothing — in the system — but the circumstances are exceptional. Firstly, the police have the culprit positively identified; not only that, he’s one of their own, a former PLA military policeman gone tonto. That’s a major embarrassment (with potential consequences for local authorities) where it’s better to lose some face now than risk your neck further down the line. Second, his most recent crime was almost impossible to cover up: a 200,000-yuan bank heist in downtown Nanjing that ended with a fatal shooting.
But Zeng Kaigui has been on the radar since as far back as 1995, and performing robbery-murders since 2004. There’s a sense this is a last-resort tactic, presumably sanctioned at a very high provincial level, as police officers in different provinces have upped his bounty substantially. The China Daily says “Numerous police forces are now offering rewards for his arrest, including Chongqing – 100,000 yuan($15,800), Nanjing – 150,000 yuan and Ma’anshan, Anhui province, 200,000 yuan. State media have suggested that Zeng is some kind of Chinese Rambo, “a marksman… skilled at avoiding surveillance,” adept at disguise, having been on the run for years, and who communicates only via grunts and body language. Last time anything like this happened was November, when a quartet of four (underage, unthreatening) soldiers in Jilin stole a rifle, hoping to pull off a few bank jobs then skip the country, but got tracked down and shot dead within a day. The story was completely buried in China — there was no initial danger to social stability, not enough to the public, and the army is shrouded in so much hyper-sensitivity, even the names of regiments are state secrets. With Zeng, the factors have changed; the priorities remain the same.
Update (May 26, 2012): Cannibal serial killer arrested in Yunnan
The author Robert Foyle Hunwick can be reached on foylehunwick -at- gmail.com.
Links and sources
Time magazine: Blood in the Streets by Matthew Forney
South China Morning Post magazine: Dead Reckoning, by Didi Kirsten Tatlow (not available elsewhere online, download these PDFs 1, 2, 3)
Global Times: Schoolchild murders haunt boom city by Wang Weilan
China Geeks: Living with Dead Hearts (documentary film in production about child kidnappings)
Ynet.com: 实拍10人碎尸命案抓捕 杀人魔王肢解小姐堵下水道
My 399.com: 终极对决———“9·11”杀人碎尸案追踪系列二
Sina special on Monster Killer Yang Xinhai: 杨新海杀67人强奸23被判死刑
Douban: 档案一. 中华人民共和国最早的连环杀手之一
Baidu Baike: 白宝山
Jinling Ziyi blog: 东北二王千里追击，“东北二王”杀人案件全剖析
Shen Xinyun’s blog: 广西李尚昆，杨名金犯罪团伙-1989, 保定连环杀人恶魔吴建臣-1993
Sina: 黄勇狱中接受采访：作为杀手我不相信任何人，平舆特大杀人案犯黄勇自述一个杀手的心路历程, 河南平舆特大系列杀人案
Netease: 杀死分尸6幼童 连环杀手宫润伯的人生裂变