Gangsters Inc.

Mama San: Godmother of the Chinese Underworld

Special to Gangsters Inc.

This is an excerpt from the new book, Queenpins: Notorious Women Gangsters from the Modern Era

The book is published by Strategic Media Books (www.strategicmediabooks.com) and is available from the web site, Amazon.com and other publishing outlets.

Mama San: Godmother of the Chinese Underworld

By Ron Chepesiuk

In 1997, the central government of the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) central government ordered that a huge area adjacent to the city of Chongqing be incorporated into the city, and. Chongqing became the word’s largest metropolis with a population of 34 million. Since then, Chongqing has garnered a reputation as also being one of the world’s most corrupt cities. So disturbing, in fact, has been the corruption that Chinese authorities ordered a crackdown on Chongqing’s organized crime syndicates in June 2009. Indeed, it was the largest anti-corruption operation in the PRC since its founding in 1949.

Revelations about Chongqing’s underworld, especially the activities of queen pin Xie Caiping, both shocked and titillated the Chinese public. Xie’s trial revealed lurid details about sex and lifestyles and showed how deeply organized crime had infiltrated public life in China.

The high profile anti corruption campaign began in February 2008, when Cao Jianming, the Procurator-General of the Supreme People’s Procturatorate, publicly expressed the Chinese government’s determination to crack down on organized crime. “The overall number of criminal cases keeps growing, demanding new efforts in maintaining social stability and harmony,” Cao revealed. “We must handle all criminal cases endangering national security and social stability with an iron fist. Efforts should be made to resolve conflicts and disputes in a way they could be nipped in the bud early.”

The New York Times agreed that the PRC had a big problem. “The CPC (the Chinese Communist Party) has been confronting many crises, but as a party, it is sandwiched by the two most serious challenges, corruption and crime,” the newspaper wrote. It noted that while stability and order has been a top priority of the ruling elite, for the past three decades crime in China has grown much faster than its economic development.

It is difficult to fathom the idea that China could have an organized crime problem, given the authoritarian nature of the state, but China watchers generally agree that corruption forms the most formidable threat to China’s future. One official has called the country’s ruling body “one of the most corrupt organizations the world has ever witnessed.” Meanwhile, economists have revealed that theft, bribery, kickbacks and misuse of political funds cost the state at least 3 percent of its GDP annually.

In China and Chinese communities worldwide, organized crime syndicates are known as Triads and they have a history that extends hundreds of years in time. The Triads have an international presence, with members in nearly every country of the world. Their strongest presence, however, is in China, the U.S. and Southeast Asia. Like the Japanese Yakuza and the Italian Mafia, the Triads have well-organized initiation ceremonies and are involved in a wide array of criminal activities, from illegal gambling and human trafficking to murder and prostitution. In Chongqing, the Triad gangsters operate as well in a variety of legal businesses, such as the wholesale sea food trade, the private bus network, the taxi business and the entertainment industry.

Many of the Triad godfathers began their criminal careers in Chongqing, where the city’s top party leaders and government officials protected them for at least two decades. Corruption had been so entrenched in Chongqing that it took a directive from the highest level decision-making body in the PRC before enough law-enforcement resources could be mobilized to combat organized crime.

The anti corruption campaign was led by the popular and charismatic Chinese Bo Xilai, the Communist Party secretary from 2007. Prior to the crackdown, Bo had repeatedly warned that the corruption threatened the CPC’s legitimacy and public confidence in the political system.

Xilai is the son of Bo Yibo, an economic planner and one-time ally of the supreme leader Deng Xiaoping. In the 1990s, Bo was mayor of Dailian in northeastern Liaoning province before moving to Beijing in 2004 to become the nation’s commerce secretary. In 2007 Bo was appointed party secretary of the booming municipality of Chongqing. The appointment was considered a promotion but many thought it was actually a sideways step. So Bo had to do something to bring himself back into the political spotlight, many China watchers concluded. Hence, the anti corruption campaign. By 2009, as his anti corruption campaign had gained momentum, Bo was being talked about as the future of the party. He had become a political star and a highly popular figure in Chongqing.

“He is trying to perform his way back to Beijing,” Huang Jing, a professor at the National University of Singapore said. “It is a well calculated but risky gamble to get into the 5th generation (post 2012) leadership.”

Bo publicly acknowledged the risk of a campaign that gave him a high profile and took on some of his city’s most powerful political interests. But news reports indicated that Bo’s crusade had the support and encouragement of the highest echelons of the Chinese Communist Party.

And so the crackdown began in June 2009 when the Chongqing authorities began raiding the city’s illegal gambling dens. Initially, the force involved 3,000 police, but the number eventually swelled to 25,000. The city police where re-assigned from their regular beat in order to break up any patronage that might have formed between the police and the Triads or corrupt officials.

By November, 2009, the dragnet had netted more than 1544 suspects, including some of the city’s most prominent businessmen and high ranking public officials. Bo’s aggressive campaign, however, soon drew criticism. He was criticized for his style and personality. In April 2010, Asia Times assessed that “Bo, who trained as a journalist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, had created a personality cult in Chongqing that some critics say harbors back to Mao Zedong and the Cultural Revolution (1966 to 1976). He has even claimed Mao as his spiritual mentor.”

He was also accused of using questionable methods to get convictions. Lawyers for the defense claimed that they had not been allowed proper access to their clients, and that their clients had been tortured. Bo drew the wrath of the Chongqing legal community when he arrested Li Zhuang, a lawyer who was representing one of the Chongqing gangsters in the corruption trials. Li was accused of encouraging his client to lie, but Li claimed in court that police tortured him. It was to no avail. He received an 18-month prison sentence. Mo Shaoping, China’s most prominent human rights lawyer, charged that the case “is a devastating blow for all lawyers. It is the basic problem that political might supersedes law and the rules.”

Included in the arrests was 46-year old queen pin Xie Caiping, perhaps the city’s most notorious gangster. Despite being the city’s only female gang boss, Xie, who is nicknamed the “Mama San” of Chinese crime, was described as fitting the image of the tough, dangerous and hard bitten gangster. One associate described her as “being good at debating and drinking and very helpful to friends.”

Given the tight control the Chinese authorities exhibited, the kinds of details that came out about Mama San and her activities were remarkable. Her trial exposed her incredible criminal career and the extent of the corruption in Chongqing. It also revealed her life of decadence excesses, depravity and sexual indulgence. So outrageous were the revelations that the court took on a circus-like atmosphere, as Chinese citizens flocked to the court to hear about the queen pin’s salacious exploits.

A native of Chongqing’s Ba-nan district, Xie organized a group of mobsters and ex-convicts who helped her establish an estimated 20 illegal gambling casinos, which generated hundreds of thousands of dollars in illegal profits before the crackdown. One of the gambling houses was right across the street from the courthouse. Many of her casinos provided free gifts to attract customers, while one illegal casino required customers to play with a minimum stake of $1,300 in local currency. At her trial Xie, denied organizing and paying gangsters and claimed the regulations she set for her clubs were “game rules,” not “rules of the gang”

The queen pin employed a security force that kept an eye out for possible raids and operated like a legitimate police force. So even the police were not safe from Xie’s displeasure. The queen pin’s security once caught one police man named Xie Yingkuang, who was working undercover investigating Xie’s gambling dens. In August, 2006, Xie’s security exposed Yingkuang’s cover. After being held for about twenty-five hours, Yingkuang was stuffed in a gunny bag and left in the wilds, many kilometers away from Chongqing.

On at least one occasion, Xie detained a police officer whom she claimed was a “thief from the outside.” Xie was also said to have thugs beat up businessmen and women when they didn’t agree to turn their establishments into casinos. The queen pin’s treatment of informants was brutal. One of Xie’s victims claimed at her trial that Xie ordered her subordinates to find out who reported to the police and then cut their hands and legs.

Xie (right) used her wealth to live a lavish and decadent life style. She drove a Mercedes Benz, owned several luxury villas and kept a stable of 16 young men who provided her with sexual services. Xie tried to claim in court that she co-habitated with just one man: her driver, Luo Xuan, who was 20 years younger than her.

Xie’s wealth and power allowed her to operate with impunity, and she was able to buy protection from the corrupt Chongqing establishment. For years, she was protected by her brother-in-law Wan Quiang, who until his arrest in June 2009 was the city’s long-serving deputy police chief. During his tenure as a Chongqing’s legal official and police chief, Wen was so busy acquiring the accoutrements of power that law and order in the city deteriorated. More than 640,000 criminal cases remained unsolved and 1,447 murders were not investigated. As the highest police official on trial, Wen’s crimes were deemed so serious that he faced the death penalty if convicted.

The government had shown it to be deadly serious about the corruption campaign. At least seven people were executed in trials preceding Wen’s. In 2000 a vice governor of Jiangai province was executed for taking $650,000 in bribes. Four years later, a former vice governor of Anhui province was put to death for taking bribes worth a little over $620,000. Both of these vice governors were accused of stealing less than half the amount that Wen was accused of stealing. Then the day after Wen’s trial started, Yue Cun, a police official, was sentenced to death. Ironically, Caiping, Wen’s most powerful gangster ally, did not face the same potential sentence he did.

Wen may have just been a public official, but the place he lived in was described as “palatial-like” with a two meter tall ivory screen at its entrance and at least one hanging light with crystal worth more than 100,000 yuan ($17,000) in his living room. One investigator told the court, “I knew it (Wen’s house) would be grand, but I never thought it would be that grand. We have retrieved a truckload of up-market luxury goods from Wen’s house.”

Wen was arrested and charged, but at his trial he denied protecting gangsters, claiming he knew nothing about what was going on in the casinos. Wen’s lawyers even described the money he received from the others associated with the illegal venues as “gifts of relations,” and Wen claimed he thought he was dealing with “businessmen.”

Still the prosecution was able to prove that between 2003 and 2008, Wen received 786,000 yuan from mobsters, and that from 1996 to 2009 he received more than 15 million yuan ($2.2 million) in bribes from 19 organizations and individuals. Prosecutors were able to bolster their case when the authorities found $3 million worth of yuan buried beneath a fish pond on his property. The bounty received from payoffs included 181 bottles of choice wine, 80 pieces of jewelry and watches, 36 fine arts, nine cultural relics and 69 rolls of printings. Wen had a particular liking for Louis Vuitton belts and fossilized dinosaur eggs.

Wen was grilled on the witness stand for 70 minutes about the property. He claimed they were gifts he received on his birthday and other special occasions. “That’s normal etiquette and should not be considered bribery. “Wen argued on the witness stand. Prosecutors concluded that at the end of the day Wen and his family could legally explain no more then 4 million yuan ($680,000) of the property they received.
In testifying, Wen also tried to explain away his relationship with sister-in-law Xie Caiping. He claimed they were actually on bad terms; in fact, they did not even talk to each other. But prosecutors presented evidence that Xie often fled just before a police raid, sometimes with suitcase full of money, after Wen had tipped her off.

Given his power, Wen was use to taking what he wanted, especially women. He also had numerous affairs with all types of women, from college students to singers. The disgraced public official was also accused and later convicted of raping a university student in 2007 and 2008.

Wen’s enormous sexual appetite helped bring him down. Fed up and in an effort to save herself, Wen’s wife turned against him. The wife told investigators that from January to August of 2009 he was only home seven nights and each time he was drunk. Pouring it on for the prosecutors, Mrs. Wen gave her assessment of who was the most affectionate person in her family’s household: the son, the dog and her husband—in that order. The prosecutors were unimpressed. The wife was charged along with her husband.

By the time Xie and Wen got to stand trial, nearly 6,000 Chinese officials had been charged with corruption. Wen was found guilty in May 2010 and Xie in November 2009. During her trial, Xie’s behavior did little please the court, and her profanity laced testimony drew a rebuke from the judge. Yet remarkably, Xie’s sentence was light, given the nature and extent of her crimes. She was sentenced to 18 years in prison and fined $150,000. Wearing an orange jump suit over a black t-shirt and baby blue prison trousers, Xie listened to the verdict without emotion. She was totally unrepentant. Meanwhile Xie’s lover, Luo Xuan, received four-and-half years.

Outside the court, many in the large crowd were shocked and angered by the verdict. ‘We didn’t believe our ears when we first heard it’s just 18 years,” said Chen Yanling, a Chongqing resident who claimed she was beaten by thugs after refusing to turn her teahouse into a casino. “How many crimes did Xie commit?”

The written verdict noted that (Xie’s) “gang had practiced illegal activities, harbored narcotics takers and bribed public officials. This generated serious repercussions and greatly disruptive normal social lives.” Andie.com, a Chongqing web site, said that Xie and her gang had “severely broken the norms of society.” Another onlooker commented: “Bear this in mind: she, to our great surprise, is the commander of an organized gang. I doubt if we can rehabilitate her within 18 years.”

The big catch was Wen, and in April 2010, the state got what it wanted. The 55-year old disgraced ex-public official was sentenced to death for taking bribes worth more 16 million yuan ($2.4 million). The state, moreover, confiscated all of Wen’s assets. Wen threw himself on the mercy of the court and admitted the charges, but to no avail. In May 2010, the appeal’s court upheld Wen’s death sentence. Given the Chinese government’s determination to make examples, Wen’s chances of escaping the death sentence did not look good.

Many of the 200 people, who gathered outside the courthouse, waiting for the verdict, were not happy with the ruling with what they considered to be a lenient ruling for Wen. As a police van drove Wen from the court house, shouts of “kill him! kill him!” were heard. But one woman told the China Daily newspaper: “I’m so happy the death of Wen is justice served. We are satisfied.”

The Chinese government now had its biggest victories in their battle against corruption. The criminal careers of Xie Caiping, queen pin, and Wen Quang, Chongqing former most powerful official, were history.

Ron Chepesiuk is award winning freelance investigative journalist, documentary producer and Executive Producer and co-host of the Crime Beat radio show (www.artistfirst.com/crimebeat.htm/) . He is a Fulbright scholar and a consultant to the History Channel's Gangland documentary series. His true crime books include Straight from the Hood, Black Gangsters of Chicago, Gangsters of Harlem Gangsters of Miami" and Sergeant Smack: The Lives and Times of Ike Atkinson. Kingpin, and his Band of Brothers.

You can buy Queenpins: Notorious Women Gangsters of The Modern Era by clicking this link.

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