YANGJIANG, China (AP) - Scores of police gripping black clubs
guarded a courthouse in southern China on Tuesday - the first day
of a trial for two alleged gangster bosses, the "Hammerhead" and
"Spicy Qin," accused of using violence to build an empire that
included everything from underground casinos to cement factories,
truck lines and poultry markets.
The case has further exposed the dark side of Chinese society,
where crime experts say gangs are thriving amid a weak legal
system, corrupt government and policies that seem to value economic
growth over almost everything else.
Hundreds of people gathered outside the courthouse in the small
southern coastal city of Yangjiang, hoping to get a glimpse of the
alleged mob kingpins - who arrived under tight security in a police
bus with black ski masks over their faces to protect them from
attack and publicity.
The defendants Xu Jianqiang, known as the "Hammerhead," and
his partner, Lin Guoqin, or "Spicy Qin," were arrested in
November 2007 in Yangjiang, which calls itself the country's knife
and scissors capital because it boasts a big industry churning out
Court clerks said there were no open seats in the courtroom for
an Associated Press reporter, and officials refused to provide
copies of the indictment against Xu, Lin and 41 of their alleged
But a notice taped to a courthouse wall said the men were
accused of leading a gangster, or "black society," organization
that engaged in fraud, tax evasion, armed robbery, illegal
detention, malicious injury and gambling, "among other crimes."
If found guilty, they could be sentenced to death for such a
long list of offenses. The court hasn't said if they've entered a
plea for all the charges yet, and their lawyers haven't made public
But the state-run Southern Metropolis Daily reported Wednesday
that Xu pleaded innocent to charges of premeditated murder and gun
One court spectator said the defendants were known to have owned
casinos all over the city.
"I gambled in one once. It had baccarat, everything," said the
middle-aged man, who only gave his surname, Li, because he feared
the police and gangs. "These guys were so big and powerful, the
police didn't dare touch them for a long time."
Xu, according to state-run media accounts, was a Tony
Soprano-type of gangster - a burly guy with a flat bulldog face who
liked to brawl and muscle his way into deals. One photo shows him
in a white undershirt with a crew cut and dark sunglasses.
The local reports suggest Lin was more like Michael Corleone
from "The Godfather," a suave operator who sought to cover his
criminal tracks with legitimate businesses. Pictures have shown him
in a natty dark suit or smiling in a gray tweed blazer over a
cranberry crew neck.
Before his arrest, Lin held high-ranking posts in several
business groups and had a seat in Yangjiang's local legislature.
The way gangsters - or triads in local slang - have been joining
forces with business leaders and officials to create powerful
syndicates is a serious problem in China, said Dennis Wong, head of
the criminology department at City University of Hong Kong.
"The reason organized crime groups are so prevalent in mainland
China is that China has yet to establish rule of law and people do
not respect law," he said. "It is still a country ruled by
people, so it's easy for triad gangs to exist."
Wong added that the problem is compounded by the government's
policy of fixating on economic growth. Officials often turn a blind
eye to gang-controlled casinos and brothels because they provide a
service demanded by the businessmen who stoke the economy, he said.
"Chinese police fully understand this fact, so they rarely
crack down on prostitution and entertainment parlors," Wong said.
China's top leaders have repeatedly pledged to take a harder
line on corruption, and they have targeted several high-ranking
political and business leaders in recent years, including the
former mayors of Shanghai and Shenzhen.
One of the hotbeds of triad activity has long been wealthy
Guangdong province, where Yangjiang is located. In many ways,
Guangdong is China's New Jersey, a gritty industrial region next to
a big glitzy financial center - Hong Kong. Guangdong also shares a
border with the booming casino city of Macau.
Macau and Hong Kong have long-established, sophisticated triad
groups that have penetrated deep into Guangdong, said Sonny
Shiu-Hing Lo, a political science professor at the University of
Waterloo in Canada. These partnerships with mainland gangs are
growing because organized crime has become more fluid and flexible,
based on friendships and the common interest of chasing profits, he
"A bad economy may squeeze the economic income of triads and
crime groups, but they can adapt easily by engaging in various
types of criminal activities like extortion, loan sharking,
underground gambling, drugs trafficking," said Lo, author of the
new book, "The Politics of Cross-Border Crime in Greater China."
In good times, Lo said, the triads engage in legitimate
activities, like investing in property, stocks and restaurants.
That's what Xu and Lin were known to have done before they were
arrested, according to the Southern Metropolis Daily, which has
provided the most detailed coverage of the case. Citing court
documents the paper has described the defendants' rise and fall.
Xu, who had a reputation as a street fighter, and Lin, who was a
small-time gambler, met in an illegal casino in 1990 and quickly
started working together, it said, with Lin using the younger Xu as
his muscle against possible gambling cheats.
The two began stockpiling guns for a gang, and the turning point
in their careers came in 1992 when a major Yangjiang crime boss
lost a large sum of money to Lin while gambling, the paper said. Xu
beat the crime boss up and had to go into hiding.
Two years later Xu invited the boss to a meeting so they could
discuss reconciliation. At the meeting, the report said, one of
Xu's henchmen shot and killed the crime boss. The killing had a
shock-and-awe effect on other gangs, catapulting Xu and Lin to the
top of the crime community.
In 1994, they began building their casino network in hotels,
resorts and health clubs. Two years later, they moved into
Yangjiang's lucrative fishing and ice-making industries. By the
time of their arrest in 2007, they controlled 43 companies, dealing
in poultry, trucking, sand, cement, among other things, the paper
Their arrests came amid a corruption sweep in the province that
has taken down several top politicians, but it is unclear if Xu and
Lin were targeted as part of this operation.
Some at the courthouse Tuesday had a simple explanation for
"They had their hands in everything in this town. They got too
big," said one spectator, a housewife who would only give her
"But now that they might be going to prison, I don't really
feel that much safer," the 32-year-old woman said. "Once the big
ones get knocked down, the little ones will pop up and take over."