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Dead Men Tell No Tales

5 minute read
Matthew Forney | Harbin

Fan Zhen scanned her husband’s face for signs of trouble as he descended from the prison bus. He’d seemed nervous lately and had complained of threats against him. But now hope had surfaced once again. After repeated denials, prison authorities in Harbin, near the Russian border, had announced that Fan’s husband, Zhu Shengwen, would be home by the Lunar New Year, granted medical parole after seven years in jail. All that remained were some medical exams that Zhu, who suffered from hypertension, was scheduled to undergo on the afternoon of Dec. 29, the day of Fan’s visit. As a guard watched, Fan handed her husband $200 to pay for the tests. His smile reassured her, but “if I’d known what would happen next,” Fan recalls, “I’d have embraced him one last time.”

In happier days, Zhu had been vice mayor of Harbin—a man of considerable power in Heilongjiang province. But in 1997, he had fallen from grace in spectacular style when a local court sentenced him to life in jail as one of 67 officials indicted for taking bribes while supervising the conversion of Harbin’s bomb shelters into an underground shopping mall. Accused of pocketing some $112,000 in bribes, Zhu attracted huge media attention on the mainland. He was fictionalized first in a best-selling book, Covering the Tracks, then in a hit TV mini-series. Now, his drama was about to take an even stranger twist.

During his medical examination, Zhu excused himself to visit the washroom. There, according to state media reports, he leaped through a window that was open to the subfreezing weather outside, eluding a guard who grabbed at his legs but succeed only in pulling his trousers to his knees. Zhu, who was 57, fell nine meters and died instantly.

Fan insists it was murder. She and other family members say that Zhu had adapted well to prison life. He enjoyed working in the prison library and teaching English to inmates, and he had taken up oil painting. A portly, balding book lover who once studied economics in Italy, he had just devoured The Count of Monte Cristo and identified with the main character, who wreaks slow revenge on those who have falsely accused him. In his last week, says Fan, Zhu promised to take her on an around-the-world trip and to teach history to his nephew; he also asked for a book called In Search of Excellence to help plan a business career following his release. These, she argues, were not the actions of a man about to commit suicide.

What’s more, Fan adds, Zhu had recently warned that the family was in danger. He advised them to lock their doors at night and told Fan that prison authorities left him alone in the library because they wanted him to kill himself.

That was odd, but not the first time that Zhu had portrayed himself as the innocent victim of dark forces. He had long maintained that other officials in Heilongjiang had set him up after he discovered their connection to the bomb-shelter debacle. In a 34-page letter to the court, he described being chained to a hook on the cement floor of a prison basement as interrogators beat him into confessing. “If you die here,” he quoted one saying, “your family won’t even get your ashes.” The official who oversaw the investigation, he went on, was one of those he had discovered taking bribes.

Whatever the case, the corruption scandal that led to Zhu’s downfall still creeps along. In October, police detained Heilongjiang’s former Party chief, Tian Fengshan, accusing him of corruption dating to the bomb-shelter scandal. It seemed likely that prosecutors would review Zhu’s testimony. Not long after, claims Fan, two retired judicial officials visited Zhu in prison and “warned him not to ‘make things messy,'” (A warden declined to comment on the visit.) After that, Zhu became afraid, advising his daughter in Japan against visiting home and warning his sister to watch her son carefully. When authorities unexpectedly offered medical parole, says Fan, Zhu feared it was a setup. Days later, he was dead. Officials say simply that he had been depressed.

A few days after Zhu’s death, Fan Zhen posted her accusation on the Internet. Censors immediately removed it, but others soon offered their own commentary. “Looks like political murder,” reads a typical posting on the People’s Daily website. Chinese have seen this type of intrigue before. A Beijing vice mayor, Wang Baosen, committed suicide during a 1995 scandal that brought down a Politburo member and might have gone higher if Wang had lived. Likewise, Zhu’s case will remain forever murky. To his widow, however, there is no doubt that he died at somebody else’s hands. “My rage,” says Fan, “is etched in my bones.”

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