A deathbed plea brought an unexpected guest to Li Zhuang’s home one day last March, setting in motion a legal process that soon may clear the Beijing lawyer’s name, throw out a number of convictions, and close a sordid chapter of the Bo Xilai story.
The visitor was Gong Ganghua, a businessman from the city of Chongqing, where Bo served as Communist Party chief before being deposed last spring on corruption charges in the run-up to China’s latest leadership transition.
Gong and his brother-business partner Gong Gangmo hired Li as a defense attorney in 2009 after they were targeted during a Bo city government campaign to clear out organized crime.
But later the Gongs, coaxed by authorities who wanted defense lawyers out of their hair, turned on Li.
The brothers, following alleged torture sessions for Gong Gangmo, cooperated by testifying in court that Li had advised lying on the witness stand.
Gong Gangmo and Li were convicted at separate trials in 2010, joining an estimated 3,000 people found guilty of various crimes during the 2008-11 campaign ordered by Bo.
Li served eighteen months in prison for inciting perjury before being released in June 2011. Gong Gangmo is serving a life sentence after being convicted on nine counts including organized crime, murder, illegal weapons possession and trade, and drug trafficking.
Li has insisted he’s innocent, as have many others still jailed after being rounded up during the three-year sweep. Dozens have already been executed.
Months after Li’s release—and just weeks before Bo’s career blew up—Gong had a change of heart. He decided that he and his imprisoned brother should try to right the wrongs they committed when they sealed the lawyer’s fate by lying at his trial.
Gong also wanted to satisfy the dying wish of his brother’s wife, Cheng Qi, who first met the lawyer and directed him to her family while she was being treated for cancer in Beijing.
So Gong traveled to Li’s home. He apologized for his damaging testimony. And he delivered two old smartphones that Cheng, as she lay dying, asked her brother-in-law to return to Li.
The lawyer told Caixin he was especially pleased to get the phones, which he said could be the key to his fight for justice. Stored inside each phone were videos shot during three client-attorney meetings he held with Gong Gangmo in 2009.
Li is seeking to overturn his conviction. And if a court allows, he said, the videos could be used as evidence to prove beyond a doubt that he never promoted perjury.
Li’s day in court may come soon. He told Caixin that on November 23 he met Supreme People’s Procuratorate representatives and was told, “We will handle this incident very seriously.” Six days later, he met officials from the Chongqing Municipal First Intermediate People’s Court, who echoed the procuratorate’s assurance.
A new trial would add another twist to the saga of Bo, who has been stripped of his post and party membership, and in early December was awaiting trial for alleged abuse of power and bribery. His wife, Bogu Kailai, was convicted in August of murder and sentenced to life with a two-year reprieve. And Bo’s former police chief who directed the anti-mafia campaign, Wang Lijun, was sentenced in September to 15 years for abuse of power, corruption, and attempting to defect to the United States.
“My appeal is a weather vane” for the future direction of the Bo drama and Chongqing’s justice system, Li told Caixin. “It sends out a sensitive signal about rectifying mistakes.
“All those wronged during Chongqing’s ‘organized crime’ crackdown are watching and waiting.”
Gong had apparently sensed drastic change was coming to the Chongqing political scene before Bo’s downfall. He then arranged to visit the lawyer because, he told Caixin, he and his brother had decided “we owe Li Zhuang an apology.”
In court in 2010, the Gongs testified that Li illegally encouraged Gong Gangmo to make up a story about being tortured by Chongqing police. They claimed the perjury plot was part of the attorney’s strategy to win an acquittal.
The brothers were partners at a firm founded by Gong Gangmo called Chongqing Wanguan Financial Co. It helped state-owned companies clear bad debt. The founder’s more than 100 million yuan in assets were confiscated after he was sentenced to life in prison.
Gong Gangmo also ran a motorcycle trading company called Chongqing Yingang Group and was known as an excellent salesman.
After the anti-crime task force targeted and arrested his brother, Gong Ganghua fled Chongqing. He told no one—not even relatives—his destination.
Officers working for the unit Wang formed to round up alleged gangsters fought back by nabbing Gong’s son Gong Peng. The son told Caixin he was taken into custody at a hospital just after his wife gave birth to their son, and was later tortured at a detention center called Tieshanping.
Police searching for Gong also detained and interrogated his neighbor Chen Yongwen. After several days in custody, Chen posted bail and was released. To this day, though, he’s described in Chongqing Public Security Bureau files as a criminal accomplice of Gong Gangmo.
After Gong flew the coop, his driver Wang Yong fled toward Chengdu but was arrested on a train. His wife was detained as well.
Wang said he was beaten bloody for more than two hours at a railway station police office in Panzhihua, near Chengdu, after claiming no knowledge of Gong’s whereabouts. And police threatened to jail him for accommodating Li, whom they described as a “black-hearted lawyer.”
Several months after his brother’s arrest, Gong was arrested at a friend’s house in the Sichuan province city of Yibin. While in custody and en route to Chongqing, Gong learned from television news that his brother had turned against Li with the story of a perjury plot.
“At the time,” Gong later told Caixin, “I couldn’t help but think that he [Gong Gangmo] must’ve been beaten senseless to be accusing those who had come to rescue him.”
Nevertheless, Gong eventually decided to join his brother and cooperate with Chongqing police because “I understood that if Li Zhuang were convicted, it would save my brother’s life and I wouldn’t go to jail.”
Initially, Li put his heart and soul into the Gong case. The minute he arrived in Chongqing to defend Gong Gangmo, he went to the Jiangbei District detention center and got into a heated argument with police over whether his client-attorney meeting should be supervised by members of the organized crime-fighting task force.
After the jailhouse meeting, which in the end was attended by task force officers, Li visited Gong.
“I saw your younger brother today,” Gong remembers being told by Li. “He burst into tears. He had been hanging by handcuffed wrists from jail window bars for eight days and was incontinent. The handcuffs had dug into his flesh, and the scars were obvious.”
The lawyer also explained that charges leveled against Gong Gangmo carried a maximum penalty of death. Shocked, Gong said he knelt down and cried out, “My brother’s life depends on you.”
Later during another client-attorney meeting supervised by task force officers, Li said he encouraged Gong Gangmo to bravely tell the court that police had used torture to extract confessions. The lawyer also demanded his client be allowed to undergo a physical exam—a request police denied.
On the sidelines of these client-lawyer meetings, though, Li and task force officers consistently clashed, said a source familiar with the incidents.
Task force officers reported these disputes to senior Chongqing public security authorities, who soon started looking for ways to silence Li.
In legal circles Li, who started practicing law in the 1990s, has a reputation for a sharp tongue. Some have called him fearless, others reckless. Yet he does not avoid confronting law enforcement and judicial officials who get in his way.
Before Li came to Chongqing, said Gong, task force members repeatedly told his younger brother not to hire the well-known Beijing defender. If he complied, they said, he’d get at least 20 million of the yuan seized when authorities raided his bank account.
Gong Gangmo at first refused to cooperate, telling police he would not help them nail his own lawyer on criminal charges.
His loyalty, though, proved costly. According to a source close to the police, then-Chongqing Public Security Bureau Deputy Director Guo Weiguo told officers to “intensify” their interrogation sessions, with torture.
Guo in September was sentenced to eleven years for his role in covering up the murder committed by Bo’s wife.
A member of the task force named Xiong Feng followed Guo’s command. During a wintertime interrogation session, said Gong, Xiong doused Gong Gangmo with water and switched on the air conditioner. He also said relatives including his ill wife could be arrested.
“I didn’t think they would arrest her immediately,” Gong Gangmo later told Caixin. “But they handed me a mobile phone, and I heard my wife’s voice. They used my wife who had cancer to threaten me. I really couldn’t take it anymore.”
Late one night in December 2010, according to a prison report obtained by Caixin, Gong Gangmo was taken to Guo and offered a “chance.” He was shown a document stating that Li had pressed him to testify falsely, which he was asked to sign. He was told signing the accusation would be considered by the court during his trail as a deed of merit.
The report also said that Gong Gangmo did not voluntarily accuse Li of wrongdoing, but had been coerced.
Police hoped Li’s arrest would discourage other attorneys from outside Chongqing from coming to town and defending those rounded up during their crime sweep.
Another lawyer hunted like Li but not charged was Beijing-based Zhu Mingyong. He was hired to defend Fan Qinhang, an alleged Gong Gangmo accomplice.
Zhu said he learned from his client Fan that Li had been accused of inciting perjury, and that the accuser was Gong Gangmo. Fan told his lawyer that he’d been encouraged by police to make a similar charge against Zhu, but that he would not.
This was indeed a testy period for Chongqing lawyers and law enforcement agencies, as well as defenders from out of town. A local lawyer who cooperated with the task force said the entire police force was closely scrutinized. A number of officers were charged with crimes, and many were fired.
There were also unusual personnel moves. Some officers previously assigned to detention centers or traffic enforcement were transferred to the anti-mafia task force to work on complex investigations, despite their lack of experience.
Li was arrested in Beijing in November 2009 and twenty days later stood trial in Chongqing. Before the sun set, he had been found guilty and sentenced to thirty months in jail.
News of the conviction spread nationwide, sparking a lawyer uproar and public outrage. Many legal experts were incensed that the Chongqing court did not allow witnesses but had convicted Li on the basis of inflammatory statements from Gong and Gong Gangmo.
Li appealed, and public pressure prompted Chongqing authorities to schedule a second hearing with witnesses. Task force officials asked the jailed Gong Gangmo to testify against his lawyer in court, promising better jailhouse treatment and no more beatings in return.
Gong Gangmo said police handed him testimony material to memorize several days before he was to appear for Li’s appeal. He recalls officers gave him two packs of expensive cigarettes every day leading up to the hearing.
Officers cajoled Gong Gangmo until he also persuaded his brother to take the stand and testify against Li.
After being nabbed in Sichuan, Gong had spent about twenty days in a detention center. He was then transferred with several other witnesses lined up for the Li hearing to a local resort, where he prepared his testimony in a comfortable villa near hot springs.
Gong said police at the resort coached him daily to prepare for cross-examinations on the witness stand. He was helped to memorize answers to anticipated questions. And he was told to say, if unable to respond directly clearly in court, that “My testimony with the public security organs are all facts.”
Gong Gangmo was coached behind bars. But like his brother, he got to practice his lines during police-organized rehearsals with officers acting as judges and lawyers.
Gong Gangmo was told to dodge questions he could not answer by saying, “My head hurts. I don’t understand.” At the trial, he obeyed to the letter when Li’s defense lawyer Chen Youxi asked whether he understood Mandarin, since his mother tongue is the Sichuan dialect.
“I don’t understand,” Gong Gangmo said. “My head hurts.”
Police also coached Gong Gangmo to lie about scars on his wrists left after police hung him by handcuffs from windows during torture sessions. The fabricated story for the court was that he injured his wrists while swimming on holiday.
At Li’s appeal hearing, the Gong brothers testified against their lawyer, agreeing with a prosecution argument that he had encouraged his client to commit perjury. But the Gongs offered nothing more than indirect, fuzzy answers to questions posed by Li and his defense lawyers.
Li lost the appeal, but had his sentence cut to eighteen months.
The next day, Gong Ganghua was released on bail. But before being allowed to return home, each was required to sign documents promising they would neither appeal to higher authorities nor accept media interviews.
While traveling to Beijing to deliver the apology and Li’s old phones, Gong decided that he would ask whether the attorney saw any hope for an appeal of his brother’s case.
Given the upheaval surrounding the Bo scandal, Gong had good reason to hope for a successful appeal.
A few weeks after his meeting with Li, Bo was suspended from his positions on the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China Central Committee, and the Central Committee itself.
Gong’s next step after Bo’s ouster was to schedule a media event with Li and other legal experts in Xi’an, where he explained his reasons for back-stabbing the lawyer and described how the Chongqing anti-mafia task force members had tortured his brother. Five months later, Gong hired Li for an appeal of Gong Gangmo’s conviction.
Gong Gangmo has likewise retracted his statements and testimony claiming Li promoted perjury. A relative of Gong Gangmo recorded these words for him: “I would like to reiterate that I falsely accused Li Zhuang. I’m willing to bear all legal responsibility.”
Now, Li’s effort to help Gong Gangmo is paralleling his own attempt to clear his name in a Chongqing court. As of early December, the court was mulling whether to schedule a hearing.
If an appeal is granted, Li expects his defense to ride on his word, the Gong brothers’ retractions, and videos shot with the smartphones he got thanks to a dying woman’s wish.
Li said he hid the phones under a wash basin in Cheng’s room at Beijing Zhenguo Tumor Hospital. When he returned to retrieve the phones after his arrest—and after Cheng’s death—they were gone.