The Associated Press
BEIJING — When more than 500 policemen swooped in to arrest 40 suspected gangsters in southern China last year, the alleged kingpin was a Los Angeles businessman who had hoisted an U.S. flag amid a crowd to welcome Xi Jinping, now China's president, to California.
Vincent Wu's children and lawyers say he's an upstanding, philanthropic Chinese-American entrepreneur who has been framed by business foes who want to seize his assets, including a nine-story shopping mall. But police in the southern city of Guangzhou say he was a ruthless mob boss who led gangsters with nicknames such as "Old Crab" and "Ferocious Mouth."
Wu is expected to stand trial within weeks in Guangzhou on charges of heading a crime gang that kidnapped rivals, threw acid at a judge, set fire to farmers' sheds, operated illegal gambling dens and committed other offenses. Wu has told his lawyers that police interrogators tortured him into confessing.
In the absence of an independent legal system, the truth may never emerge. And although Wu is a naturalized U.S. citizen, American diplomats have not been able to see him because China recognizes only his residency in Hong Kong, a semi-autonomous Chinese territory.
The case provides a glimpse into the often murky world of business in China. Widespread corruption means entrepreneurs can cozy up with police and run roughshod over the law, but they are also vulnerable if their rivals gang up with local authorities.
When disgraced politician Bo Xilai led the southwestern metropolis of Chongqing, hundreds of businesspeople were accused of involvement in organized crime; many were believed to have been tortured into confessing while authorities seized their assets. Bo was sentenced to life imprisonment last month for embezzlement, bribery and abuse of power, but allegations that the businessmen were wrongfully convicted were not aired at his trial.
Wu was detained in June last year in a dramatic pre-dawn operation involving hundreds of police across Guangdong province, which includes Guangzhou and Wu's hometown of Huizhou.
He is charged with getting an associate to throw acid at a judge who ruled against him in a lawsuit, and with ordering thugs to set fire to sheds owned by farmers who refused his offer of compensation to clear off land he wanted to develop. He's also accused of operating illegal casinos that raked in 48 million yuan ($7.8 million), and of attacking or kidnapping people who crossed him in various disputes. About 30 other people face related charges of gang crimes.
Wu maintains his innocence, his attorney Wang Shihua said. Prior to his detention, Wu had been praised by local Chinese newspapers for giving more than 20 million yuan ($3 million) to his hometown.
"My dad is a really good person at heart, especially to the people who are farmers and have not enough money to go to school. He's donated money to the elderly and to help build a road," said Wu's daughter, Anna Wu, in an interview from Hong Kong, where she has based herself to try to draw attention to her father's case. "But in China, money speaks louder than law... if you want to bring someone down, you can bribe the police and certain people to make it happen."
Huang Xiaojun, a former business partner of Wu's and one of his accusers, said it is Wu who exploited government corruption. Huang said Wu tried to kidnap him four times and sought to seize his share of their business by bribing court officials.
"He is a man with no morals and integrity," Huang said in a phone interview. "He's extremely good at playing or acting and confusing right and wrong."
Wu's lawyers want to use his case to test the Chinese government's resolve to stick by its stated opposition to convictions based on evidence extracted through torture. In a written record of a December 2012 meeting with his lawyers, Wu described being beaten, kicked and deprived of food and sleep as police tried to coerce him to sign a confession.
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