Letter from Beijing


[Editor’s Note: He Jiahong is a professor of law at Renmin Law School in the Chinese capital, and one of his country’s foremost experts on criminal justice. Professor He is author of a series of crime novels featuring criminal defense lawyer Hong Jun, a rare (to the West) depiction of contemporary Chinese criminal justice. Latest to be translated is Black Holes. Professor He has generously permitted “Drunk & Disorderly” to publish, serialized in seven chapters, his nonfiction work, Back From The Dead: A Landmark Ruling of Wrongful Conviction in China, translated into English earlier this year. What follows is Chapter One.]

In 1994, the eyes of the world fell on the American football star O.J. Simpson, who was alleged to have murdered his wife. At the same time, in a mountainous village in China, another case of suspected murder was taking place. But these two cases took very different paths.

The Emerald of Hubei

In the centre of Hubei Province lies Jingshan County, a simple and honest place with a long history. [Note 1] ‘The Emerald of Hubei’ is a place of mountain forests, rivers and lakes lying at the foot of Dahong Mountain, on the northern side of the Jianghan Plain. About two thousand years ago, the Green Wood Uprising – the second great peasant revolution – began here, and the name ‘Green Wood’ (Lülin) has stayed with one particular town. In Lülin, there is a creek whose name – Mandarin Duck Creek – is synonymous with couples in love. It runs through a deep canyon and the scenery there is expansive and lush. It is said that the winding curves of Mandarin Duck Creek are like a ten-mile-long art gallery. Its waters appear clear and jade-green against the heavy forest. To the southwest of Lülin is another famous small town, Yanmenkou. But the reason for its fame is quite different.

In the early morning of 11 April 1994, an inhabitant from the small village of Lüchong in Yanmenkou was walking home after taking his child to school. Spring had arrived but there was still a chill in the air, and the mountain forests were shrouded in mist. The villager noticed something floating in a pond along the route. It looked like a person. He rushed back to find the village chief, and the two of them returned to the pond to take a closer look. On confirming that it was indeed a body, the villager and the chief went to the local police station to report the matter.

The officer on duty rushed to the scene, and with the help of the villagers fished the body out of the water. The corpse had begun to decompose and the face was very bloated. But it was clearly a young woman. The officer asked the onlookers if they recognised her. None of them knew her. In fact, none of them had ever seen her before and they were adamant that she could not be a local. The police searched the body but found nothing to identify the woman, and reported the situation to the county police.

The forensic investigation team from the Jingshan County Public Security Bureau [Note 2] then hurried to the pond to examine the body. They found six wounds to the head: not bumps or bruises, but blows from a blunt instrument. However, they couldn’t ascertain whether the woman had died as a result of the blows or if she had drowned after being knocked unconscious. The dead woman was 150 centimetres tall, and had a comely figure. She had short hair and looked to have been about thirty. At some stage she had given birth. From the appearance of the body and the winter clothes she had been wearing, the forensic team concluded that she had been dead for a while, perhaps two months or more.

What bewildered the investigators was that the pond in which the woman was found was small. Although it was on a mountainside, villagers passed by all the time, and sometimes even fished there. If the body had been in the pond for two months, how could no one have noticed it? It was feasible that a submerged body might float to the surface as it decomposed, but it was unlikely to have taken two months to do so. It seemed that the pond could not have been the scene of the murder: there was no flowing water source, so the body could not have drifted there, and this meant that the body must have been deposited there intentionally. But why dump a dead body after two months? Why would a murderer wait so long? If the body had been submerged, why had it stayed under water for so long, and what had made it float all of a sudden? The forensic team had no time to pursue these questions. It had been decided that this was a case of homicide and, as such, the crime squad would take over the investigation.

The investigators searched the scene of the crime and found no evidence relating to the case. After photographing the scene and making a report they removed the body and returned with it to Jingshan County Public Security Bureau. They had to decide whether or not to go ahead with an autopsy.

Jingshan is a peaceful county where major criminal cases – such as intentional homicide – are rare, so the senior police treated the case seriously. They formed a special investigation team headed by Han Hua, the deputy chief of police, and with Lu Cheng, the head of the crime squad, as his deputy. The other members of the team were He Liang and Pan Jun, both highly experienced policemen. After receiving the local investigators’ report, the special investigation team began by looking into missing persons reports. When they requested that Yanmenkou and nearby villages inform them of any recent disappearances, a lead appeared immediately: someone had reported their daughter missing, a woman named Zhang Aiqing. The investigators asked her relatives to come and identify the body.

When Zhang Aiqing’s mother and eldest brother arrived at the public security bureau, the investigators first asked them to describe the missing woman. Mrs Zhang said that Aiqing was twenty-nine, 150 centimetres tall, of medium build, with a round face and a slightly upturned nose. She added that Aiqing loved to keep up with fashion and had pierced ears, and that she had had surgery after a difficult birth.

When the investigators showed the body to Mrs Zhang, she began to cry. She managed to nod, confirming that it was her daughter. But, unlike Mrs Zhang, Aiqing’s brother was hesitant, and said simply that it looked a lot like Aiqing. He added that the clothes she was wearing didn’t seem to belong to her. Pushed to confirm absolutely that it was Aiqing, he asked if there were any other means of identifying the body. They told him there were other methods, such as cranial matching or DNA-testing, but these procedures could not be carried out locally, and would have to be performed by specialists in the provincial capital or even in Beijing, which would cost a lot, maybe even 20 000 yuan (US $ 2 300). [Note 3] If the family really wanted such confirmation, they would have to foot the bill themselves. Hearing this, Aiqing’s brother waved his hands in surrender and said: ‘We have absolutely no money.’

Meanwhile, Mrs Zhang had stopped crying, and said she agreed with her son. The clothes were not Aiqing’s.

The investigators said: ‘We need you to identify a person, not her clothes. It’s possible that she had changed clothes.’ Mrs Zhang then confirmed the unidentified woman as her daughter. Aiqing’s brother assented.

After the body had been formally identified, the investigators made another careful inspection. They found the physical details on the body as described by Mrs Zhang: the holes in Aiqing’s earlobes and the scars on the left side of her vagina that could have been a result of Aiqing’s surgery. The close fit between testimony and reality seemed to demonstrate Mrs Zhang to be a reliable observer. Given the overall facts of the case, the forensic investigators came to the conclusion that the body was Zhang Aiqing’s. Some questions still remained, however, and the investigators suggested an autopsy be carried out so they could submit a final forensic medical examination and expert’s report. What continued to puzzle the investigators was the cause of death: did she die from blows to the head, or did she drown? And how long had she been dead? Most crucially, how had the body remained in the pond for so long without anyone discovering it?

Once the body had been identified, the direction of the special investigation became clearer, or rather, it made the process of identifying suspects clearer. The team began to question Aiqing’s mother and brother for information. Mrs Zhang said that when she had heard that Aiqing had died, she immediately suspected that her daughter had been murdered. After all, Aiqing had not had an easy life and lately her problems had begun to mount. With a deep sigh Mrs Zhang began to describe the many misfortunes in Aiqing’s life.


1 The People’s Republic of China, is divided into thirty-one provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities. Hubei is one of these provinces. It is divided into thirteen prefecture-level divisions, which administer 102 counties, which in turn administer 1234 towns and villages. Villages and towns are managed by village committees, led by village heads (or mayors).

2 In Chinese, the term ‘public security bureau’ is used to refer to local police forces. ‘Public security bureau’ and ‘police’ are used interchangeably in the text.

3 This value is based on the average historical exchange rate in 1994. In 1990, 1 Chinese yuan was worth 0.21 US dollars. After economic policy changes in the early 1990s, the yuan’s value dropped to 0.11 US dollars in 1994. Its value has remained relatively stable since then, gradually rising throughout the 2000s to 0.16 US dollars in 2012.


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