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A mafia-style crime gang is sentenced at Lintong District People"s Court in Xi"an, Shaanxi province, in January. [QIANG JUN/FOR CHINA DAILY]

A change of emphasis has snared criminals and corrupt officials, and promoted a stronger sense of public security, experts say. Zhang Yi reports.

From January to the end of November last year, police nationwide cracked down on 1,082 mafia-style criminal gangs and confiscated 1,620 guns as part of an ongoing campaign against organized crime, which is designed to improve the public"s sense of security.

Over the same period, about 14,000 people were convicted of gang-related crimes and 18,000 involved in organized crime turned themselves in to police, according to the office leading the crackdown.

The cleanup resulted in a 38.9 percent fall in gun-related crimes, compared with the same period in 2017, while criminal cases fell by 7.9 percent. In addition, murders and crimes involving the use of explosives fell by 6.3 percent and 29.1 percent respectively, the office said.

The latest round in China"s ongoing campaign against organized crime will continue for two more years, according to a document released by the Communist Party of China Central Committee and the State Council, China"s Cabinet.

As gangs and organized crime are often deeply interwoven with corruption, the campaign will target local officials who protect offenders, the document said.

Name change

Instead of using the now-conventional expression "Fighting gangs and organized crime", the latest campaign aims to "sweep away" the problem, according to the document.

Ran Saiguang, a professor of law at the National Police University for Criminal Justice in Baoding, Hebei province, said the change of name signals the campaign"s higher aspirations.

Before, the use of the word "fighting" related to targeting actual crimes, but now the campaign will also tackle the source of the problem and strengthen comprehensive social governance to eliminate such illegal behavior.

After several similar campaigns in recent decades, gangsters have become more cunning and have set up companies or associations to conceal the true nature of their activities, Ran said.

Violence remains a strong feature of organized crime, but new types of offenses have emerged, such as "soft violence" by which gangs threaten people without resorting to physical beatings, which makes it harder to conduct investigations, he added.

For example, some crime syndicates establish fake credit companies online which offer loans to people they suspect will default. The debtors use assets such as their home as collateral and when they cannot repay the loan, the assets are forfeited. To ensure "payment", gang members often loiter at debtors" doors for long periods.

According to Ran, corrupt officials are often behind gang-related crime, and offer to shield criminals from investigation in return for bribes paid with illegally obtained funds.

Some gangs have even tried to grasp the levers of political power, especially at the grassroots, which can seriously affect the Party"s ability to govern at the local level.

In some cases, criminals have become village heads and stolen money from funds provided by the government for poverty-relief programs, or raked off the profits from transactions involving public assets, such as the sale of wood from local forests.

When this sort of corruption and criminal activity occurs on people"s doorsteps, it can directly affect their sense of security and happiness, Ran said.

Punishment

On Jan 15, Wen Liehong, head of a criminal gang in Changsha, Hunan province, was sentenced to life imprisonment and all his assets were confiscated after he was convicted of 15 offenses, including organizing and leading a mafia-style outfit, according to Changde Intermediate People"s Court.

Wen, who was also convicted of fraud, bribery and perjury, accumulated huge wealth after setting up casinos in Changsha"s major hotels in 2002. He arranged for clients to participate in gambling sessions and loaned them money at usurious rates, the court said.

From 2005 to 2009, he hired a number of people to collect debts by the use of violence, and in 2010, he set up a pawnshop that loaned money at high rates of interest. The following year, he boosted the number of gang members by recruiting unemployed locals, the verdict said.

The outfit had a strict structure and clear hierarchy: in addition to Wen, there were three key members, five active participants and 16 other members. When police cracked the organization, they seized cash and property valued at 1.2 billion yuan ($178 million), according to the court.

The gang´╝Źwhich used its ill-gotten gains to buy weapons, provide housing and travel for members, and support its survival and development´╝Źcommitted 84 offenses, including intentional injury, illegal detention and forced purchases of goods.

The acts resulted in the closures of several private companies, which seriously damaged economic and social order in the city. In 2016, the head of a bank committed suicide after approving a large loan to a property developer who defaulted after losing the money at one of Wen"s casinos.

The three key members of the gang were sentenced to 25 years, 13 years and 11 years, and the remaining 21 defendants will be sentenced later, the court said.

Ran said the new campaign emphasizes that rules related to evidence collection and judicial procedure should be strictly followed, and court authorities should check all facts, evidence, procedures and applicable laws when handling such cases.

Corrupt officials

In October, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the top anti-corruption watchdog, gave five examples of typical "protective umbrella" cases, referring to corrupt officials who shield mafia-style gangs. Those named included Zhou Fubo, deputy head of the Hunan Public Security Department.

In December 2014, when Changsha police started investigating Wen, he sought help from Zhou, a former director of the Hunan Office for Comprehensive Management of Social Security. The two became friends, and Zhou gambled regularly in Wen"s casinos, the CCDI"s statement said.

In 2015, Zhou ordered Changsha police to suspend the investigation, and liaised with Wen and a whistle-blower who had disclosed his activities. The police subsequently withdrew the case.

In a 2003 case in Linfen, Shanxi province, a gang boss named Ren Aijun was given a life sentence for organizing a mafia-style outfit. However, local officials illegally commuted the sentence five times and Ren was released from prison in 2013.

In September, Shanxi High People"s Court overturned the commutations and reinstated the original sentence. About 90 officials involved in the commutations were punished, including the Party head of the Shanxi Prison Management Bureau, according to the discipline watchdog.

Ran, the professor, said that if authorities fail to punish corrupt officials who provide shelter for gangsters, it will not be possible to completely eradicate criminal organizations, meaning the public will not achieve true happiness and security.

The office leading the national crackdown said that between January and the end of November, about 11,800 of the cases filed involved officials alleged to have links with mafia-style gangs.

Party disciplinary or administrative penalties were issued against 8,288 people, while 1,649 cases were transferred to the judicial authorities, the office said.

Ran said that having been the victims of criminal gangs, members of the public are now beneficiaries of the campaign. As such, they will become more active in the crackdown and provide police with more tips and clues.

He added that the latest phase of the crackdown has achieved satisfactory results and led to a hardening of public opinion against criminal organizations and corrupt officials.

This year, the campaign will go deeper, aiming to solve more complicated cases and uncover more corrupt officials, he said.

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