At first glance, it was an unremarkable news item. Nine convicts had been executed here in the capital of Henan province, the Zhengzhou Evening News reported last fall.
But one thing seemed wrong. The paper listed only eight names.
A day later, a notice posted outside a municipal courthouse confirmed what many locals had feared. The ninth man, executed in secret, was Cao Haixin, the democratically elected chief of a village within the Zhengzhou municipality. The notice said that Cao had shot a man in 1995 over an "ordinary dispute."
But supporters say Cao was the victim of a most heinous form of judicial corruption, known in China as "buying a human head."
The practice of bribing judicial and law enforcement officials to eliminate one's opponents has a long history in China. Many such cases are still studied by law students, including the case of Tao Ercang, an 18th century scholar who bribed a local judge to try his lover's husband on false charges. The judge had the husband beaten to death while interrogating him in court.
The case of Cao Haixin, whose lawyers say he killed an intruder in self-defense, suggests that such corruption is not just a thing of the past.
Victim Elected in Democratic Vote
The story started in Xi Han Zhai, the village where Cao Haixin lived. The village, originally on the desolate outskirts of Zhengzhou, was quickly swallowed up by the expanding city, becoming just another urban neighborhood of about 500 residents.
Cao Haixin's predecessor, Cao Xinbao, presided over the land rush, and news accounts allege that he skimmed about 25 million yuan ($3 million) from sales of village land-use rights.
He also forged powerful official connections by selling land at discount prices to both the provincial supreme court and to prosecutors, for them to build housing on, news reports allege.
When the village held its first democratic elections in 1995, residents voted for Cao Haixin, a soft-spoken, 34-year-old former army engineer and the village treasurer. He won by a clear margin over Cao Xinbao's brother, Cao Xinchun.
Cao Haixin did his best to repay voters' trust in him, increasing their welfare benefits, upgrading the village's power and water supplies and publicizing village finances on a blackboard. He also opened official investigations into Cao Xinbao's alleged corrupt dealings.
According to one magazine article written by several top journalists, including a former executive of the official New China News Agency, villagers claim to have heard Cao Xinbao say: "We've got people in the provincial and city governments, the police, the [prosecutors] and the courts. We'll buy Cao Haixin's head even if we have to spend 2 million yuan!"
Lawyers Argue Self-Defense
Not long after, on the night of Sept. 28, 1995, witnesses say, Cao Xinbao's brother--who had lost in the elections--stormed into Cao Haixin's home. The brother and three others beat Cao Haixin until he managed to flee upstairs and grab his hunting rifle. The brother caught up, seizing the rifle. As the two struggled over the gun, it went off, killing Cao Xinbao's brother.
Cao Haixin's trial on June 13, 1996, seemed anything but impartial. His lawyers argued that he had shot his assailant in self-defense. But the judges rejected as "false" or "useless" the eyewitness testimony of Cao Haixin's family and their videotapes of the scene of the incident. His rifle was not introduced as evidence (except in a photograph), and no fingerprints were taken from the scene. In May 1997, Cao was convicted of murder and sentenced to death.
Incensed over the case, between 100 and 300 protesters demonstrated about 10 times in support of Cao Haixin--before the courts, the police, the city and provincial governments. Each time, officials assured the protesters that the case would be handled fairly.
After the protests, New China News Agency reporters wrote three high-level internal reports to bring the case to the attention of top leaders in Beijing. The first report, headlined "Zhengzhou Homicide Trial Triggers Peasant Protests," detailed villagers' allegations of corruption.
The report was read by the then-director of China's judiciary, former Supreme People's Court chief Ren Jianxin, who instructed judiciary officials to "handle [the case] carefully." The instructions were handed down to the country's justice minister, who then instructed Henan judicial officials to "handle [the case] themselves," leaving the matter unresolved.
Sources close to the case say municipal court judges privately told Cao Haixin's lawyers that, based on the facts of the case, Cao should not be executed. But the judges also admitted that they were being pressured by provincial legal officials to apply the death penalty.
China delegated authority over capital punishment to provincial governments in 1983, but the Supreme People's Court in Beijing has the right to grant stays of execution or overturn death sentences.
In late 1997, after more internal reports by the New China News Agency, the Supreme People's Court removed Cao's case materials to Beijing. The court's vice president, in charge of capital punishment cases, assured Cao's supporters that this intervention amounted to a stay of execution.
At this point, villagers allege, Cao Xinbao drove to Beijing carrying more than 1 million yuan ($122,000) in cash with which to ply officials and influence the case. No evidence of bribes has been uncovered. But within days, the case materials were inexplicably back in the hands of the provincial government, according to the magazine article and lawyers and journalists involved in the case.
Still, the Supreme People's Court repeatedly called Henan officials to emphasize: "Cao Haixin must not be killed."
But on the morning of Sept. 25, 1998, a motorcade of 45 vehicles wended its way toward the execution ground. After Cao Haixin's execution, his family wasn't allowed to retrieve the body. Instead, it was cremated and the ashes were returned to them a week later.
The case has raised a public outcry, particularly among leading journalists, lawyers and scholars.
"For such a sacred organ as the courts to be this corrupt really makes people worry," said Li Rui, former personal secretary to Mao Tse-tung. "The circumstances pertaining to this case should be printed in the [Communist Party flagship] People's Daily."
But so far, neither the People's Daily nor other major media have reported the case. Of the dozen or so smaller regional papers that have, at least one has been shut down by authorities.
After the execution, several top journalists wrote a report on the case for Premier Zhu Rongji, who sources say ordered the Supreme People's Court to investigate the matter.
But the court organized an investigative team composed of the same provincial legal and party officials who had allowed Cao's execution. The team interviewed the police and judges who had arrested and convicted Cao, then predictably reported back to Beijing that nothing was amiss.
Three times, the case reached the highest levels of the Chinese government. Each time, it ended up back in the hands of the local officials who had handled the case. As Chinese governments have done for centuries, Beijing, it appeared, had once again instructed officials to investigate allegations of their own corruption.
The problem, analysts say, is that the national and provincial governments are dependent on local strongmen such as Cao Xinbao to implement the state's basic rural policies concerning land, grain and taxes. Local cadres' control of these policies affords them ample opportunities to line their own pockets.
These strongmen often wear the multiple hats of local clan leader, village chief and party boss. They often have a corrosive influence on China's fledgling village election system, leaving peasants with little recourse to justice.
In August of last year, Xi Han Zhai village held democratic elections for a second time. The new vice chief of the village held office for about a month before being stabbed to death. One of the men who had stormed into Cao Haixin's home in 1995 was arrested in the case, along with his wife.
Today, the faith of many of the villagers--faith in the law, in China's future and in themselves--lies shattered.
Cao Haixin's widow and 14-year-old daughter struggle to survive. Many of the villagers, lawyers and journalists who fought for more than two years to stop Cao's execution remain depressed and cowed.
"I feel powerless and frustrated," said one of Cao's lawyers. "I ask myself, did I help to deceive the masses by even participating in this sham trial?"