BEIJING -- After almost a year of fighting with bureaucrats in the southwestern Chinese city of Chongqing, Hu Cheng was ready to die.
He paused for a moment in front of the No. 1 Intermediate People’s Court and doused himself with gasoline. He then climbed a set of stairs, sat down and clutched a lighter in each hand. Before police tackled him to the ground on Nov. 7, 2011, he thought over the question of how life works in China.
“It seemed to me that officials could trample on the human rights of the Chinese people however they wanted,” Hu, a glum-faced 40-year-old in black-framed glasses, recalled during a recent interview.
In the 13 months since Hu’s aborted suicide protest, the fog-shrouded metropolis of Chongqing has been the epicenter of political intrigue that’s shaken the Chinese Communist Party.
The party boss who oversaw Chongqing when Hu nearly self-immolated, Bo Xilai, now sits in disgrace and awaits formal indictment on a range of alleged crimes. The fallout emanating from Bo’s undoing has included a murder trial and allegations of corruption gone wild. Even the district party chief whom Hu accused of taking part in a real estate scam, Lei Zhengfu, was brought down amid scandal and a videotape of his having sex with an 18-year-old.
China’s new leadership is calling for a crackdown on rampant corruption. Yet nothing has changed in Hu’s case. His experience, and that of the city around him, is a reminder that the nation still runs on the interests of the party and not the rule of law.
Hu’s complaint centers on the assertion that officials in Chongqing’s Beibei District, including Lei, were running a kickback scheme. After tearing down buildings in the area, including one that held the Hu family apartment, officials allegedly stuffed their pockets with payoffs when the property was flipped from a construction firm to developers. In the meantime, Hu said, the compensation offered to him was far below market price.
After his home was razed in December 2010, Hu looked to higher-level leadership for help. He filed petitions with court and government offices in Chongqing and got nowhere. He then traveled to Beijing to do the same – he was turned away and detained.
A district court had given the go-ahead to tear down the property, a judgment that Hu maintains was the result of a crooked series of events.
“The government carried out administrative interference of the court’s investigation in the case. That’s the reality of things,” said a lawyer who’s advised Hu since last year. The lawyer asked that neither his name nor that of his firm be used because, “they can do whatever they want to crack down on people.”
Hu, who ran a restaurant with his older sister, tried lodging a lawsuit in July 2011. Chongqing’s No. 1 Intermediate People’s Court declined to accept the case. He returned to Beijing that September and, he said, was pushed into a car, driven to the train station and sent back to Chongqing.
A couple of months later, Hu was at the courthouse carrying gasoline.
Chongqing police were reluctant to confirm Hu’s account of his attempt to light himself on fire. After calling eight police stations and a detention center in the city, McClatchy found an officer who agreed to read a summary from Hu’s case file over the phone. It corroborated his details of the event.