1998: Cao Haixin, unwelcome meddler

On this date in 1998, the execution grounds settled a local political rivalry in China.

According to an upsetting 1999 Los Angeles Times feature, Cao Haixin had lately governed a small village that was being swallowed up by the sprawling Zhengzhou metropolis.

The previous village chief, Cao Xinbao, had profiteered gleefully from his run at the top with sweetheart deals on rapidly appreciating real estate for himself and his connections.

Cao Haixin, a reformist farmer, beat Cao Xinbao at the polls in 1995 and set about making unwelcome inquiries into the whereabouts of millions of yuan … at which point a goon squad of the ancien regime led by Cao Xinbao’s own brother actually invaded Cao Haixin’s home looking to intimidate or murder him. No subtlety needed.

Instead, the mayor grabbed a hunting rifle and killed his predecessor’s brother in the affray.

Astonishingly, Cao Haixin was the man arrested for this incident, and sentenced to death in a provincial court seemingly stacked with Cao Xinbao allies. A Zhengzhou municipal judge reportedly told one of the condemned man’s many supporters that local village officials had on a full-court press for execution as the case worked its way through the system.

Eventually — after a few cycles of appeals to the Supreme Court, which in turn fruitlessly referred inquiries back to those very village officials who wanted him dead — Cao Haixin was executed in secret. The next day’s news announcement reported nine executions, but listed only eight names.

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.

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?”

Los Angeles Times, Oct. 17, 1999