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Wrongful death

February 20, 2003

The extrajudicial execution of Cao Haixin, a good citizen of Zhengzhou


By the admission of the authorities, judicial corruption in China has reached endemic proportions. But this is not just a matter of money; sometimes life itself may be at stake. And even the intervention of public spirited citizens who dare to stand up to oppose brutal local despots, as the case described here by XIAO XUEHUI illustrates, may have no effect.



In 1983, Cao Xinbao, a native of the village of Xihanzhai, near the city of Zhengzhou in Henan Province, used his connections to help the Henan Provincial Higher Court to purchase more than ten acres of land in Xihanzhai at the exceedingly low price of 16,000 yuan per acre.

Cao’s efforts paid off handsomely. In 1990, after throwing his influence about for nearly a decade, he secured three important local government posts, including that of village chief of Xihanzhai, a role that granted him the power to manage the sale of land in the village.

In 1992, taking advantage of his control over land sales, he struck a deal with some friends who worked in the local procuratorate, allowing them to acquire 30 acres of land near Xihanzhai at the low price of 30,000 yuan per acre. According to market prices, this land was really worth 400,000-500,000 yuan per acre. The procuratorate then sold part of the land and used the profit to build staff quarters.

In 1993, Cao Xinbao used the sale of 46 houses in Xihanzhai to further develop his network of connections. He offered one of the homes as a gift to his nephew’s adopted father, who happened to be in charge of the local police post.

On top of all this, during his tenure in office Cao Xinbao pocketed 24.9 million yuan through the sale of 70-odd acres of village land. Backed by the connections he had developed over the years, Cao and his entire family completely ignored the law and persistently bullied the residents of Xihanzhai. The villagers, unable to tolerate the continuing mistreatment, reported Cao to the police again and again. But each time they did, either the materials submitted were lost, or else the content of their complaints were quickly disclosed to Cao Xinbao.

It was against this backdrop that, in the autumn of 1995, Cao Xinbao lost the first democratic election for the post of Xihanzhai village head. The newly elected village head was a young farmer by the name of Cao Haixin.


Cao Haixin was an upright individual, determined to defend the interests of the villagers. Despite all sorts of provocations and threats from Cao Xinbao’s supporters, he set out to reform the administration of Xihanzhai, starting with an investigation into the village accounts under his predecessors. As a result, he discovered that more than 200 million yuan had been embezzled from the village land-fund, and was about to expose Cao Xinbao’s crime. It was at that point that the conspiracy to eliminate Cao Haixin began.

On the night of September 28, 1995, a group of men headed by Cao Xinbao’s younger brother and main henchman, Cao Xinchun, stormed Cao Haixin’s home. Cao Xinchun and the others attacked Cao Haixin, who fled to the second floor, shutting the safety door behind him. However, the intruders ultimately managed to get through by kicking and battering down the door with axes.

Cao Haixin’s family tried many times to phone the police but were prevented from doing so. During the attack, the lives of the entire Cao family were in serious jeopardy. Finally, left with no other alternative, Cao Haixin grabbed his hunting rifle to defend himself and his family. The invaders tried to wrest the rifle from him, and in the ensuing chaos it discharged, hitting Cao Xinchun right in the abdomen. Immediately after this, Cao Haixin tried repeatedly to call the police and the hospital, only to be thwarted each time by more beatings. Finally, Cao Haixin and his neighbors were able to carry the injured Cao Xinchun downstairs and managed to stop a passing car for help. Cao Xinchun was taken to the hospital. But too much time had been wasted by his accomplices and he died shortly thereafter.

Even disregarding that a key element in the background to the case was that Cao Haixin had been investigating Cao Xinbao, the mere location of the incident clearly proved that Cao Haixin and his family were the wronged parties, since their home had been forcibly entered and they were therefore on the defensive. There is absolutely no doubt that Cao Haixin grabbed the hunting rifle in self-defense. Cao Xinchun, the one accidentally shot to death during the struggle over the rifle, was clearly the aggressor. The only people who could be blamed for Cao Xinchun’s death were his own accomplices, as they prevented Cao Haixin from calling for help.


However, the implications of these apparently straightforward facts were ultimately turned upside down during the course of the investigation. This was partially due to the fact that the first police to reach the scene that night were protégés of Cao Xinbao who had prospered on his corrupt payroll. Due to their close connection with the former village head, these investigators should have excused themselves from handling the case. But instead they blatantly sided with the group that had trespassed on Cao Haixin’s home. They were not the least bit interested in how the events of the evening in question actually transpired, instead asking Cao Haixin how he came to “shoot” Cao Xinbao to death. Their questions were framed in such a way so as to arrive at the conclusion that Cao Haixin had “killed on purpose.” The investigators didn’t even spare a neighbor of Cao Haixin, who was taken to the police post for questioning and disappointed the authorities by giving accurate testimony on the incident. The day after he was questioned, thugs brandishing knives threatened this neighbor, warning him that harm would come to him if he did not keep silent.

Though ousted by Cao Haixin in the election for village head, Cao Xinbao still held numerous official posts, including that of Party secretary, and therefore remained the village linchpin. He boasted in public that he had connections at every level of the government, including the judiciary, and pledged to “buy the head” of Cao Haixin regardless of the price. If two million were not enough, he wouldn’t hesitate to spend three or even ten million, he crowed!

The way the Zhengzhou Public Security Bureau handled the case was unorthodox, in the usual ways. During the trial, videotapes and pictures taken at the scene by the police that had originally shown clear traces of axe and kick marks on the door had all disappeared. Even the axe that the intruders had used was not presented as evidence, not to mention reports of any fingerprints on the axe. Even more absurd was the fact that the testimonies submitted as evidence at the trial were mostly provided by the intruders who had broken into Cao Haixin’s home.

Following their investigation, the Zhengzhou Public Security Bureau ruled that Cao Haixin had committed “intentional homicide.” The case was then transferred to the local procuratorate on January 11, 1996. The procuratorate, which is charged with carefully scrutinizing the findings of an investigation, completed the indictment within a week and sent it with stunning speed to the Zhengzhou Intermediate Court. The indictment completely ignored the essential background of the case, namely Cao Haixin’s investigation into the embezzlement of the village land-fund. Needless to say, the indictment thoroughly distorted the truth behind the events of the evening in question.

What followed when the trial opened at the Zhengzhou Intermediate Court on June 13, 1996, can only be described as “a shocking travesty of justice.” No mention was made of Cao Haixin’s investigations that were critically related to the events which led to Cao Xinchun’s death. Furthermore, no mention was made of how Cao Xinbao and Cao Xinchun retaliated against Cao Haixin after Cao Xinbao lost the village chief election. No witnesses were summoned to give evidence and there was no reading of the testimonies collected from the villagers by the court staff. The only testimony read in the court was the “circumstantial evidence” provided by Cao Xinchun’s men. All testimony submitted by the defendant, Cao Haixin, was dismissed as “false evidence.” Even more strange was that the photographs of the scene taken by the police bureau, as well as those taken by Cao Haixin’s relatives, were not produced in court. Above all, what was missing in the trial was the most critical piece of real evidence—the hunting rifle, the absence of which made it nearly impossible to prove a series of essential points on behalf of the defense.


Provoked by the corrupt nature of this distorted judicial process, the Xihanzhai villagers joined together to appeal on behalf of Cao Haixin, and urged that legal proceedings be taken against Cao Xinbao and Cao Xinchun for, “willfully oppressing the villagers and embezzling public money.” After the villagers’ protests, reporters from the Xinhua News Agency brought the case to the attention of top leaders in Beijing by writing a series of internal reports. Before long, the then director of China’s judiciary, former Supreme People’s Court Chief Ren Jianxin, instructed local judiciary officials in Zhengzhou to “handle [the case] carefully.” However, the Zhengzhou Intermediate Court continued to ignore not only the facts of the case and the pleas of local villagers, but the high-level advice from Beijing as well, and on May 16, 1997, it passed a verdict of intentional homicide against Cao Haixin.

Stunned by the ruling of the trial of first instance, hundreds of Cao Haixin’s supporters petitioned the provincial high court to investigate the wrongful verdict of the Zhengzhou Intermediate Court against Cao Haixin. A petition signed by 150 Xihanzhai villagers was sent to Ren Jianxin, requesting his immediate assistance. In response to an urgent request from the Henan branch of the Xinhua News Agency, Dai Huang, a retired agency reporter then residing in Beijing, hastily sent a letter to Ren Jianxin as well, urging him to “remove materials on Cao’s case to the Supreme People’s Court for rehearing.” He implored Ren to first save a life and then to “thoroughly investigate the corruption of the Zhengzhou Intermediate Court.”

Soon after, materials on Cao’s case were taken to the Supreme People’s Court in Beijing. At this point, Cao Xinbao carried a huge sum of cash there with which to influence the people working on the case. His efforts were immediately effective. Despite a flood of petitions and protests from the villagers of Xihanzhai, as well as the three internal reports on the case to top leaders in Beijing by the Xinhua News Agency, the Henan Province Higher Court rejected the appeal and issued a final verdict on September 1, 1998.

The final verdict was not read to Cao Haixin until the evening of September 24, 1998. Not only did the verdict completely endorse the indictment passed by the Zhengzhou Intermediate Court, it also altered the wording of the original indictment to ensure that the case against Cao appeared to be watertight. For example the phrase, “had a row and came to blows” in the indictment now read “had a row and attempted to come to blows.” The passage describing how Cao Xinchun stormed Cao Haixin’s home and pursued him to the second floor was changed from, “kicked at the door and entered” to “kicked at the door in an attempt to enter.”

On September 25, 1998, nine convicts were executed in the capital of Henan Province. However, the Zhengzhou Evening News on that day listed the names and crimes of only eight men. The ninth man, executed in secret, was Cao Haixin.


To illustrate further how the democratization process in the Xihanzhai village was disrupted, another violent episode should be noted here. On August 18, 1998, a week before Cao Haixin was executed, 28-year-old Wei Changhong, the newly elected vice-head of Xihanzhai Village, was stabbed to death. Arrested for the murder, along with his wife, was one of the men who had stormed Cao Haixin’s home on the September evening in 1985.

Infuriated at the execution of Cao Haixin, ten elderly citizens from around the country known for their integrity spoke out against his death. Shortly after Cao had been executed, they spread the word of his fate, condemning both the criminal character of Cao Xinbao’s gang, as well as the judiciary’s collaboration with it. The most dedicated elder among them was none other than Dai Huang, the retired Xinhua News Agency reporter. Throughout his professional life, Dai had abided by his belief that “a journalist of the people should have a sober mind and a strong backbone.” However, this concern for social justice had brought him more than 20 years of political persecution. Again and again he championed views and causes that he believed in, but were usually unwelcome and unpopular with those in power.

In late June 1997, immediately after learning of the plight of the ordinary farmer, Dai Huang joined the cause of Cao Haixin. As noted above, he first wrote to Chief Judge Ren Jianxin in Beijing, and then, disregarding his old age, he joined three other reporters from various law-related publications for the long trip to Zhengzhou to carry out an on-site investigation. The four traveled around Zhengzhou collecting the facts, interviewing the residents of Xihanzhai Village and visiting the scene of the September 1995 incident. Exhausted by these travels, Dai Huang nonetheless quickly penned an article entitled, “Critical Findings on the Case of Cao Haixin” for submission to the Henan Provincial Higher Court. He then rushed back to Beijing, where he wrote another article entitled, “Something Wrong with the Trial of a Murder Case in Zhengzhou,” which was printed privately by Xinhua for top Beijing leaders.

After completing the initial report on Cao Haixin’s case, Dai and the others sent follow up investigators to Zhengzhou to recheck the facts. Following many revisions, the finalized report, entitled, “The Truth about the Extrajudicial Execution of a Good Citizen From Zhengzhou, Cao Haixin,” was completed on November 28, 1998.

However, Dai and his colleagues soon discovered that publishing the truth was more difficult than investigating it. While gossip and speculative trash seem to be completely acceptable in the media in China, tolerance for reports and views that attempt to expose the corrupt practices of those in power is nearly non-existent. The group spent four months searching for a publisher in vain. Finally, only after the article appeared in the magazine, Today’s Celebrities, known for its boldness and integrity, did a few other papers pick up the story.


“The Truth about the Extrajudicial Execution of a Good Citizen from Zhengzhou, Cao Haixin” can in some ways be compared to the literary masterpiece, J’Accuse (“I Accuse”), an open letter published in 1898 by the French novelist and critic Emile Zola against the French army and entire French judicial system. Zola wrote the piece to assert the innocence of Captain Alfred Dreyfus (1859-1935), a Jewish military officer of the French army who had been falsely charged with passing military secrets to the Germans and unjustly sentenced to exile on Devil’s Island in French Guiana. Like Dai Huang, Zola was like a dwarf facing the leviathan of the state. Unlike Dai’s story, Zola’s J’Accuse easily found its way into the press and ultimately reversed the result of the whole affair, instantly converting the case into a national controversy as a result of the unfettered press coverage it received. Unlike Dai, Zola’s voice of justice reached the people through the media, and as a result, nudged the sleeping conscience of French society into wakefulness, ultimately reversing the fate of the wronged Dreyfus.

Dai Huang, the Zola of China, found himself in an utterly different situation. What he and his group were facing in China was a far more powerful force, made sinister by rampant corruption, highly organized and armed to teeth. Under the tyranny of these forces, China’s national constitution is routinely violated while the press remains silent about it. Dai’s attempt to initiate a national debate with the help of the media was always unlikely to succeed. However, Dai and others like him were fully aware of this, and, following the publication of the report, he and his group immediately braced themselves for what would happen next. From the very beginning, Dai and his group struggled against an unbeatable foe. It was a tragedy whose outcome was anticipated.

On March 15, 1999, the Henan Provincial Higher Court wrote to two of the magazines that had published Dai’s report, Today’s Celebrities and Law and Life. The court’s letters claimed that the findings of the report “proved there was nothing wrong with the way Cao Haixin’s case was handled” and that, “serious distortions existed in the article.” The letters also carried a hidden threat, stating that, “Dai Huang and others… again and again spread rumors. Are they really championing judicial justice or trying to help a murderer evade the law?”

In 2001, the Hubei Province-based Today’s Celebrities magazine was banned. Another magazine that had printed the report, Social Monopoly from Inner Mongolia, had been closed down even earlier, having been banned immediately after printing the report. Moreover, the television script based on Cao Haixin’s case was banned as well.

When all of the other courts failed to do justice to Cao Haixin, Dai Huang had no option but to try the last judicial mechanism by appealing to the Supreme People’s Procuratorate. On April 8, 2000, Dai submitted to them a letter of appeal and supporting materials prepared by two lawyers. However, the Supreme People’s Procuratorate completely ignored the request and to date has still not responded. In this way, what is effectively the last resort for all those seeking to ask that the law be upheld has revealed itself as yet another type of useless window-dressing.


Given the near-total corruption of the Chinese judicial system, it seemed that the only assistance Dai and the others could offer to Cao Haixin’s widow and daughter was financial. To this end, they donated to them all of the proceeds from the publishing of their reports, totaling about 15,000 yuan.

What is even more worrying is that Cao Haixin’s case is hardly unique in China. Wen Jize, a respected intellectual in China, said in an interview that according to what he had read from various sources, “Good low-ranking cadres have also been executed in two other provinces. Therefore it is clear that similar sorts of incidents are not necessarily uncommon.”

The corruption of the judiciary is actually closely linked to other abuses of power in China. In order to prevent Cao Haixin’s fate from befalling others, political reform must be the top priority. Only then will it be possible to implement practical methods of exercising effective supervision over those in power, such as a system of checks and balances.

In medieval Italy, the Florence Commune implemented certain measures in an attempt to create a fair and transparent legal system. For example, judges were appointed to terms lasting no longer than half a year and were always brought in from other cities to reduce chances of them being compromised by ties of blood or friendship. Furthermore, judges were required to return to their residences alone after office hours and were barred from establishing any social relationships with the people of Florence. The outcome of Cao Haixin’s case, which owed much of its origin to the complicated ties of nepotistic interests, would never have been accepted by the people of Florence eight or nine centuries ago. It is apparent that the Florentines of the Middle Ages cared more about the neutrality of their judicial process than do people today in China. In this light, Cao Haixin’s case really resembles a tragedy so extreme as to be almost farcical and beyond belief.

XIAO XUEHUI is a Chengdu-based philosopher and social and political commentator. She has recently written reports and essays on a wide range of subjects, including education, corruption and rule of law. This article, which is an excerpted version of a much longer Chinese piece published on the Ren yu Renquan section of HRIC’s Web site, was translated by Joe Chung.