Saturday, November 7, 2009

The Legal Crime of Shanghai Hooks

If you are searching the Chinese internet, a new high-frequency keyword is 钩子 – "hook." It was an innocent young man's blood that brought this word to the media's attention.

(image from

In the evening of October 14th, a tearful 18-year-old man named Sun Zhongjie (孙中界) chopped off his little finger with a kitchen knife, while grieving after being framed by a government "hook."

Sun Zhongjie was a new driver employed by a construction company in Shanghai, and October 14th was his second day at work. That night, on a work-related trip, his car was stopped by a man standing in the middle of the street. The stranger, shivering in the cold weather, climbed into Sun's car uninvited and told Sun that he had something urgent to deal with but couldn't find a taxi or bus. Sun was sympathetic. Considering that the man's stated destination wasn't too far ahead along, he gave him the requested short ride of 1.5 kilometers. The man threw Sun a 10-yuan (=US$1.47) bill, which Sun hadn't asked for. But instead of getting off, the man grabbed Sun's car keys and stepped on the brake pedal. Dumbstruck, Sun's first thought was that he was being robbed.

Only it was not a robbery, but a government scheme, and the hitchhiker was a "hook." A hook's task is to entice a non-taxi driver to provide a ride, so that he'll be able to accuse the driver of operating a "black taxi" without a license. In each successful hook case, the hook gets paid several hundred Yuan, while the driver is fined 10,000 or more, by the local government's Traffic Management Bureau.

While Sun was struggling with the "hook," trying to grab back his car keys, the conspiring traffic police arrived. They dragged Sun out of his car and held him in their van for a couple of hours without showing any ID. Sun was released only after being forced to sign three receipts, which he did not even get to read. He learned that he had been accused of "black taxi" operation afterward, from several others who were also being "hooked" and brought to the police van.

The injustice and agony Sun felt was unbearable. Though newly employed and poor, his first concern wasn't the big fine or the seized car, but that he was unjustly wronged. He was innocent. He gave the stranger a ride for kindness, not money. Now his clean name was tainted by the hook. But where could he go to prove his innocence? When he was being held in the unknown van, he had shouted that he wanted to call the police, but his captors laughed and told him "We are."

After returning home, Sun picked up a kitchen knife (the big, heavy kind we Chinese use) and chopped off his left pinkie. The 18-year-old was in so much emotional distress that he did not even feel the pain. He then threw himself in bed and cried, while his severed finger bled unattended. If it were not for his older brother living upstairs, who heard the unusual sound and took him to the hospital immediately, Sun might have bled to death that night.

The next day, on October 15th, young migrant worker Sun Zhongjie appealed to the media for help getting back his good name, and reporters interviewed him in the hospital where he went through an operation to reconnect the severed finger. (A question remains: had Sun not chopped off his finger, would the reporters pay as much attention to his case as they do now?)

Under public and media pressure, five days later, on October 20th, the Traffic Management Bureau of Pudong New District issued an official report of their "investigation results," claming that everything the traffic police did in Sun's case was legal and Sun was truly an illegal taxi driver. The Bureau said their witness was not a hook but a "society member with a sense of righteousness."

The public was unsatisfied. Sun told a reporter that what the government bureau did was "having the father investigating the son," as the traffic police team belonged to the Traffic Management Bureau, and of course it wouldn't be truthful. Sun requested a face-to-face confrontation with the "witness," which did not happen. Even CCTV and People's Daily declared their suspicions with the "investigation."

The case caught the Shanghai City government's attention and a new investigation involving independent lawyers was ordered. The investigators discovered that the name of the "society member with a sense of righteousness" had appeared as a witness in other similar cases before. Eventually the man's identity as a paid "hook" was verified.

On October 26th, twelve days after Sun Zhongjie was "hooked," the government of Pudong New District issued a public apology to Sun, returned his car, and revoked the fine. The government also announced the cessation of the "hooking" practice in crashing-down "black taxis."

This quick reversal brought out tears from Sun Zhongjie's eyes. He has since left Shanghai and returned to his home village in Zhejiang Province. Before his departure, he told the media that he probably would go out again as a migrant worker, but not likely to Shanghai. When asked if he'd pick up a stranger who needs help in the future, he evaded the question.

According to reports, 99% of the so-called "black taxi" drivers have been "hooked" before, and among the hook victims also are many innocent people. On September 8th, Zhang Hui, a white collar driving his private car on the way to work at a high-paying foreign-invested company, "in a moment of soft heart" picked up a man who complained of a stomach ache and persistently begged for a ride. The man was a hook. Despite the fact that Zhang had refused the man's offer of taxi-price payment, Zhang was arrested and fined 10,000 Yuan on the grounds of illegal-taxi operation. Zhang has been blogging about the case and received broad support on the internet. Meanwhile, media coverage on his case was sparse, and the local government that wronged him kept ignoring his request for justice.

A month after he was framed and two days before Sun Zhongjie's encounter with a hook, on October 12th, Zhang Hui brought his case to the court. Probably helped by Sun's case, on the same day Sun's name was cleared, Zhang's fine was also refunded. However, the next day a judge from the court that accepted Zhang's lawsuit came to his office and shouted at him, because Zhang did not accept the judge's request for withdrawal of the lawsuit. This story is still unfolding.

Hundreds more hook victims who received big fines are requesting their money back now.

In light of Chongqing's "crashing-down on organized crime" storm, Chinese netizens are inquiring whether the government scheme of hiring hooks, now termed as an "illegal form of law enforcement" by the media, should be considered organized crime.

Chang Ping, a well-known journalist and social commentator, says in a blog post titled "上海钩子" that not only should the hooks bear legal responsibility but they should also sue their government bosses who brought them into a criminal career.

(Update: I just saw that the quick and thorough ESWN has posted and translated a bunch of earlier Chinese reports on this case, providing good references.)


Anonymous said...

I think it's fascinating that the internet netizens/mob have become the watchdog of public interest in China. Good for them.

Xujun Eberlein said...

Good indeed.