BEIJING — When more than 500 policemen swooped in to arrest 40 suspected gangsters in southern China last year, the alleged kingpin was a Los Angeles businessman who had hoisted an U.S. flag amid a crowd to welcome Xi Jinping, now China's president, to California.
Vincent Wu's children and lawyers say he's an upstanding, philanthropic Chinese-American entrepreneur who has been framed by business foes who want to seize his assets, including a nine-story shopping mall. But police in the southern city of Guangzhou say he was a ruthless mob boss who led gangsters with nicknames such as "Old Crab" and "Ferocious Mouth."
Wu is expected to stand trial within weeks in Guangzhou on charges of heading a crime gang that kidnapped rivals, threw acid at a judge, set fire to farmers' sheds, operated illegal gambling dens and committed other offenses. Wu has told his lawyers that police interrogators tortured him into confessing.
In the absence of an independent legal system, the truth may never emerge. And although Wu is a naturalized U.S. citizen, American diplomats have not been able to see him because China recognizes only his residency in Hong Kong, a semi-autonomous Chinese territory.
The case provides a glimpse into the often murky world of business in China. Widespread corruption means entrepreneurs can cozy up with police and run roughshod over the law, but they are also vulnerable if their rivals gang up with local authorities.
When disgraced politician Bo Xilai led the southwestern metropolis of Chongqing, hundreds of businesspeople were accused of involvement in organized crime; many were believed to have been tortured into confessing while authorities seized their assets. Bo was sentenced to life imprisonment last month for embezzlement, bribery and abuse of power, but allegations that the businessmen were wrongfully convicted were not aired at his trial.
Wu was detained in June last year in a dramatic pre-dawn operation involving hundreds of police across Guangdong province, which includes Guangzhou and Wu's hometown of Huizhou.
He is charged with getting an associate to throw acid at a judge who ruled against him in a lawsuit, and with ordering thugs to set fire to sheds owned by farmers who refused his offer of compensation to clear off land he wanted to develop. He's also accused of operating illegal casinos that raked in 48 million yuan ($7.8 million), and of attacking or kidnapping people who crossed him in various disputes. About 30 other people face related charges of gang crimes.
Wu maintains his innocence, his attorney Wang Shihua said. Prior to his detention, Wu had been praised by local Chinese newspapers for giving more than 20 million yuan ($3 million) to his hometown.
"My dad is a really good person at heart, especially to the people who are farmers and have not enough money to go to school. He's donated money to the elderly and to help build a road," said Wu's daughter, Anna Wu, in an interview from Hong Kong, where she has based herself to try to draw attention to her father's case. "But in China, money speaks louder than law... if you want to bring someone down, you can bribe the police and certain people to make it happen."
Huang Xiaojun, a former business partner of Wu's and one of his accusers, said it is Wu who exploited government corruption. Huang said Wu tried to kidnap him four times and sought to seize his share of their business by bribing court officials.
"He is a man with no morals and integrity," Huang said in a phone interview. "He's extremely good at playing or acting and confusing right and wrong."
Wu's lawyers want to use his case to test the Chinese government's resolve to stick by its stated opposition to convictions based on evidence extracted through torture. In a written record of a December 2012 meeting with his lawyers, Wu described being beaten, kicked and deprived of food and sleep as police tried to coerce him to sign a confession.
On occasion, Wu's arms were tied behind his back with a rope that was then strung from a ceiling beam — a torture method dubbed the "suspended airplane," he told his lawyers. If he fainted, he was woken with water or chemical stimulants.
"As soon as I did not cooperate, they hit me, hanged me," Wu told his lawyers, according to a copy of the deposition provided to The Associated Press by Wu's family.
Wu's legal adviser, Li Zhuang, said more than 20 witnesses also were tortured. During a pretrial meeting at the Guangzhou Intermediate People's Court on Monday, Wu's lawyers demanded that the court keep their testimony out of Wu's trial, which they expect to begin within a month.
An official at the Huizhou police bureau's propaganda department said he "had not heard" that interrogators might have tortured Wu.
Wu left China in the late 1970s as a stowaway to neighboring Hong Kong, where he obtained residency. He moved with his family to the U.S. in 1994, settled in Los Angeles and eventually became a U.S. citizen.
Even as an American, Wu spent most of his time in China, tending to his businesses and visiting Los Angeles twice a year, his daughter said. But she said he was also active in Los Angeles' Chinese-American business community; photos provided by her show him hoisting an American flag as he welcomed then-Vice President Xi Jinping — now the president — to the city early last year.
Chinese authorities have denied Wu access to U.S. officials, saying they regard him as a Hong Kong resident because he last entered China on a Hong Kong identity card.
U.S. officials have sent several notes to Chinese authorities about Wu's case, Wu's daughter said. U.S. Embassy spokesman Nolan Barkhouse said American officials were monitoring the case but could not comment out of privacy concerns.
Associated Press researcher Yu Bing contributed to this report.