When Guo Li sued the developer of her apartment complex for real estate fraud in 2010, she said she had no idea he was a “princeling” – the offspring of a Communist Party official. By the time she learned it, it was too late.
After she filed her suit, according to Guo and her family, her apartment repeatedly was vandalized. She lost her job. Police officers beat her as they confiscated her beloved golden retriever. For resisting officers, a court in Tianjin – a city of 14 million people east of Beijing – sent her to a detention center for a year.
Only now is Guo receiving some partial vindication, as China’s crackdown on official corruption is snatching up people like Zhao Jin, the founder of the company that developed her building and who used the protection he had as the son of a party leader to carry out massive fraud.
Chinese authorities detained Zhao a year ago. China’s anti-corruption agency also has swept up his father, retired provincial party leader Zhao Shaolin, as well as officials in at least three cities where Zhao allegedly scammed thousands of property owners.
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But Zhao’s arrest has done little to bring justice to Guo – or Zhao’s other apparent victims. Scores of homebuyers and small business owners say they lost payments on apartments or retail shops that Zhao never completed. Many are now living in unmarketable apartments in deteriorating buildings that have become dens for drug dealing and prostitution.
According to Guo, numerous local officials who enabled Zhao’s misdeeds haven’t been arrested or held to account.
“All these officials were dragged down in the gutter by Zhao Jin,” she said in a recent interview. “If the relevant departments had done their job and stopped Zhao, he would not have been able to do what he has done.”
Born in 1973, Zhao Jin is the son of Zhao Shaolin, who for eight years served as secretary general of the Jiangsu party committee. During his rise, the elder Zhao served as an aide to former Chinese Vice Premier Hui Liangyu and also to Li Yuanchao, China’s current vice president and Zhao’s predecessor in the Jiangsu party hierarchy.
Until he retired in 2006, Zhao Shaolin spent much of his career in Nanjing, Jiangsu’s provincial capital and the city where his son launched his first real estate ventures.
When Guo, 46, learned in March 2010 that her first apartment – she and her husband, Lin Yi, had bought two – was smaller than the 59 square feet in her contract she filed suit.
That’s when her life got complicated. In June, a pair of police officers stopped Guo and her husband and questioned them about the registration of their golden retriever – named Lifu – which they had on a leash. The police then tried to take away the dog, and Guo resisted. Later police charged Guo with biting the hand of a police official, which Guo adamantly denies.
Guo was released on bail, pending trial, but was unable to retrieve Lifu. Then vandals smeared feces on her family’s apartment – she lived in the second one and used the first as an investment. Jin Lingyi, Guo’s 71-year-old mother, said the family lived in fear for weeks.
“Other homeowners had similar issues (with the developer),” she said. “But Zhao Jin saw that Guo was the leader of the homeowners, and so he went after her.”
According to Guo, in October 2011 Zhao offered her 10,000 yuan – about $1,600 – to drop her case, but she refused, insisting upon what she felt she had been shorted – 50,000 yuan, or about $8,000. Two months later, Guo was called into a Tianjin court. With no chance to defend herself, the court sentenced Guo to a year in detention for “hindering official duties” of a police officer. She then learned that, a day earlier, a separate court had thrown out her lawsuit.
Unable to get the government to help them, scores of property owners hired a Jinan lawyer to sue the Chengji development company. The lawyer, Hu Chunyu, said he was “shocked and stunned” when he read some of the property contracts Chengji had pressured buyers to sign. He filed the first of two lawsuits against Chengji in October 2013.
Hu, 37, said he was unaware when he filed the suit of Zhao Jin’s ties to the company or his family connections. But like Guo, he soon learned.
The lawyer said the intimidation tactics continued on and off for months until July 2014, when authorities detained Zhao as part of a broad anti-graft investigation. Three months later, state media reported that the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection had detained Zhao’s father, Zhao Shaolin, for “serious violations of law and regulations.” In December, similar charges were leveled against Wang Min, a former Jinan party chief accused of taking massive bribes from a developer named “Zhao.”
Altogether, according to Caixin, five other public officials associated with Zhao Jin have been detained in Tianjin, Nanjing and Jinan.
Yet the nightmare is far from over for many of those who say they were conned by Zhao. As their buildings deteriorate, some property owners say their life savings are at risk, and they have no one to hold accountable.