An Australian Chinese businesswoman whose company invested billions of yuan in the northern Chinese port city of Tianjin has described several months of physical abuse and illegal detention in the city after she was accused by local officials of making high-interest loans.
"They threw a bowl of water over me and I woke up. There was blood all over my face. My face was a pulp. I was huddled on the floor and I asked them, talk to me. Don't beat me any more."
Ma Ping's troubles began when she asked to withdraw a mature deposit of 55 million yuan (U.S.$6.6 million) from the Kaixuanmen office of the Bank of China in Tianjin, one of China's big four state-owned commercial banks, she told RFA's Investigative Report recently. When she refused to "help out" the manager by signing fake documents backing up the use of her cash, he had the heavies waiting on her next visit. Instead of receiving her money, she was handcuffed and taken to a detention center, Ma said.
Ma said she later realized her entire ordeal was the work of one powerful man, the big daddy of law enforcement in the city, the chairman of the Tianjin Communist Party's Politics and Law Committee, Song Pingshun.
"At that time, I had hardly had time to react, and I wanted to speak to them," Ma told RFA of her arrival in the detention center. "But they suddenly grabbed me by the hair and kicked me into the toilet, and a few of those women, those thugs, started to beat me up."
"I said to them, don't beat me. I haven't committed any crime. I am a foreigner. Don't beat me. I came here to invest my money."
There followed a period of seven months and 23 days of repeated torture and humiliation by police and other inmates acting on encouragement from guards. The maximum period for detention without charge under China's criminal justice code is two-and-a-half months.
Finally, on April 30 2002, under strong pressure from Beijing, the First Intermediate People's Court in Tianjin finally established a formal case against the couple, sentencing Ma Ping to six years' imprisonment and her husband Zhang Mu to three years for making illegal high-interest loans, which they strongly denied. They were fined 41 million yuan (U.S.$4.9 million), for which they were given no receipt. The sentence rocked the Chinese legal world, including scholars and practising lawyers, but Tianjin refused to budge.
Officials at the Tianjin Public Security Bureau and No.1 Detention Center declined requests for an interview when contacted by RFA.
But a Tianjin prosecutor who requested anonymity said he was not happy with the quality of the case against Ma and Zhang.
"As a matter of fact, many aspects of this case are down to particular human factors. If she wants to appeal she still has a good chance of getting to the truth," he said.
"But I can't tell you the concrete details," the Tianjin People's Procuratorate official told RFA reporter Bai Fan.
During this time Ma — ; who was still breastfeeding her 10-month old baby daughter at the time of her detention — ; was not charged, and was asked to pay 20 million yuan in "bail money", although she was not released.
Following the initial beating by other inmates, Ma recalls: "Then they threw a bowl of water over me and I woke up. There was blood all over my face. My face was a pulp. I was huddled on the floor and I asked them, talk to me. Don't beat me any more."
"Then they started to humiliate me. They smeared urine and faeces all over me. Then they made me unblock the open toilet which was blocked up...I threw myself against a heater because I didn't want to live."
Ma's grown-up daughter Lu Xi, now resident in the United States, recalls visiting her mother in December 2001. "I was astonished when I saw her because before she had lovely long hair which was all gone. She was bald. Her hands were very yellow in color and very cold," Lu told RFA.
"And when she spoke she stammered and cried. Her face was bleeding...Oh my God. I said, what happened to your teeth, and she started crying again, and didn't tell me."
Ma also said the guards told a woman who had received the death sentence for four murders, to strangle her in her sleep, saying the woman would not be permitted to write a last letter to her family if she failed to kill Ma.
"She nearly killed me," Ma said. "There were some good people in the room, too, like Falungong practioners, good people, and they saved me from the brink of death. I still have the marks that she left on my neck."
Following the attack, Ma said she was forced by guards to stand for three days and three nights in a room with a bright light. "By the second day I couldn't take it. I was lying down. They came in and kicked me, saying, get up. Don't pretend to be dead. I told them, one day I'm going to tell this story and I'm going to get justice for what you've done to me."
On another occasion, inmates were forced to start drinking their own urine after being refused water for three days by guards, Ma said. She said she had lost three teeth, and that her body was a mass of scars after her ordeal.
All the while, the Australian government was putting pressure on Chinese leaders to do something about Ma's case. And China's leaders responded, ordering a review of the case and issuing directives.
But the Tianjin judicial and law enforcement authorities — ; who Ma says were entirely in the palm of Song's hand — ; ignored a five-month-long review of her case by China's Supreme People's Court which declared her not guilty. Song is also the deputy mayor of Tianjin with responsibility for law enforcement.
They sat on the judgement for several months longer. Ma and her husband Zhang Mu remained in jail and their daughter suffered damaged vocal chords from crying for her mother, Ma told RFA.
Eventually, the Tianjin authorities' response was to uphold the original sentences handed to Ma and her husband, reduce their fine to 34 million yuan (U.S.$4.1 million), and deport Ma to Australia in May 2004.
Since then, the Tianjin authorities have refused permission for her husband and three year-old daughter to join her there.
Ma's lawyer Guan Anping said Ma and Zhang were currently appealing to the Supreme Court in Beijing. China needed to regain credibility among the international business community following Ma's detention, he said.
For Ma, the chief concern is that her experiences should become widely known.
"At that time I just thought, I will come out alive. If there is a single breath left in my body I will tell this story to the whole world," Ma told RFA.
Find out more:
Ma Ping's brother's Internet article on her case
Profile and picture of Tianjin Politics and Law Committee Chairman Song Pingshun (in Chinese)