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True crime. Casually done.

Gao Chengyong: China’s Most Feared Serial Killer

Ni hao, friends. 

As part of our continuing quest to push Simon’s pronunciation skills past breaking point, today we’re heading to China. If you’re an avid reader of state-sanctioned papers, you’d be forgiven for thinking the Middle Kingdom is a place where nothing bad ever happens, and citizens live in peace and harmony. 

(Assuming of course they’re not democracy campaigners, Uighirs, journalists, African, Tibetan, Hong Kongers, or just fans of Winnie the Pooh.) But China wasn’t always the spotless paradise it is today — it was a long road to modernization, with more than a few casualties along the way.

Today we’re diving deep into a story from the country’s belated industrial revolution, which brought with it an age of social upheaval that provided the perfect cover for serial killers to thrive. One of the worst gained the nickname ‘China’s Jack the Ripper’ because of his fondness for mutilation, and the long-enduring mystery of his identity. 

We’ll be looking into his crimes, his past, and the decades-long effort to bring him to justice, China style. Of course, to stay compliant with our friends at the Chinese Communist Party, I’ve already taken the liberty of passing this script over to the censors for proofing. Let’s kick off. 

Our story begins in [REDACTED] in [REDACTED] province, where a [REDACTED] is on her way home from to work, on [REDACTED] [REDACTED] [REDACTED].

Actually, maybe best to go with the original draft…

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Dark Times in Baiyin City

Baiyin City, in Gangsu Province
Baiyin city view by watarukawa is licensed under CC-BY-SA

Our story begins in Baiyin City, in Gangsu Province, where a young woman is on her way home from work, on Chinese New Year 2001. She walked alone through the dusty streets of the city, illuminated in technicolor every now and then by fireworks exploding above.

This northwestern copper mining city was one a jewel of Mao’s China: a prosperous place built on the back of industrial labor reforms. And no offense to any Baiyiners out there, but it’s kind of a dreary-looking place nowadays.

After the copper started drying up in the late 80s, the city went into decline, and the children of its golden age found themselves tethered to a dying horse. I say ‘tethered’, because China’s hukou registration system enforces strict restrictions on where people can live and work. 

Officially, if you want to spend more than three days in a city other than your registered hometown, you have to apply for a temporary residence permit: essentially a domestic visa for anything longer than a weekend getaway.

With jobs drying up and much of the citizenry chained to the city’s fortunes, unemployment skyrocketed. Some, like the woman walking home that night, managed to make a decent living one in the remaining factories, while others fell into idleness and petty crime. 

Aside from its economic and social concerns, Baiyin has had plenty more to worry about in 2001. A suffocating pall had hung over the city throughout the nineteen-nineties (and I’m not just talking about the pollution)…

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The Man, The Myth

Serial killer illustration

On that night in 2001, the young woman had no idea she was about to come face to face with the specter which haunted the city for the past 13 years. Tonight, the streets were filled with the noise of family celebrations in the buildings around, so she probably never felt the usual unease of a woman walking alone at night in Baiyin.

Over the past decade, stories had been coming out of young women, killed and raped, with pieces cut from their lifeless bodies. News of the crimes had been suppressed and filtered through the official state media, but local gossip was unfettered by the censors: the people had long known there was a serial killer on the loose. 

As the bodies piled up throughout the nineties, the mysterious stalker took on urban legend status, and superstitions were shared on how to protect yourself from him. It was said he specifically targeted pretty women with long hair, who wore high heels, and the color red. Easy then: just get a haircut and avoid wearing red — that’s exactly what most young women and girls in that era did. One local resident reminisced: 

“When we were growing up, kids weren’t allowed to go out after dark […] and my mom never let me wear anything red.”

But of course, it wasn’t that simple. If China’s Jack the Ripper set his sights on you, a change of wardrobe wasn’t going to stop him. When the woman approached her front door, he wasn’t far behind.

As she turned the key in the door of her apartment, she was attacked from behind. A black-clad figure grabbed her, and tried to drag her inside. She desperately fought back, scratching and clawing at her assailant’s arms until she could throw him off, run inside, and lock the door behind her.

The woman then called her husband at work, asking him to come home. Until then, she was alone, praying that her attacker wouldn’t find a way in. When she went to look outside, there he was, laughing at her through the window. No attempts to get in, no shouting or screaming; just standing there, mocking her.

Eventually the woman’s husband made it home, in time to join her at the window. Baiyin’s most infamous serial killer was still there, still smiling. This was the first time anyone had caught sight of his face and lived. 

But by the time the police arrived, the gruesome apparition was gone…

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A Prolific Career

This would be one of their best chances of catching the killer in over a decade of hunting him. Between 1988 and 2002, they attributed 11 murders to the man, the majority of which featured horrific acts of sexual violence and mutilation. 

Most of the cases also exhibited a similar methodology: he would pick women seemingly at random, and observe them. He would then choose a time during the daytime to follow them home, force his way inside, rape them, and stab them to death (the last two not always in that order).

It all began on the afternoon of May 26, 1988. At about 3pm that day, a 23-year-old woman returned home from her job at the Baiyin Non-Ferrous Metal Company to the staff accommodation she shared with her family. She lay down to rest, turning on some music on her tape-deck, and drifted off to sleep. 

Shortly after, she awoke to a stranger in her room. She tried to cry out to her brother, sleeping in the next room, but the intruder threw his weight down and covered her mouth. The sound of the cassette tape player drowned out the rest of the noise, as she was strangled unconscious, and stabbed 26 times with a knife.

Her brother kept sleeping just a few feet away while her killer molested the body, then looked through her belongings. He found the woman’s photo album, and spent some time flicking through the pictures, staring into the memories of the person he had just brutally butchered. 

When the police arrived, they found a very different image from the happy young woman in those photos: her neck had been sliced open, almost breaking through the bone; she had been stripped from the waist down; her shirt was lifted up, revealing the dozens of stab wounds on her torso. 

A bloody handprint on the inner thigh gave them a minor break: the print of a right index finger. Analysis of the door handle yielded another, but that would be about as far as the investigation would go for now.

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Over the following years, the cops had their hands full with a surge in crime as the city’s mining fortunes rapidly waned. However, it would be six years until the newest thorn in their side graduated into a fully-fledged serial killer.

This time it was at the Baiyin Power Supply Bureau staff dorms. On July 27th 1994, a 19-year-old cleaner came across an unfamiliar man wandering the halls. When she tried to talk to him, he grabbed her and dragged her into a room. She was stabbed 36 times in the upper body. The blood splatters covered an entire wall.

Just like the first victim, her throat had been slit. Despite all of the gore he had just left behind, the killer still took his time to wash himself down in a communal laundry room at the dorms before taking off. 

If you think that kind of nonchalant attitude would be the undoing, you clearly have far too much faith in the 1990s Chinese police. These crime scenes were attended by poorly-trained rookies who trampled the evidence and spread their own shoe prints around the area. Very little progress was made on either of these cases, beyond the collection of prints and semen samples.

Less than one year later, another body turned up in the city of Baotou, Inner Mongolia — same hallmarks, same methodology. However, given the fractured nature of policing at the time, and strict limits on jurisdictions, it would be a while before detectives made the connection at all. Many of the police stations in rural cities were still using painfully outdated paper filing systems which made co-operation between different cities a nightmare.

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Throughout the late nineties, the killer’s confidence grew with his infamy. The January 1998 murder of a 29-year-old woman on Shengli Street in Baiyin signaled the beginning of a bloody spree that would see four more victims dead before the end of the year. The neighbors found the victim’s body three days later. Well, most of it: a 13x24cm piece of her ear and scalp had been cut off as a grisly souvenir.

Less than one week later, China’s Jack the Ripper struck again. After meeting a young woman at a dance hall, he went with her to her home on Sichuan Road. Three days later, the neighbors found her body. She had been stabbed eight times, sexually assaulted, and had a 30x24cm piece of flesh cut away, from her left breast to her back. If you’re already appalled by the Disco Dancing Deviant, then the next few cases might really challenge your sanity.

His next crime would prove to be his most infamous. Returning to the Baiyin Power Supply Bureau on July 30th, almost four years to the day since he committed his second murder there. This time he chose an eight-year-old girl as his victim. Her parents returned home to find their daughter’s body stuffed into a wardrobe. 

She had been raped, and strangled to death with a belt which still hung from her neck. This time the killer’s calling card was a glass of tea, half-finished and nonchalantly left on the kitchen table. 

And I’m left wondering how in the hell I’ll manage to lighten the tone after that…

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There was clearly no limit to how low this serial killer was willing to go, and the rest of his crimes continued the trend of increasingly creative depravity. Next was the case of Cui Moumou: a young woman who the killer followed home at 10am on November 30th, as she returned from the night shift at Baiyin’s salt factory. 

You know the drill by this point — no need for me to describe the scene. The only extra detail here was the dismemberment of the hands, breasts, and genitals of the woman. The killer had taken them all with him.

Despite this sharp uptick in the killer’s body count, you’ll be amazed to learn that no official warning had been released to the public. The only information the women of Baiyin had to go on were the rumors circulating around town, which by this point had reached a fever pitch.

With extra police funds being diverted into the investigation, China’s Jack the Ripper decided to take a hiatus from murder. His shadow remained looming over the city until his return in the new millennium. The killer announced his arrival by murdering a 28-year-old cotton mill worker on November 20th 2000, and cutting off her hands.

And that brings us right up to date with the botched attempt on Chinese New Year 2001. Finally, after 13 years, the police had a description to go on.

So they finally caught the guy, right? 

Nope — still far too much faith.

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An Amateur Hour Investigation

See, even though nowadays the Chinese police have nationwide DNA databases and super high-tech facial recognition, their capabilities weren’t quite so up-to-date twenty years ago. Ever since China’s Jack the Ripper started his criminal career, Chinese investigations were hamstrung by outdated procedures and inefficient bureaucracy. 

In the early 80s, the majority of Chinese police didn’t even have the luxury of proper squad cars, police stations, weapons, or even uniforms. A few baton-wielding CCP enforcers in each farming commune might have cut it in the 60s, but modern China was going to need a bit more than that to maintain law and order. 

Police standardization and modernization only really came up on the Party agenda in the mid-80s, but progress was slow. Even in the early 2000s, the cops involved in the Baiyin serial killer case were still comparing fingerprints using a magnifying glass, like some twee Sherlock Holmes cosplayers. 

By 2001 they had at least managed to pool all of the killer’s crimes into one serial case, through the comparison of semen samples and fingerprints from each of the crime scenes. However, their database turned up no matches, despite painstaking comparison to 230,000 sets of prints.

The sketches were their best shot yet of identifying the perp. They now had a trio of images of the killer’s face drawn up from the recollections of the survivor, her husband, and a police officer who reckoned he may have seen the attacker in the area.

For some reason though, the cops kept that ace tucked firmly up their sleeve.  Zhang Xin — the facial composite expert brought in to assist the investigation — claimed the sketches were withheld from the public in case they caused “a negative impact on the investigation.” 

We’ve seen in previous episodes how public tip hotlines can actually make things worse, so that’s fair enough. However, there’s probably a bit of saving face at play too. Releasing the image would have meant admitting the presence of a serial killer, which would risk embarrassing the inept detectives and shaking faith in the police.

Not only that, to admit the true magnitude of crime in the city wouldn’t just embarrass the local police, but also threaten the Communist party’s narrative, which casts them as the maintainers of harmony and security (something which was in real decline during that era). As a result, it wasn’t until 2015 that Cui Jinping — brother to the murdered Cui Moumou — even knew there was a sketch.

Instead of relying on public tips, the cops fell back on a psychological profile. They reckoned their man was a sexually perverted loner between the ages of 33 and 40; patient and calculating, with a severe hatred of women. This was the criteria they used for their biggest investigative effort yet — a massive game of Guess Who encompassing every resident of the city…

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The Baiyin Security Bureau decided that if they didn’t have any specific suspects to investigate, they would just investigate everyone. This meant combing through the records of all residents of Baiyin City (current population 1.7 million), and matching their faces to the sketches. This led to the collection of fingerprints from over 100,000 men, and thousands of house searches.

You’d think that kind of spray and pray approach would catch the killer eventually, but no such luck. Take a second to guess why that might be… As it turned out, the killer wasn’t registered in Baiyin at all. 

Over reliance on the antiquated bureaucratic systems had given the investigators a bad case of tunnel vision. For some reason it never crossed their minds that a man capable of strangling children to death might also be comfortable bending household registration regulations. Some lines are just too sacred to cross.

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While the police were busy rounding up every lookalike in town and checking their fingerprints with a Victorian Era detective kit, the real killer was free to continue his spree. On the morning of May 22nd, 2001, the Baiyin Police received a frantic phone call.

On the other end of the line, a woman was screaming for help. She told the police there was a man trying to kill her, but the call cut off before she could give an address. Tragically, her apartment was just one block down the road from the station which took the call. 

By the time the police eventually got there, the woman was long dead. Had they been able to respond at the time, they almost definitely would have gotten their man; the housing complex only had one entrance. This near miss ended up costing one more young woman her life about a year later.

On February 9th 2002, China’s Jack the Ripper staked out the Tao Lechun Hostel in Baiyin, looking for a victim. One woman caught his eye: 25-year-old Zhu Moumou, a long-term resident of the run-down boarding house. Several days later, her decomposing body was found in her room

For reasons unknown at the time, this would be the last murder in the 14-year spree. Despite millions of yuan and tens of thousands of investigation hours, it looked like the police had missed their chance. 

Without any further crime scenes to go on, they took to poring over old reports and evidence. What they found was, to put it mildly, an absolute shambles. As we mentioned, many of the crime scenes had been contaminated by inexperienced officers, making much of their findings pretty much worthless. 

The trail got colder and colder, leading the investigators their very last resort: informing the public. In 2004, they finally admitted to the people of Baiyin that a serial killer investigation was underway. To which the exhausted women of the city replied: “no shit”.

The fine folks at the Baiyin City Public Security Bureau outlined the menace in a long overdue report entitled “Baiyin City Public Security Bureau’s Propaganda Outline for Detecting a Series of Rape and Murder Cases”. Catchy. 

The announcement was accompanied with a 200,000 yuan reward for any information leading to his capture (around $25,000 at the time). Finally the specter which had haunted the city for over 10 years had been officially recognized — but even then, no closer to being identified…

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Over the following decade, China’s Jack the Ripper faded into history. Detectives who had worked the case for decades retired, while family members of the victims lost hope of a conclusion. The murderer became a local bogeyman, that parents would warn their children about to stop them staying out late.

Cui Jinping continued to visit the Security Bureau every few days to ask questions about the investigation into his sister’s death. He kept it up year after year, desperate for some good news to deliver to his grieving family.

By 2011, hope was running pretty much dry. The memory of the case flared up again when one of the investigators released an open letter online, apologizing to the families. It read: “I have never been able to catch you. For the younger generation and the bereaved of the victims, I am a sinner for a lifetime.”

Chin up mate, we’re not at the end of the episode yet.

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An Unlikely Break

To put everyone out of their misery, we’re skipping forward again, to 2016. By then, China had pretty much completed its metamorphosis into a wealthy world superpower, and their police forces had updated their systems to match. The DNA analysis now available to detectives must have seemed like Star Trek tech to their predecessors. With a fair bit of luck, it would end up being the key to the whole thing.

Early in 2016, an elderly man was arrested in Baiyin, and charged with attempting to bribe a police officer. The cops took a DNA cheek swab from the man at the station, as had become standard procedure, and when they ran it through the system they found something shocking. He was a partial match for China’s Jack the Ripper! Finally, after nearly 30 years, an actual lead. 

I was only a partial match, but similar enough that the police knew the murderer had to in the old guy’s immediate family tree. Obviously female relatives were ruled out, so they then categorized the male family members by age and location. Only one person fit the bill: a 52-year-old shopkeeper named Gao Chengyong (the old man’s nephew).

The police must have second-guessed themselves; could the city’s most feared psychopath really be this unremarkable, portly, mild-mannered little man? Had they really been outwitted for decades by him?

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Gao Chengyong, a Retrospective 

Left: Police composite sketch of then suspect. Right: Actual image of serial killer Gao Chengyong. Source: https://gijn.org/

If Gao Chengyong were the killer, it would come as a surprise everyone he knew. Most of all his wife of 30 years, Zhang Qingfeng, and his two grown sons.They all knew Gao as a quiet man, unemotional but with a strong sense of duty towards his family. 

He was born in 1964, in the small rural village of Qingcheng, Yuzhong County, around 75 miles from Baiyin. Raised in a poor farming family, he had aspirations of becoming a pilot, but was devastated when he never made the cut. Gao later told his friends he had been forced off the programme for political reasons.

After failing to enter any kind of higher education, he settled for becoming a laborer, like hundreds of millions of others in those days. With the meagre earnings he got from various odd jobs, he provided palliative care for his father throughout a prolonged terminal illness. Google Translate offered up this beautifully direct quote from one of his old neighbors: “Gao was behaved when he was a child. He wiped his father’s shit and urine. He was extremely filial.”

Hardly sounds like a cold-blooded killer, right?

After the filial son’s father passed away in the mid eighties, he decided it was time for a change. And a modernizing China offered him a chance for one: the Deng Xiaoping era saw the hokou residence system relaxed. The new, loosened restrictions meant that unskilled workers were allowed to drift around the country as they pleased, picking up work wherever it could be found.

The only catch was that, while outside of their designated hometowns, they were unable to access public healthcare, education, and social security. That was a no-brainer trade for a laborer from a poor farming community, so Gao and his wife decided to move to Baiyin… and never registered there.

When Zhang gave birth to their first child, she returned home to stay with her mother for a while, leaving Gao alone in the city. He spent the next few years split between short-term jobs in Baiyin, long stints in his hometown, and construction work in Baotou, Inner Mongolia. Even when his wife and kids rejoined him, he would disappear for days at a time, supposedly working, or on a binge at his beloved dancehalls.

Gao Chengyong’s life continued on like this without any major incidents. He was a distant husband, but provided well enough for his family. In 2015, with Gao now in his fifties, the couple took over the campus shop at Baiyin Technical School. A nearby barbershop owner described the new shopkeep as “quiet, like a school teacher.”

But the community around the school was in for a horrific revelation. On August 26th, two plainclothes police officers entered the campus shop to arrest Gao Chengyong; a DNA test had confirmed it — they had their man. The “quiet”, “filial” husband and father was responsible for the brutal rape and murder of 11 women and girls. 

When Gao the Ripper realized what was happening, he tried to make a break for it, but never even made it out the door. A security guard at the school recalled watching him being dragged away, saying “I thought he had some disease.”

Few years too early for that, my man.

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Confessions and Recollections

Down at the station, the interrogations got underway. When asked if he knew why he was there, the suspect reportedly said it was because he had killed people. Although, when the Chinese security forces get ahold of you, a confession pretty much comes as standard (guilty or not). It’s only sensible to be skeptical of anything coming out of their interrogation rooms.

But as if to clear up any lingering doubts we might have about his guilt, Gao waited until the interrogators left the room, then attempted to kill himself by smashing his head into a chair repeatedly. A bit of an unorthodox suicide attempt, and thoroughly unsuccessful. All he needed was three stitches.

With that out of his system, Gao decided the only course of action to mitigate his misfortunes would be to tell them everything. With a blank expression, he confessed to all 11 murders, offering details which only he could know, and revealing horrific new ones for the cops and media to chew on.

Gao rattled off each murder one after the other, over the course of several hours. According to the police reports, he even remembered the exact time of day at which each slaying took place. As one interrogator put it: “Gao’s calmness is unimaginable, […] terrifying. He remembers everything clearly.”

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Apparently Gao the Ripper had started out as a petty criminal rather than a cold-blooded killer. He claimed that he was only breaking into the first victim’s house to burgle the place; the murder was to avoid being caught. That doesn’t exactly add up with the two-dozen-plus stab wounds, but whatever. He then explained how he had taken the photo album with him, and burned it before returning home to his wife. 

In the same year as that initial murder, his first son was born. The investigators asked Gao how old his eldest was when his father raped and murdered an eight-year-old girl; “Ten,” Gao replied, in a matter-of-fact tone. One of the detectives told the press: “I stared at him, and he stared back for almost ten seconds, before lowering his head. My fist was raised. I almost slammed it into his face.”

If you ask me, chances are the whole “suicide by chair” thing was just a cover story for a bit of rough justice doled out in the interrogation room. Not condoning it, of course — but it is a bit satisfying to imagine. 

It was in the year of that most infamous murder, 1998, that Gao’s confidence in his methods peaked. He explained feeling an overwhelming bloodlust throughout that entire year. That’s when his fondness for mutilation really took off. As for the his souvenirs, he claimed to have thrown all of the dismembered body pieces into the Yellow River. 

By this point, Gao and his wife were living in a tiny little hut in his hometown again. He would travel to downtown Baiyin solely for the purposes of killing, always careful to otherwise obey the law to avoid fingerprinting. The increased police attention to his crimes after that little quartet of killings forced Gao to lay low for a while. But eventually, he “just felt the need to kill someone.” Simple as that. For once, a serial killer who doesn’t make himself out to be a genius! 

Gao admitted to just being a guy who really loved murdering — and not even in a particularly organized fashion. His self-admitted sloppiness must have really twisted the knife in the ego of the police who he ran circles around for 28 years. Oh, and he never cared about red clothes or high heels — that was all just gossip. In reality, he just picked whoever he could find. 

As for why Gao stopped killing completely, he explained that he was simply getting too old for it. In 2002 he was pushing 40, rocking an impressive beer belly, and realized he wasn’t quite as fit as he used to be. It seems like getting beaten in a wrestling match by a woman half his size and age had put a bit of a check on the killer’s confidence. 

By this point his second son was growing up fast, and attending school in Baiyin alongside his big brother. Gao needed money to pay for their upkeep and education, so he did what every parent has to do: put aside his hobbies for the sake of his kids. What a sweetheart.

The dedicated family man went back up to Inner Mongolia to take on a construction job, and never killed again. His crime spree ended as arbitrarily as it had begun, offering no closure for anyone involved. Even now, the families of the victims had no real explanation for why he had carried out the killings — they didn’t even get an apology.

“Did you ever feel any remorse for your victims or their families?” one detective asked. 

Gao shook his head.  

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Execution and Resolution

Despite finally having their man behind bars, freely admitting his crimes, the police enjoyed little relief. The whole affair had been an embarrassment for the regional security bureau; a case that was opened back when the current top brass were just rookies. Looking back, it really should have been resolved long ago. 

One retired cop who worked the case told the press: “I felt ashamed rather than happy. I can’t believe the real killer has been living under our nose for so long while we targeted other groups of people. The cases confused me and colleagues for so many years. “

It does seem a bit mad that they threw all their investigative power at Baiyin residents alone, and never considered the killer might be someone drifting through the city over the years. A 90-minute commute basically put Gao beyond suspicion!

How many lives could have been saved had the police had access to better tools, or practiced better organization? Potentially more than we ever previously thought, because there have been whispers that Gao’s actual body count might be much higher than he ever admitted. 

Where else might China’s Jack the Ripper have wandered to? And did he really hang up his boots (and blades) after 2002, or does Inner Mongolia have some cold cases that really need to be looked into?

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The opaqueness of Chinese crime and punishment make speculation pretty much impossible, so let’s just wrap up the ones we know. When the case came to trial, Gao Chengyong was charged with 11 murders, along with rape, robbery, and the desecration of corpses. It’s worth noting that Chinese courts have a 99.965% conviction rate, so don’t expect any big twists coming up.

Gao’s defense lawyer Zhu Aijun described his client as old and haggard during the meetings at the detention center. Being a defense lawyer in China is a bit like being a pro surfer in the Sahara, so the main purpose of these meetings wasn’t to help his client dodge the death penalty — Zhu was mostly just there to help tie the case up neatly. 

His meetings with Gao continued for across a year-long preparation period which is unusual in Chinese law. The reason given was that they wanted to make sure they confirmed all his crimes beyond a shadow of a doubt, so no accomplices or copycats would be let off the hook.

Gao planned all along to plead guilty, but still declined to attach any apology. The only time he became even slightly emotional was during conversations about the little girl he murdered. In a fleeting moment of awareness, he said he saw himself as a villain. 

What a gargantuan understatement. 

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On the 18h of July, Gao Chengyong’s closed-door trial began at the Intermediate People’s Court of Baiyin City. The man himself appeared before the judges wearing a saggy grey polo shirt, and confessed to all of his crimes across the course of two days. It would be another 9 months until the public sentencing, which happened on March 30th 2018. 

Gao was, of course, sentenced to death. On top of that, he would be “deprived of all political rights for life”, which sounds… kind of inconsequential in a dictatorship. When the judgement was handed down, Gao drank a glass of water, turned to the victims’ families in the gallery, and bowed three times.

The government would be seizing all of his assets, but since he didn’t have enough to cover the civil compensation, he offered to donate all of his organs. ‘Two decades of unimaginable pain and suffering — but you can have my liver, and we’ll call it square.’ 

Now, I could go heavier on the Chinese organ harvesting jokes here, but I might need to transfer through Shanghai Airport sometime soon, and I don’t fancy disappearing. As for Gao, he promptly disappeared from the courtroom, never to be seen again. He was presumably ferried back to a squalid prison to live out his last few remaining days. 

His death was kept as mysterious as his crimes. On January 3rd 2019, a message was posted on the Baiyin court’s Weibo social media account: 54-year-old Gao Chenyong had been executed, by methods undisclosed. 

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Serial Killing With Chinese Characteristics 

Just like that, the ghost which had haunted the people of Baiyin for three decades was exorcised— a hidden, anticlimactic end to a horrifically brutal story. All that’s left is to take a quick look at the conditions which let this sadist run amok, and some of the other maniacs who took advantage of them.

We’ve already seen how the antiquated hukou system gave the police a bad case of tunnel vision, but the blame doesn’t lie entirely with the investigators.They were working during a period of unimaginably vast change in society. 

In the Mao era, the presence of serial killers would have been seen as essentially impossible — how could such people exist in such an increasingly perfect society? That kind of naivety was a direct result of concerted propaganda efforts by the government. 

But, as China started to become a capitalist country (although don’t let President Xi hear you say it), the dynamics of cities and families were thrown into flux, and the police were totally unequipped to deal with the challenges this unleashed.

Like I said before, most didn’t even have squad cars or uniforms in 1980. It wasn’t until brothers Wang Zongfang and Wang Zongwei went on an eight-month spree of murder and robbery that the higher-ups started to wake up to the dangers of the new China. The Wang bros (not to be confused with the far less dangerous Bang Bros) killed over a dozen soldiers and cops, with guns and grenades.

The Communist dream was on the decline, and with it waned the propaganda-enforced solidarity of the poor farming communities that were once the darlings of the Party. By the time our man Gao’s killing career was in full swing, much of rural China had become a kind of wild west. 

Poor laborers left their communities behind and drifted around in search of work. Naturally, many decided honest work is hard; the only other way to turn a profit was crime. 

This was the start of a truly modern China. And with it came a distinctly modern phenomenon: the serial killer. One anonymous source at the Baiyin Security Bureau told the New Republic magazine that Gao wasn’t even the only one. Apparently there were “almost certainly several serial killers” operating in or around the city during his heyday. They’ll forever remain unknown. 

We do know of a few other Chinese serial killers from around the country. One of the most heinous was Yang Xinhai, the so-called Monster Killer. He would break into countryside homes, and massacre everyone inside — wiping out multiple generations of a family line in minutes. All in all he claimed 67 official victims, making him China’s worst ever murderer… (I mean, excluding Mao…) <<[[[feel free to delete this! Probably best to avoid anything so pointedly politicized unless you feel strongly on it]]]

Then there was Yang Shubin and his gang. Around the turn of the millennium, he would go to ‘karaoke bar’ brothels, and make a show of himself as a rich businessman. He would offer double the going rate to take a woman home with him, where he, his girlfriend, and two old schoolmates would tie up the victims and torture them for bank details. After robbing the women, the gang would murder them, grind up their remains, then dispose of them down drains. 

That’s just a quick snapshot of some of the worst crimes from China’s modern history. But like I said, we’ll never know the full extent of them. Dr Mike Aamodt of Radford University told the New Republic: 

“Countries such as China do suppress information about crime. One must be very cautious in interpreting any crime statistics from these countries—including the frequency of serial murder. I would not be surprised if the actual rate is similar to the rate in the United States. […] A population like China’s, over four times that of the U.S., could expect over ten thousand serial killers—not [the official statistic of] 62.”

That’s right, the CCP have cheated me out of a potential 9,938+ episode ideas. This time, they’ve truly gone too far. 

______________________________________

Wrap-up

And that finishes us up for the day. I hope you’ve enjoyed our little field trip, and I‘d love to hear what countries and killers you’d like us to feature in future. 

As for China, you’d like to think the modernized police force could snap up a reckless opportunist like Gao Chengyong in a day or two. The government’s deep pockets have resulted in a new brand of authoritarian control, supercharged by technology and data collection. 

I’m talking 200 million CCTV cameras connected to an AI tracking system in their Skynet project. And 2 million operatives employed just to monitor microblogs. Some estimate that their total internet police force is many multiples bigger.

In other words, the golden age of Chinese serial killers is probably long behind us. The few that we do know about are every bit as sadistic as all your familiar favorites from the West. And if you’ll indulge me in a bit of pure, unfounded speculation, perhaps Gao Chengyong was one of the very worst. 

What if, in order to avoid further police embarrassment, the full extent of Gao’s crimes were concealed? If he continued killing in Inner Mongolia after 2004, might they not have been incentivized to just exclude those murders, snipping the case off at the first major public announcement? Again, baseless speculation, but I have to throw all the conspiracy lovers a bone every now and then.

In closing, if you’re worried that listening to today’s episode might have hurt your social credit score, don’t worry: just say 15 Hail Mao’s before bed, and be sure to post something nice about Xi in the comments. That should even things out.

It’s probably too late for me though. Soon I’ll be swapping out this basement for a Beijing gulag. 

Nice knowing you, comrades.

Dismembered Appendices

1. If you still haven’t had enough of Chinese true crime, here’s another tidbit. In 1995, Beijing resident Li Pingping was frustrated with his station in life. After being fired from his job, he murdered his former boss, along with his wife and child. After that, he got a job as a taxi driver, and murdered four prostitutes between 2002 and 2003. When captured by the police, he said he was jealous the women made more money than him.

2. You might be surprised to hear that, despite strict information control, China has its own true crime community  (Note to Simon: please learn fluent Mandarin to get that sweet sweet China money). For Gao’s case, students at a Chinese law school organized an online forum to solve the crime — some ex officers even contributed clues and evidence images to the chat.

3. A colleague of the first victim named Liu Shumin gave us a window into the comedy of errors that was the early investigation. He recounted that when the body was found, the police brought in a sniffer dog from a town 60 miles away to investigate. When the dog arrived, it couldn’t do its job; the poor pup had gotten motion sickness on the way over.

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