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China has been transfixed by news of the country’s first big mafia trials, which have revealed Chongqing, the largest city in the nation’s interior, to be a Chinese version of Gotham City. Protected by corrupt officials, gangs involved in gambling, loan-sharking, drugs and prostitution operated freely, reaping billions in illegal profits and killing anyone who got in their way. A government crackdown launched a few months ago has so far produced nearly 1,500 arrests, including a number of senior police officials. The first defendants went on trial a little over a week ago. Six gang members were sentenced to death Wednesday, with five more receiving life terms. The trials are also a major test of China’s law targeting “Mafia-style gang-related activities.” But leading Chinese business magazine Caijing notes that the law’s slippery definition of “mafia” has proven somewhat problematic. Most defendants, while accepting other criminal charges against them, have rejected charges that they were involved in a mafia-type organization. Xie Caiping, a casino operator widely described as a “Godmother” figure in the Chongqing mob, has argued her organization operated by consensus and therefore didn’t resemble the more typically hierarchical mafia. Amazingly, another defendant has argued that he was merely part of a family-dominated organized crime group, not a mafia group. A 2000 interpretation of the 1997 anti-mafia law by the Supreme People’s Court defines a mafia-style organization as being well-organized, economically strong and violent group that also enjoys protection by public officials. In 2002, however, a committee of the National People’s Congress overrode the Supreme Court and struck the official protection part of the definition. Since then, the exact definition of a “Mafia-style” group has remained unsettled. The most well-known U.S. anti-mob statute, the Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organization act, does not depend on an exact definition of mafia, but treats any group that engages in a pattern of specified racketeering crimes to be a criminal enterprise. Though employed effectively against organized crime, the law has also been invoked in white-collar and corporate fraud cases. But while RICO has been the key to many U.S. mob prosecutions, China’s anti-mafia law is decidedly less critical. A Chinese court would mostly consider mafia membership a factor in aggravation, reducing chances of parole or commutation. As Wednesday’s sentences show, this kerfuffle over statutory language is unlikely to slow the wheels of Chinese justice.

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