Yang brutally killed 67 people and raped 23 women over a relatively short span of three years across four provinces – Anhui, Shandong, Hebei and Henan – of China. Yang left the investigators perplexed and wondering, and they were nowhere close to identifying, much less apprehending, Yang when by sheer chance he was arrested for suspicious behaviour, and the DNA work connected him to the crimes he had committed. HEMRAJ SINGH tells the tale of Yang’s monstrosity and also of the state managed suppression of reportage.
On November 3, 2003 when the police mounted a routine inspection on an entertainment house in the city of Cangzhou in Hebei province in China, they were not looking for any serious criminals, let alone one of the most gruesome serial killers in the history of China. It was only because Yang Xinhai got uncomfortable during the inspection and started acting suspiciously that he was arrested and investigated. Sustained questioning and some DNA work revealed that the man they had in custody killed for pleasure, and quite frequently at that, if a total of 67 brutal killings in a relatively short span of three years was anything to go by. Yang Xinhai did not take long to confess that he had brutally killed more than 60 people and raped several women.
His DNA tied Xinhai to a number of different crime scenes spread over four provinces – Anhui, Shandong, Hebei and Henan – with Henan as the centre of Xinhai’s sordid activities. With DNA evidence and Xinhai’s own testimony in the bag, the authorities had a watertight case against Xinhai, and nothing short of death penalty was on the cards for him.
Yang would later be found guilty of 67 murders and 23 rapes committed in 26 separate killing sprees, which also left a total of 10 people seriously injured. Explaining his reasons to kill, Xinhai reportedly said, “When I killed people I had a desire. This inspired me to kill more. I don’t care whether they deserve to live or not. It is none of my concern…I have no desire to be part of society. Society is not my concern.”
Born on July 29, 1968 in Zhengyang County, Zhumadian, Henan Province, China, in one of the poorest families in the village, Yang Xinhai (also known as Yang Zhiya and Yang Liu) was the youngest among his siblings. As a young boy Yang Xinhai was intelligent but an introvert. He did not interact with others all that easily or often. Yang did not apply his intelligence to studies and dropped out of school in 1985 at the age of 17. He started wandering around doing odd jobs, and worked mostly as a general labourer. However, he was not cut out for a simple, straight life and got in trouble in 1988 when he was sentenced to a labour camp for stealing. But that did not change him one bit and he got another sentence in 1991 for stealing once again.
Again, the punishment did not seem to have any deterrent or reformatory impact on Yang. In 1996, he was found guilty of attempted rape in Zhumadian, Henan, and was sentenced to a five-year imprisonment. Somehow, he was released early in 2000. What made the authorities let out a man with aggravating criminal tendencies even before his prison term was over is not very clear. What is clear is that shortly after his release in 2000, Yang started murdering people brutally for unknown reasons.
Yang did not mention any particular reason for the killings except that he had a strong urge to kill. However, a report published in a Hebei-based newspaper, Yanzhao Dushi, claimed that since Yang had been sentenced to prison and to reform-through-labour camps for robberies and rape, his girlfriend broke up with him “and as a result, Yang Zhiya developed a vengeful attitude towards society and committed the crimes in Henan, Anhui, and Shandong.” However, Yang himself did not confirm that theory, and did not indicate that in killing people he was seeking revenge or was trying to punish the society for something. During the course of his detention in Luohe, when other inmates asked as to why he killed, Yang remarked, “Killing people is very usual, nothing special.”
So, the only thing that he confirmed was that he had the desire to kill and did not care whether his victims deserved to live or die. One might speculate that his desire to kill was sub-consciously motivated by a vague sense of injustice and betrayal, but such a conclusion would be nothing more than psychological guesswork.
Yang did have a very strong urge to kill and the murders did look like random killings. It’s not that he killed without planning or struck impulsively like an animal driven by instincts; he not only planned his strikes at least a few hours in advance, but also put considerable thought into how to escape detection and arrest. For a long time the police had no clue who they were looking for because Yang wore shoes of different sizes and kind during the killings and burnt the clothing and shoes after each killing spree. Furthermore, he did not use a consistent weapon to kill. He used axes, shovels, knives and hammers for the purpose, and all those tools are commonplace items, which made it difficult for the police to proceed with the investigation. In most cases, Yang killed entire families leaving no living witness behind.
In the Liuzhuang Village of Henan’s Xiping County, a farmer called Liu Zhanwei lived with his family comprising of his mother, father, daughter and son. Liu Zhanwei was in his late thirties and the family had managed to build a new house for themselves. They had planned to move into the new house on December 9, 2002. In the meanwhile Liu’s father, a 68-year old Liu Zhongyuan, had started sleeping in their new house at night. Things were looking up for the family but fate had something unimaginably gruesome in store for them. On the night of December 6, 2002, Yang Xinhai gained entry into the house of the unsuspecting family around midnight, and struck each member of the family in the head and face multiple times with a hammer causing immediate death of Liu Zhanwei, his wife, son and daughter. His mother survived the night with severe injuries and could bat her eyelids, but that’s all she could do. She finally succumbed to her injuries in a hospital ten days later. The only member of the family who survived the massacre was Liu Zhongyuan, the 68-year old father of Liu Zhanwei, simply because he was sleeping in the new house and was not with the rest of the family on the fateful night.
Liu Zhongyuan later re-called the dreadful sight of his granddaughter lying in a pool of her own blood with a hole in her head. The house was soaked in the blood of his family. The fact that the deaths were caused by a hammer came to light only when Yang Xinhai confessed to using a hammer to kill the family after he was arrested. He also told the police during the interrogation that after killing the family he buried the hammer near a tomb and threw his clothes in a river. It is not clear whether or not the authorities recovered the hammer or the clothes. Very little information regarding the particulars of the crimes committed by Yang Xinhai was let out in public domain by the investigation agencies perhaps because the sordid crimes committed by Yang Xinhai reflect poorly on the law and order situation in the country while the authorities like to maintain that the rate of heinous crimes in the country is way below the world average despite factual indications to the contrary.
However, the lack of official data makes it impossible for one to comment upon the law and order situation in the country with any degree of certainty although with such instances of criminal behaviour as Yang Xinhai’s coming to light, it is not all that difficult to suspect that the picture the authorities present is not quite accurate, and the truth is grimmer than what the official claims let on.
When Yang Xinhai was arrested and it came to light that the police had been investigating barbarous killings of several families across four provinces for quite some time, the informed observers – mostly journalists – suspected that there had been a government imposed media blackout effected primarily by the authorities not allowing the state-run media to run reports regarding local murder cases so that the favourable impression of the security situation in the nation could be maintained.
Yang Xinhai’s arrest was first reported by the Yanzhao Metropolitan Daily followed by several mainland websites, but a mainland reporter associated with the Yanzhao Metropolitan Daily reportedly told that the websites reporting Yang’s arrest did not go any further and “killed” it. Notably, the official media – Xinhua, China Central Television and the People’s Daily – chose to not report any of the killings perpetrated by Yang Xinhai despite the number of victims, the barbaric nature and frequency of the killing sprees. Due to the lack of reportage, people living in the four provinces were unaware that a serial killer was on the prowl, and it is not difficult to argue that by disallowing the dissemination of information regarding the murders, the government put a large number of unsuspecting people across the four provinces at the risk of life and limb.
The story of Yang Xinhai’s arrest got out when a few journalists in Cangzhou, where Yang Xinhai was arrested, heard from several sources about who Yang Xinhai was and what he had done. However, the police kept mum on the issue. It was much after the story had been published without official confirmation that the officials from the authorities confirmed some of the details of Yang’s arrest and crimes to the South China Morning Post.
In fact, after Yang’s arrest only Shi Guizhong, director of the Hebei Public Security Bureau’s propaganda division said anything about Yang or the crimes he had committed. Shi reportedly confirmed to the AFP (Agence France-Presse) that “it’s at least 65 (victims),” and added “even though the case was cracked in Hebei, it involves several provinces, so it’s up to the Ministry of Public Security to release information.” With that Mr. Guizhong refused to divulge any more details.
The police officials in the other provinces where Yang had killed declined to reveal anything except that there were orders from the Ministry of Public Security against speaking to the media regarding the issue.
The Anhui police official in charge of the case reportedly said, “There’s such a case. This case will be announced by the Ministry of Public Security. We can’t say anything. This is a discipline.” The Public Security Bureau official at Shandong went only as far as to say, “We know about this and this case has been cracked.” Another police officer with the Hebei Public Security Bureau reportedly spoke on condition of anonymity and said, “Everyone in the department has heard about it … the effect is very big. It affects several provinces … it could be the biggest murder case since the founding of the country (the People’s Republic of China).”
While the media maintained the silence mandated and engineered by the state in China over the crimes and arrest of a serial killer, around the same time in the US, the press was having a field day reporting in great detail the crimes and trial of Gary Ridgway, an American serial killer, who had confessed to killing 48 women in Seattle during the 1980s. The sharp contrast was not lost on the Chinese journalists, who believed that the state-run media was silent on the issue and the officials in the know were also directed to maintain silence because the higher state functionaries were concerned about the reports of the gruesome murders reflecting badly on the internal security and law and order situation in the country.
As for Yang’s trial, it was barely reported. Besides, there was little to report, for the trial reportedly lasted less than an hour before Yang Xindhai was convicted for the murders of 67 people and the rapes of 25 women on February 1, 2004 by the Luohe City Intermediate People’s Court, Henan. Yang was sentenced to death, which was just as promptly carried out on February 14, 2004 in Henan and Yang was executed by a gunshot to the head. Even the details or identities of Yang’s victims were not disclosed to the public.