China ends biggest-ever manhunt with deadly show of its authority as Zhou Kehua is tracked down

'Most dangerous man' cornered and killed by police in show of strength by a ruling party under pressure
  • @cliffordcoonan

A fugitive described as "China's most dangerous man" was shot dead by police in the south-western city of Chongqing yesterday, ending a four-day manhunt involving thousands of officers and soldiers.

The unusually high-profile chase – followed by the country's media with a level of detail rarely seen – culminated when Zhou Kehua, accused of killing nine people and committing a string of armed robberies, was cornered and killed in an alleyway in the city's Shapingba district.

The Xinhua news agency posted a photograph on its website which was said to show Zhou's body, in a checked shirt and grey trousers, his mobile phone and sunglasses on the ground beside him, and a stream of blood flowing from his head.

Authorities will have been keen to exhibit a firm grip on crime, both in Chongqing and at a national level, after the fall earlier this year of the city's former Communist party head, Bo Xilai, who had been tipped to join China's powerful Politburo this year. Mr Bo, whose wife stood trial last week accused of the murder of the British businessman Neil Heywood, made his name by running a popular crackdown on crime in the city.

This policy, and the reputation of the Chongqing administration, became tainted when Mr Bo's former police chief, Wang Lijun, arrived at a US consulate earlier this year apparently offering evidence which implicated Mr Bo's wife, Gu Kailai, in Mr Heywood's death.

The Bo scandal, which has rocked China's ruling elite, comes at a time when stability is crucial ahead of a once-in-a-decade top-level power transition in the Communist Party later this year.

"Zhou's death was a relief for China's public security officers, who were under great pressure to nab him as soon as possible," Xinhua reported yesterday.

Earlier this week, annual leave for police in the neighbouring provinces of Sichuan and Guizhou was cancelled and officers were placed on high alert. The Vice-Minister of Public Security, Zhang Xinfeng, travelled to Chongqing to lead the manhunt.

"If he wasn't killed, it wouldn't appease the public anger. Chongqing police did well!" read a comment on China's popular micro-blogging website Sina Weibo, quoted in the Wall Street Journal.

Zhou, 42, who had managed to evade previous police detection in Guizhou and Sichuan, was described by police as "ruthless and extremely dangerous" and a bounty of 5.4m yuan (£540,000) was placed on his head. Cases such as Zhou's are rare in China, where private gun ownership is prohibited.

Zhou had been implicated in robberies and killings in three provinces dating back eight years, including the death of a People's Liberation Army soldier in March 2009. But the manhunt was intensified after he allegedly shot dead a woman and wounded two others outside a Chongqing bank on Friday. Police said a total of 250,000 yuan was stolen from the victims. He was also suspected of killing a railway police officer in a later incident on the same day.

When the suspect was spotted by plainclothes police officers in Chongqing early yesterday, a gunfight is said to have ensued. Wang Xiaoyu, one of the officers who shot Zhou, told how the suspect had opened fire three times after he realised he was being followed.

"He was less than three metres ahead of us," Mr Wang told Xinhua, adding that the fugitive's first shot had just missed him.

Zhou is believed to have hidden behind a telephone pole and exchanged shots, before being hit by four bullets. Police said they later found another pistol, three loaded bullet clips, some bullets and more than 10,000 yuan in cash in his bag.

"We heard that the suspect was besieged in Shapingba, which disturbed us very much," a Chongqing resident, one of hundreds of locals who turned out to see the crime scene, told Xinhua. "His death is definitely a great relief."

However, questions soon peppered Sina Weibo, with users asking why police had been photographed rifling through Zhou's belongings without gloves, why Zhou had not been captured and put on trial, and how he had eluded police for so long.