With temperatures reaching 39°C, Chinese Special Forces equipped with search dogs and rifles marched through the flush and humid wilderness of Gele Mountain on the outskirts of Chongqing, China’s southwestern hub.
The local police called in the military to join efforts to catch a serial killer who is rumored to have acquired his lethal skills in Burma. Early Tuesday morning, the manhunt ended in his death by gunshot.
Zhou Kehua, a 42-year-old native of Chongqing, was one of China’s most wanted men, accused of at least nine murders in three Chinese provinces since 2004. In January, police in vain set up roadblocks around the eastern city of Nanjing in an attempt to capture Zhou after a fatal robbery. Local media reports at the time said that the robber’s weapon, a Type 54 pistol, was of Burmese origin.
Last Friday, he was filmed by security cameras shooting dead a woman and wounding two men in a robbery in his home district of Shapingba in Chongqing. Zhou also killed a 29-year old policeman who stopped him for questioning on Saturday.
The ensuing search led to the discovery of his hideout cave in Gele Mountain on the city’s outskirts. The area was cordoned off as the nation’s largest manhunt this year diverted public attention from China’s Olympic performance and raised questions on how a man with little school education could evade the nation’s security apparatus for almost a decade.
On Tuesday morning, the state-run Xinhua news agency reported that “Zhou was killed at the scene by police at Wosungou in Tongjiaqiao Village in Qinjiagang Township of Chongqing’s Shapingba District at 6:50 am.”
The Chongqing Times reported that eight policemen found Zhou’s body indicating suicide, sparking rumors that the state-run agency misreported the end of the high-profile manhunt. The local daily has since deleted this post on its microblog.
“Without efficiency from the police, China’s public security could not be guaranteed and the country would be in chaos,” wrote the Beijing-based Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece The Global Times in an editorial on Tuesday.
“Without the reform of the police system, China’s progress will be affected.”
The Ministry of Public Security had placed Zhou on its “A” wanted list, the highest level, and asked for assistance by the military to catch the serial killer. The bounty for Zhou’s capture offered by several local governments amounted to 5.4 million yuan (US $850,000) according to Xinhua.
The question of how Zhou evaded the authorities for so long and several hints in news reports including the gun of alleged Burmese origin led to speculation about training received when he lived in Burma.
Xinhua indicated that Zhou had spent time in Burma by citing unidentified sources in Chongqing. In a separate report, the news agency reported on Monday that Zhou had been jailed in 2005 in Yunnan, the Chinese province bordering Burma, for trafficking firearms, citing a local police officer.
The serial killer spent three years in Burma as a mercenary, Pu Yongjian, a Chongqing-based economics scholar, wrote in a post on his Weibo microblog, the Chinese equivalent to Twitter, on Saturday. “He has real battle experience and is able to survive in the wild.” Pu also lives in Shapingba District, although his assertion could not be independently verified.
“Zhou may have had a military background, giving him skills that have proved useful in evading capture,” The Global Times speculated on Monday. Yet Police denied that Zhou has ever received training in the Chinese security apparatus in a statement carried by the Xinhua news agency on the same day.
Cross-border crime—especially the trafficking of firearms, drugs and humans—continues to flourish at the porous boundary between China’s Yunnan Province and Burma’s Kachin and northern Shan states.
Armed police roadblocks are a daily sight along the Chinese side of the frontier. “The level of violence has increased,” the deputy head of the Yunnan’s security department Yan Shangzhi said during a press conference in March.