British Columbia

Mother of Vancouver mayor's girlfriend could face death penalty in China

The mother of Vancouver-based Chinese pop star Wanting Qu could face the death penalty for a 'land swindle' in China, according to a Chinese news report. Qu is the girlfriend of Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson.

Mayor Gregor Robertson silent on Chinese press reports as he awaits more information on Zhang Mingjie

Wanting Qu, a Vancouver-based Chinese pop star, pictured with her mother, Zhang, Mingjie in undated photo. (Facebook)

The mother of Vancouver Chinese pop star Wanting Qu could be sentenced to death on charges of embezzlement, bribery and abuse of power according to a report in China's state-controlled press.

Wanting Qu is the girlfriend of Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson.

Zhang Mingjie, 60, has been under arrest, and in custody, for almost two years. She disappeared from her home in Harbin, China, in September 2014.

It took months for her daughter to realize Zhang had been rounded up by police, and held in custody. 

In April of last year, Mayor Robertson confirmed his girlfriend's mother had been arrested on corruption charges.

Zhang is a former deputy director of the Harbin development and reform commission in northeast China.

Now, according to reports on the Xinhua News Agency and China Daily websites, Zhang's trial was held July 19 and 20 in Harbin City.

Zhang Mingjie, standing between two guards on the right, at her corruption trial in Harbin, China. (Xinhua news agency)

China Daily says Zhang is "charged with three counts of corruption and abuse of power" in an alleged "land swindle" involving up to 350 million yuan — just over $69 million Cdn.

The report also says "the prosecution recommended that Zhang Mingjie (be) sentenced to death."

The South China Morning Post reports the charges arose out of a complex real estate scam, involving the transfer of a state-controlled farm to a private agricultural firm in 2009.

The Hong Kong based news outlet says Zhang— the city official in charge of the deal— secretly conspired to doctor the terms of the sale.

Land rights were transferred to a real estate company to build a massive housing project.

Hundreds of workers on the farm were allegedly given tiny severance packages and "left to suffer in appalling conditions".

Zhang Mingjie, 60, was a high-ranking civic official in the northeast Chinese city of Harbin (Facebook)

The Xinhua news agency claims that Zhang and several co-accused confessed, but that their defence lawyers told the court the confessions "had been taken using illegal methods so they should be excluded."

Not guilty pleas were entered.

Vancouver-based South China Morning Post correspondent, Ian Young, who has been closely following the case, says the charges are extremely serious—  but the nature of coverage in the state-controlled press indicates China realizes Zhang's prosecution is  being carefully watched because of her connection to pop star Wanting Qu and Mayor Robertson.

"The death penalty for a corruption case of this magnitude isn't rare" said Young, "but the extent that Xinhua, the state news agency, went to publicly document both sides of the case, including the defence suggestion of an illegal confession, shows it is aware the case is being closely scrutinized."

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson first revealed in April 2015 that his girlfriend's mother had been arrested in China. He has remained silent on reports Zhang Mingjie could now face the death penalty. (CBC News)

Neither Qu nor Robertson responded to requests from CBC News for a comment.

But the mayor's communications strategist, Sarah Zaharia, says "there's nothing new" in the press reports, and "there's not too much to comment on." She says they're waiting for more information.

On Wanting Qu's Facebook page, one of her most recent posts states  "Woke up sobbing. She died in my dream. So real...My reality in the last 653 days been a never-ending nightmare."

A July 7 Facebook post by Wanting Qu shows how the fear of her mother's execution has been sparking nightmares. (Facebook)

Chinese press reports say no date has been set for a verdict in the case against Zhang.