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'Gang wiped out rivals for funeral firm boss'
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A funeral agency boss used intimidation and violence to scare off rival businesses in order to dominate the market in Shanghai, a court heard yesterday.

Zhou Wancheng, 46, employed 18 henchmen to help monopolize the local industry for two years, during which he made huge profits selling cinerary caskets and arranging post-service dinners, prosecutor Liu Yan told Shanghai Zhabei District People's Court.

He ordered his gang to get the details of families who had suffered recent bereavements from local hospital emergency units and mortuaries, and either bully or beat his competitors into submission, said the prosecutor.

Over two years, the gang attacked the premises and staff of four rival funeral services, instigated armed fights and extorted 55,000 yuan (US$8,000) from competitors in return for Zhou "withdrawing his service from certain hospitals", he said.

Zhou, whose nickname is Little Tiger, opened a store in 1999 to sell wreaths but soon realized the big money was in caskets and post-funeral feasts, and built up his business with the view of taking a larger market share.

He was charged with organizing and leading a criminal gang and did not dispute the facts of the case during the hearing, although he denied heading the operation.

His 18 henchmen pleaded guilty to joining a criminal gang, while all 19 were also accused of disturbing social peace, extortion and attempting to organize a group fight. A verdict was still pending yesterday.

The case has prompted calls for the authorities to tighten the regulations for setting up and running a funeral agency, a potentially lucrative business.

Around 100,000 people die each year in Shanghai, while that number is expected to increase due to an aging population.

However, of the 100-plus agencies based in the city, only 21 are officially certified, according to the local government.

The municipal civil affairs bureau announced it is drafting a revised law to regulate the services.

(China Daily May 15, 2009)

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