Smugglers' Nightmare

Duan Rongzhi, the chief detective in Fengjie County, Sichuan, is no Sherlock Holmes. The stocky, hard-drinking 38-year-old veteran police officer wears a leather jacket, has a silver tooth and walks with a swagger, especially after several rounds of beer. He pats a shopkeeper paternalistically on the cheek, forces a cigarette on him, then yells at a motorcyclist to slow down. When the driver mutters a curse at him, Duan shouts, "I'll make a ghost out of you!"

But Duan has faced greater dangers than the pipe-smoking British sleuth ever did, even on paper. Duan's district, in the center of China's ancient Yangtze-based civilization, is thick with tombs, valuable relics and antiquities. Since construction on the Three Gorges Dam started eight years ago -- tearing up the ground and exposing the treasures -- smuggling has become rampant. But police have been able to catch only the ignorant farmers who dig up the goods for pay. The big fish, the smugglers who actually sell them out of the area, usually get away. That is, until Duan risked an undercover operation and recovered a rare Han Dynasty bronze. You could call it "The Case of the Watermelon Tripod."

It started three years ago, when Duan got a tip that a smuggler was trying to sell one of the most valuable relics ever found in the region. Donning dark glasses, a fake mustache and a baggy, expensive suit, Duan spread word that he was a rich dealer from Fujian province, looking for expensive objects to buy. He left the name of a local hotel, where he took a room. The bait worked. The next day an edgy young man showed up. "Quick, what dynasty is this from?" he asked, pulling out a small ceramic bowl. Duan had studied antique books and was prepared with the right answer. That evening, the smuggler, named Luo Chengjian, called and ordered Duan to climb into a van outside the hotel. "Come alone and don't bring anything," he said. Duan concealed a tiny .64-caliber Chinese pistol in his belt.

It almost cost him his life. The van drove him to a rundown shack on the waterfront. Inside, three men flung him against the wall. "We know you're an undercover cop," said Luo, pressing a knife against his throat. "We know you must have a gun." Duan insisted he was a dealer. "In my line of work, of course I carry a gun," he said coolly. When he threatened to call off the deal, the smugglers brought out the foot-high bronze Watermelon Tripod. "It was pretty," says Duan. "I had found what I was looking for."

That night, Duan waited in his room for the smugglers to deliver the pot in exchange for $10,000 cash. His men quietly surrounded the hotel. When Luo's gang arrived, Duan tossed a cigarette carton from his window, signaling the police to rush in. They arrested the smugglers, who got prison sentences of 10 to 15 years.

For his courage, Duan was recommended for promotion to deputy police chief. But last year, says a friend, he made the mistake of arresting the nephew of an official for stealing pigs. His promotion has been mysteriously held up. "In China, no one respects talent," Duan says dejectedly, after several rounds of drinks. From their prison cells, Luo and his fellow smugglers probably do.