A billionaire entrepreneur who symbolised the wild excesses of China’s economic rise in the 1990s has been jailed for life on charges of smuggling and bribery.
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Lai Changxing’s conviction by a court in Xiamen – a port city once considered his personal fiefdom – came after a 12-year extradition battle that ended last year, when Canada handed over the man often described as China’s most wanted fugitive on condition that he not be given the death penalty.
Born as one of eight siblings during the famine era of the Great Leap Forward, Lai capitalised on the post-Mao economic reforms to build up a massive business empire. At his peak, Lai was China’s biggest private car importer and one of the leading oil traders and distributors of foreign cigarettes. He built hundreds of high-rise apartment blocks in Xiamen and constructed a replica of the forbidden city, where he lavished officials with banquets and prostitutes.
In handing down the sentence, the Xiamen intermediate people’s court said Lai bribed 64 officials between 1996 and 1999 in building up a business empire worth nearly £2bn.
“The crimes involve massive sums and particularly serious circumstances,” the court said, according to a report by the Xinhua news agency.
Lai’s web of influence included the deputy mayor of Xiamen, a deputy public security minister, the deputy of an anti-smuggling task force and dozens of other officials and executives who have subsequently been fired, demoted or imprisoned. However, other senior cadres – including one former Politburo member – who were implicated in the scandal have escaped punishment.
Communist party leaders frequently cite corruption as a major threat to stability, but the problem remains rampant despite occasional crackdowns and arrests of high-profile figures.
Lai was among the most notorious. When he came under scrutiny, state TV released images of his life of excess, including confiscated cars given to corrupt officials, a sack of gold rings, a conference table draped in a tiger skin rug and young women, said to be kept for officials.
Such was the prominence of the case that Lai was targetted by the party’s top enforcer – Liu Liying, the head of the Central Discipline Inspection Committee.
But the entrepreneur evaded capture in 1999 by fleeing to Hong Kong by speedboat and then flying to Vancouver. He fought extradition for more than a decade, claiming that he would be tortured or executed if he returned to his homeland. Chinese leaders have pledged that this would not be the case.
Lai claimed he was unfairly targeted for merely doing what many other businessmen of his generation had done to get ahead without elite connections.
“I don’t have a good family background. I have to do things step by step by myself. That’s how people came to respect me. I never fussed about big money,” he said in an interview with a domestic newspaper.
But China has changed from the country in which Lai built his empire, according to Oliver August, the author of a book about Lai.
“It’s doubtful there will ever be another Lai Changxing,” writes August. “Lai belongs to a dying era: the infancy of modern China’s rise dating from Mao’s death to perhaps the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.”
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