China's most wanted man, a billionaire gangster who was pursued by the country's senior leaders for more than a decade, was jailed for life Friday.
Lai Changxing, a 53-year-old farmer turned master smuggler described by some as a Robin Hood figure and others as an enemy of the state, was sentenced by a court in Xiamen, the southern Chinese city he effectively ruled over in the boom years of the mid-1990s.
Lai was found guilty of smuggling container ships full of luxury cars, cigarettes and petrol worth a total of nearly pounds 3?billion into Xiamen, while bribing 64 of the city's leaders with at least pounds 3.9?million to look the other way, according to Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency.
At one point, he ran a private seven-floor bordello, named the Red Mansion, to which he would invite friendly government officials. At the time the People's Daily newspaper said the club was where dozens of high-ranking officials "resigned themselves to degeneracy and became tools of Lai's group".
His most prized possession was a bullet-proof Mercedes once owned by Jiang Zemin, China's then president. He bought and played for Xiamen's local football team, and he tried to build an 88-floor tower that would have been the country's tallest building.
Lai was "a visionary who arguably did more than any other individual to open China up to trade," according to Oliver August, the author of a book on his downfall. "But at the same time he was one of China's greatest crooks, a man who invented ingenious new forms of bribery and corruption."
As well as a life sentence for smuggling, the court also gave Lai another 15 years for bribery. "The sums involved are unusually large, and the details are extraordinarily serious, meriting the double sentence," the court was quoted as saying by Xinhua.
The punishment was the maximum available to the court.
In 2000, Zhu Rongji, China's former premier, said: "If Lai was executed three times over, it would not be too much." In order to extradite Lai from Canada, where he had sheltered since fleeing from justice in 1999, China agreed it would not execute him.
However, at least 14 death sentences were given out to less important figures in the case and roughly 1,000 people came under investigation. At one point, an entire hotel in Xiamen was taken over by police, who locked up as many as eight suspects in each room.
Lai maintained throughout that the case against him was politically motivated, and that while he had taken advantage of loopholes and avoided customs duties, he had not bought off officials with cash and prostitutes. He was popular in Xiamen, where he helped to fund the construction of the local airport and several schools.
His web of influence spread as far as Ji Shengde, a major general of military intelligence for the People's Liberation Army, and Li Jizhou, a deputy government minister for Public Security.
Xi Jinping, who is likely to become China's next president, was summoned to Beijing shortly after the Lai scandal in order to explain what had happened. Mr Xi was the deputy governor of Fujian province, where Xiamen lies, in 1999, the year that Lai fled to Canada.
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