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Lai Changxing, a Chinese national, is often described as China's most wanted man. (JOHN LEHMANN/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
Lai Changxing, a Chinese national, is often described as China's most wanted man. (JOHN LEHMANN/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

'If I had not been in Canada, I would be dead by now' Add to ...

The short, stocky, former high-rolling peasant, cited by many as a major factor in this country's prickly relations with the People's Republic of China, says he would have been executed long ago if he had not managed to flee to Canada.

In a wide-ranging, no-holds-barred interview with The Globe and Mail this week, his first since news emerged of his ex-wife's return to China, China's most wanted fugitive admitted skirting the law by using loopholes to avoid paying taxes.

But Lai Changxing said there was simply no chance of obtaining a fair trial in China, where authorities accuse him of masterminding one of the largest Chinese smuggling operations in the last 50 years.

"In China, once the government presumes you are guilty, they arrest you, and that's it," said Mr. Lai, on the eve of the 10th anniversary of his dramatic flight to Vancouver with his then-wife and three teenaged children. "If I had not been in Canada, I would be dead by now."

As it is, despite Chinese government assurances that he will not be executed or physically harmed if sent back, Mr. Lai remains here - at least for the time being, thanks to a Federal Court of Appeal ruling that he could face torture back in China.

Mr. Lai claims the extent of his previous wealth and business operations has been exaggerated.

Nonetheless, he was once cock of the walk in the wild, booming city of Xiamen on China's southeast coast, swimming in dough, holding sway over a legendary pleasure palace known as the Red Mansion, and applauded by locals for helping old people and bringing in a professional soccer team.

But according to Mr. Lai, he did little more than many other enterprising private businessman during China's unrestrained economy of the 1990s, a time when Deng Xiaoping famously declared that "to get rich is glorious."

"I just wanted to make money," he said, noting that all the goods he imported were ordinary consumer products. No drugs, no weapons. "They were not harmful to society. But, like everyone else, you want to avoid taxes, if you can. What I did, I believe other people back then were doing as well.

"There were too many loopholes in the Chinese system. Everyone wanted to make lots of money. If there had been no loopholes, I believe I would have paid all those taxes." He added that most of his income came from real-estate developments, not from his lucrative import business.

Regardless of what he did wrong, Mr. Lai said, punishment he would face in China is out of all proportion to what took place. Nine alleged accomplices have already been executed, a fact that weighs heavily on the 51-year-old former millionaire with a Grade 4 education.

"They were not guilty. They had nothing to do with me. But the Chinese government said they were involved, so they had no chance. So many victims, so many families destroyed. Can you imagine?"

Mr. Lai's own family has been affected. Several members were jailed over their association with Mr. Lai. His older brother died in custody. And his mother-in-law was sentenced to two years in prison for sending 300,000 Hong Kong dollars to her three grandchildren in Vancouver, while Mr. Lai and his wife were being held at a remand centre.

Mr. Lai said he would gladly stand trial in Canada, where he can present his side of the case and, if found guilty, expect punishment along the lines of paying back taxes, a large fine, and maybe some time in jail.

In China, however, he was declared guilty long ago, with then-premier Zhu Rongji saying he should be executed three times over. Human-rights advocates have consistently decried the lack of accountability in China's judicial system. A report last year by the U.S. State Department said Chinese courts are particularly biased "in high-profile or politically sensitive cases."

Mr. Lai's continued presence in Canada is often cited by Chinese officials as an obstacle in the establishment of better relations between the two countries.

In an unexpected twist to the case, Ms. Lai's former wife and mother of their children, Tsang Mingna, recently went back on her own to China with the couple's 23-year-old daughter. Their two sons are still in Vancouver. Ms. Tsang had been charged as a co-conspirator with her husband. Her status now is unclear.

"Her parents are getting old," said Mr. Lai. "I don't want to talk any more about it, but she is innocent. She is only a housewife. Hers was just one of the names I put on the papers you have to submit when you form a company. Even though we are divorced, I still miss her. I don't know if we will ever see each other again."

These days, Mr. Lai's life is far removed from the good times in Xiamen. China has confiscated most of his money and possessions. He now lives a relatively bare-bones existence in a non-descript Vancouver apartment, surviving with the help of friends and some real-estate consulting. But he's alive.

"I miss my hometown, but I've been here 10 years. I'm used to it now. In Canada, there is justice."

He does not believe Chinese assurances that he will be allowed to serve out a long term in prison without harm. For the first year or two, because of media attention, nothing is likely to happen, Mr. Lai said. "But after that, I'll be gone. When I die, no one will really know."

In the meantime, now that he has a Canadian work permit, Mr. Lai says he is looking forward to, of all things, paying taxes. "Of course I will pay them. I will be very glad to pay taxes in Canada."

 

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