When a court in Xiamen sentenced Lai Changxing to life in prison for his role running a multibillion-dollar smuggling operation, it ended another chapter – surely among the last – in one of the most colourful capers to emerge from China's wild transformation to capitalism.
In a country where few profess to know the details of the Tiananmen Square massacre, nearly everyone knows Mr. Lai's name. He's the ultimate antihero, the poor kid from Fujian province who came to symbolize the excesses and corruption that have spoiled China's economic rise. Tell someone here that you’re Canadian, and you open yourself to questions about why Canada would shelter a man like Mr. Lai for the dozen years he was in Vancouver fighting extradition before he was finally sent back to China 10 months ago.
The story of Lai Changxing resonates here because it is interwoven with that of modern China. He made it rich through his own enterprise, only to become mired in the payoffs and profiteering that so many Chinese detest. He was a rogue and a bootlegger, a Chinese Jay Gatsby, who is believed to have rubbed shoulders with some of the rising stars of Communist Party, which many believe helps explain the passion with which Beijing fought to have him extradited and jailed back on Chinese soil. (The party boss in Fujian at the height of Mr. Lai’s influence was Jia Qinglin, now a member of the all-powerful Standing Committee of the Politburo. The provincial governor was Xi Jinping, the man tipped to be China’s next president.)
The official Xinhua newswire reported late Thursday that the 53-year-old Mr. Lai had been convicted on charges of smuggling and bribery. The court found he had overseen a vast operation that illegally moved some $4.4-billion worth of cars, cigarettes, oil and other goods through the southern port city of Xiamen during the late 1990s. Mr. Lai was also found to have paid millions of dollars worth of bribes to a total of 64 officials between 1996 and 1999.
“This was a predicable, even foreordained result,” said Mr. Lai’s Canadian lawyer, David Matas. And it was. While there is now a 10-day period in which Mr. Lai can appeal, the verdict was hardly a surprise given that his guilt had long been stated as fact by state media in China. The only thing that spared him a death sentence appears to have been assurances the Chinese government gave to Canada before a Federal Court judge agreed to finally extradite him last July.
It’s a pact that many ordinary Chinese question; a large share of the population think Mr. Lai deserves to die.
But in Xiamen, “rich like Lai” is still an admiring way to describe someone. Before he was infamous in China and Canada, he was the local boy who made it big despite growing up poor during the Cultural Revolution, the child of a farming family who could only afford to send him to school for one year. “To the people of Fujian, he is a hero,” wrote one Chinese Internet user in response to news of Mr. Lai’s conviction. “He has done more to contribute to Fujian's development than [today’s leaders] you know it.”
Mr. Lai got his first stroke of good luck shortly after he turned 18. Chairman Mao died and his successor, Deng Xiaoping, started China lurching down the path from totalitarian socialism to today’s semi-market economy, a system that is at once heavily regulated and anarchic. Some would get rich first, Mr. Deng famously declared. Mr. Lai liked that idea very much.
He started his first business by convincing four friends to loan him $60 each, enough to buy the equipment needed to forge car parts. Every week, he bicycled the 80-kilometres between his hometown of Jinjiang and the big city of Xiamen, where he sold tire nuts and other bits he’d produced. He eventually earned enough to open a shoe factory. His empire had begun to grow.
It was only when he started importing televisions in 1990 that he started making enough money to get noticed. According to a biography of Mr. Lai by British journalist Oliver August, local officials began harassing his family, at one point beating up his sister in seeming retribution for his refusal to pay bribes. With his businesses forced to the brink of bankruptcy by a vindictive bureaucracy, Mr. Lai started over, deciding this time to play within the system – and bribing everyone who asked.