Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

Finding the grey spots in the case of Lai Changxing

I miss Lai Changxing. For nearly 11 years, China's most wanted fugitive was part of my journalist life in Vancouver and a connection to the stimulating four years I spent as The Globe's Beijing correspondent before heading to crunchy granola land.

Covering the story from the time of Mr. Lai's dramatic arrest at a Niagara Falls casino in November, 2000, to his bundling onto a Beijing-bound plane last August, I became familiar with the alleged smuggling kingpin, through interviews, cheery greetings from the suspect at his many immigration hearings, and chance meetings on the street.

Without discounting what the Grade 4 dropout and former peasant may have done to amass his fortune in the wild, no-holds-barred, economic boomtown of 1990s Xiamen, I rather liked him.

Story continues below advertisement

Last month, in a closed-off courtroom, my fleeting acquaintance was sentenced to spend the rest of his life in a Chinese prison, with all the grim trimmings.

The media was full of lurid tales of his opulent Red Mansion, supplying officials with young women, bulletproof limos, etc. The consensus: China is good for rooting out corruption; Canada is good for giving Mr. Lai due process, before sending him back; Mr. Lai is bad.

The reality is not quite so black and white. Herewith some inconvenient truths from the Lai saga that do not reflect well on either Canada or its friends in China.

1. Chinese police agents lied to Canadian Embassy officials in Beijing to obtain special visas to enter Canada in 1999. They claimed to be pulp company executives on a business trip, when in fact they were travelling here to try to convince Mr. Lai to return to China.

2. Canadian officials tipped off Chinese security police to Tao Mi, secretary to Mr. Lai's wife. They learned she was about to swear a confidential affidavit recanting her implication of Mr. Lai, after two months of harsh interrogation in a Xiamen hotel room. Soon afterward, Tao Mi disappeared. Her affidavit appointment was never kept.

Federal court judge Andrew MacKay criticized Canada's involvement in the Tao Mi affair, calling it "extraordinary."

3. Key evidence against Mr. Lai was allegedly found by Chinese investigators in a safe said to be in his wife's bedroom. However, they took no onsite photographs, removed the safe from its location before opening it, and got the room number wrong.

Story continues below advertisement

4. Mr. Lai's brother and the company accountant, sent to jail for their involvement in his myriad activities, subsequently died in prison. No autopsies were performed.

5. A Canadian immigration official charged with determining the risk Mr. Lai faced back in China dismissed the two deaths. Such incidents "occur to a very small number of inmates in China," she concluded.

New York University law professor Jerome Cohen, the West's foremost expert on China's justice system, called the immigration officer's observation on the prison deaths "an amazing statement to those familiar with Chinese justice."

This week, to no one's surprise, Mr. Lai decided not to appeal his life sentence.

Same old stalemate From the B.C. Legislature's foggy ruins of time, we bring you a riff on relations between teachers and trustees in the province: "At this time next year, we will be back in exactly the same mess, unless teachers and trustees can rebuild some trust with each other, and each of them makes some effort to take that first step towards some kind of compromise situation.

"Regardless of the sincerity with which they hold their present fixed position, there can be nothing but trouble now and trouble repeatedly each year in the future, if this very fixed and unyielding position is taken by both sides."

Story continues below advertisement

The speaker was Scott Wallace. The date, Nov. 14, 1974, when Christy Clark was a sprightly, nine-year-old schoolgirl.

Passing a torch My marvellous colleague Robert Matas has decided to venture bravely into the great unknown, desperate, after three decades, to see if there really is life after ye olde Grope and Flail. He's promised to report back.

In the meantime, before abandoning his meticulous cubicle for the final time, Robert generously bequeathed me his last unfinished assignment.

Nine years ago, the ever-curious Matas submitted a Freedom of Information request to B.C. Archives, seeking an early draft of the Smith Commission of Inquiry into Bingogate (well, somebody had to…).

Sure, said the helpful archive people. But attorney-general Geoff Plant, who has now gone on to advocate legalization of marijuana, vetoed the release.

Yet all was not lost. In a grand gesture of government openness, the draft report will be made available on July 1, 2031, the year the Canucks win the Stanley Cup.

Although Mr. Matas chose not to hang around for the next 19 years, I promise, dear readers, to provide full details in my July 4, 2031 Notebook. In fact, I can hardly wait.

Thanks, Robert.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct Licensing Options
As of December 20, 2017, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this resolved by the end of January 2018. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to