Most corrupt man in China gets life in prison

Sentencing and action against other corrupt officials could indicate progress in China.

Blind Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Blind Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Lai Changxing, labeled the “most corrupt man in China,” was sentenced this week to life imprisonment for bribes he paid to government officials to protect his vast smuggling operations based in the port city of Xiamen.
This conviction resulted from years of efforts by Chinese officials to bring billionaire Lai to justice.  He escaped the customary death penalty due to protracted negotiations between China and Canada, the country to which Lai fled more than a decade ago.  A condition of his extradition to China was that he would not be executed or tortured.
Numerous employees of Lai’s Yuanhua Group have already been convicted of various offenses involving illegal transportation and smuggling of oil, cars and cigarettes.  Lai had amassed a $10 billion criminal empire, and at the center of these crimes was a pattern of bribery and official corruption that cut across broad sections of the government and the military.
Ultimately, however, Lai was forced to flee in 1999 to Canada.  He remained under house arrest in Vancouver, while Beijing and Ottawa tried to agree whether Lai would be returned for trial, and if so, how.
Lai’s conviction represents an important success for Communist leadership in China.  Concerns over rampant corruption and criminality are a recurring feature in modern China, where years of rapid growth have led to vast fortunes being quickly accumulated with little concern as to their legality.  Given the key role of the state in the Chinese economy, and the importance of patronage in ensuring that new ventures are a success, the prevalence of bribery should come as no surprise.
According to the court that convicted Lai, “the Chinese government’s determination to attack crime and root out corruption is unwavering.”  The web of corruption, however, is extensive in modern China.
Reports also circulated this week of treason charges against Wang Lijun, the former police chief of Chongqing whose unexpected attempt to defect to a US embassy in February lifted the lid on the Bo Xilai and Gu Kailai scandals. If convicted, he could face the death penalty.  Bo, a Communist party “princeling," is under investigation for a number of crimes related to patronage and corruption, while his wife Gu is suspected of having a role in the death of British businessman, Neil Haywood.
For many years, Wang was widely known as China’s “top cop” and had been a close ally of Bo during his rise to power. Wang made his name orchestrating popular raids on members of the powerful local mafia.
As a result of Wang’s fall from grace, unwanted attention is now being focused on the higher echelons of the Communist party.  Many experts predict trials for Wang, Bo and Gu will occur quickly, before the party congress scheduled in the fall, when a generational transfer of power is anticipated by top leadership.
However, much media attention this week has been focused on high-profile, blind political activist Chen Guangcheng’s arrival in America.  Over the past month, Washington and Beijing engaged in a convoluted diplomatic shoving match over the ultimate fate of Chen, a self-trained human-rights lawyer who previously tried to claim asylum in a US embassy.  Chen had been imprisoned for four years and held under illegal house arrest for a year and a half.  His plight became a global cause célèbre.
Chinese officials have now allowed Chen, his wife and their two children to leave the country in order to allow Chen to study law at New York University.  It remains unclear, though, whether his relatives who remain in China will be subject to reprisals, or whether Chen will ever be able to return safely to his home country.
The Chen affair has embarrassed Beijing at a time when China is wrestling with a number of important internal and external challenges.  As presidential elections loom in the US, and China prepares for its leadership change, both countries will want to ensure that economic and diplomatic relations between them continue to be positive and productive.
A downward spiral in the relations between these two important trading partners would benefit few people in either China or the United States.  Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Treasury Timothy Geithner appear to have made meaningful progress with their Chinese counterparts during recent meetings in Beijing, in spite of the Chen controversy.
However, the ongoing struggles with corruption mean that China can still be a difficult, and unpredictable, place to do business.  In addition, the generational transfer of power means at least some period of uncertainty lies ahead.  Chinese Prime Minister Xi Jinping is widely expected to take office as President as part of the transition, but questions remain as to which direction he and other members of the Standing Committee of the Politburo will take the country.
As much as Western audiences enjoy charismatic images of dissidents like Chen speaking truth to power, these actions are only a piece of the wider progress that must be made to establish rule of law in China.  The conviction of Lai, and the upcoming trials of Wang, Bo and Gu, are also important indicators of the progress China is making towards being the type of country that Chinese people deserve.
The writer is a commentator who divides his time between the United Kingdom and Southern California. He has appeared on CNN, CNBC, BBC and Sky News, and has been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Financial Times and The Economist.