A case that has brought embarrassment to both the Chinese and Canadian governments for over a decade is finally coming to a close.
Lai Changxing, the Chinese uber-criminal who dealt with corrupt politicians and ran an illegal smuggling empire worth billions in southeastern China, was sentenced on Friday for bribery, smuggling, and tax evasion to life imprisonment and has had his personal assets confiscated. Lai was found guilty (a ruling never much in doubt) and sentenced by the Intermediate People's Court of Xiamen; his trial had officially begun in early April.
Lai fled to Canada in 1999 and remained in Vancouver until July 2011, when he was deported back to China, saying that he would be tortured and executed if returned to his homeland.
Chinese official media says that Lai built his network beginning in 1991 by establishing businesses in Hong Kong and Xiamen, a major city in China's southern province of Fujian, eventually subverting legitimate trade in the region. He founded the Fairwell Group (Yuanhua Group in Chinese) in 1994, and until 1999 used the company as a front for illegally importing billions in cars, cigarettes, food and fuel oil, textiles, and chemicals.
The Chinese government says Lai eventually smuggled $4.35 billion worth of goods into the country between 1995 and 1999, and evaded nearly $2.2 billion worth in customs duties.
Lai remained in Canada for 12 years, held by immigration authorities while lawyers argued in federal courts that a decision to extradite him would lead to his death in China. The Chinese government blasted Ottawa, saying that harboring the fugitive was infringing in China's domestic affairs. But experts suspected that China was also worried that Lai may have had access to a wealth of dirty laundry about its own politicians and was therefore eager to bring him to justice and to silence him.
A Canadian judge eventually ruled that there were adequate assurances from China that Lai would not be tortured or killed. Lai's lawyers, however, called the ruling a travesty, saying there were no guarantees that the legal system in China would be transparent and that the government would follow through with its assurances. For Beijing to renege on its promise, however, would have created a major foreign policy imbroglio.
But Lai wasn't alone in seeking asylum in Canada. Zeng Hanlin, a Chinese multimillionaire suspected of corporate fraud, was deported from Canada back to China in February 2011. Zeng had fled to Canada in 2004 and was living underground until being discovered in 2008.
For years, while the diplomatic battles between Canada and China raged, Canadian lawyers took on the mantle of protecting human rights for white-collar criminals. The case also created a backlash against the government in Canada's own sizable Chinese immigrant community.
300 were eventually taken to court in China's manhunt for Lai's criminal associates; as many as twice that number were originally investigated. They included customs officials, police, and government officials, 64 of which he paid off with luxury automobiles and houses in deals worth more than $6 million.
The Chinese government has publicized the resolution of the case as a turning point in its battle against crime and corruption, eager to prove that it has established a resilient legal system and a system for the rule of law.
News agency Xinhua was careful to note on Friday that the recent trial for Lai had been open to the public, and even attended by some of his relatives.