China sentences top banker to death for corruption and bigamy

By Helen Davidson

A Chinese court has sentenced a former banker and party official to death, in a high-profile bribery, embezzlement and bigamy case that has shocked the country.

Lai Xiaomin, previously chairman of one of China’s “big four” state-controlled asset management firms, China Huarong Asset Management Co, had pleaded guilty to the dozens of charges. He had been accused of soliciting almost 1.79bn yuan ($276.7m) in bribes over 10 years, a period when he was also acting as a regulator. The Tianjin court said Lai had abused his position to obtain the “extremely large” bribes, and the circumstances were “particularly serious”, including taking bribes to get people jobs, promotions or contracts.

He was also found guilty of bigamy, for “living as man and wife” with another woman and fathering children, and of embezzling more than 25m yuan in public funds.

“Lai Xiaomin was lawless and extremely greedy,” the court statement said. He will also have personal assets confiscated and be stripped of his political rights.

The death sentence for Lai, in one of China’s biggest financial crime cases, was handed down without a two-year reprieve – a commonly added caveat that allows death sentences to be commuted to 25 years, or life in prison after two years.

The case has shocked China. Lai reportedly had safes and cupboards full of cash inside a Beijing flat he nicknamed “the supermarket”. He was also said to have held gold bars and luxury cars, a bank account in his mother’s name holding hundreds of millions of yuan, and more than 100 mistresses to whom he gave properties developed by a real estate subsidiary of Huarong, the Chinese Media group Caixin reported.

Xi Jinping, the Chinese president
The anti-corruption campaign by Xi Jinping, pictured, the Chinese president, has found favour in China but had little effect on the country’s place in the global corruption index. Photograph: Xie Huanchi/AP

Lai was placed under investigation in April 2018 and expelled from the Chinese Communist party. State media broadcast a detailed confession by Lai, who said he “did not spend a single penny, and just kept it there … I did not dare to spend it”.

The Tianjin court said Lai’s crimes mostly occurred after the 18th Communist party congress in 2012, which had launched an anti-corruption drive that has defined the president, Xi Jinping’s, tenure. During Xi’s campaign, millions of officials have been investigated or punished, and there have been accusations it has been used to get rid of political opponents.

The campaign has had little effect on China’s rankings in Transparency International’s global corruption index, where the country sat at 80th in 2020, but it has won favour among the population, with 84% telling Transparency International the government was doing well in tackling corruption.

While the crimes for which Lai was convicted outstrip those of higher-ranking corrupt party officials, economic crimes usually attract a prison term, or a two-year reprieve with a sentence. Mo Shaoping, a Chinese lawyer, said the scale of Lai’s crimes gave “legal justification” to the death penalty, but he was the first such person in recent years to be sentenced without the possibility of commutation. “The death penalty with reprieve is no longer enough for the anger of citizens, nor is it sufficient for deterrence,” he said.

According to Amnesty International, China executes more people that any other country. Beijing does not disclose death penalty figures, but is believed to put to death thousands of people a year for crimes including non-violent offences such as drugs and corruption.