China jails orchid tycoon for 18 years in fraud and bribery case

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The Independent Online

An orchid-selling tycoon once ranked by Forbes magazine as China's second-richest businessman was convicted of fraud and bribery yesterday and sentenced to 18 years in prison.

Yang Bin, who was arrested in October shortly after being picked by North Korea to run a planned free-trade area on the Chinese border, was fined 2.3m yuan (£171,000), according to the official Xinhua news agency. His company was fined 6m yuan.

The prosecution of Yang, a Chinese-born Dutch citizen, was brought amid investigations into leading Chinese business figures on tax and other areas. Yang and his company were convicted on all charges of illegally occupying farmland, contract fraud, bribery and forging financial documents. His lawyer, Tian Wenchang, said he had filed an appeal against conviction on his client's behalf.

Yang's trial lasted three days last month in Shenyang Intermediate People's Court in the north-eastern industrial city of Shenyang, where his Chinese business was based.

State television showed Yang, looking wan and dressed in his characteristic white polo shirt, standing in court before three judges as the sentence was read.

The penalty, while severe by Western standards, is normal for China, which sometimes executes people convicted of such non-violent crimes as tax evasion and smuggling, according to Joseph Cheng, a political scientist at the City University of Hong Kong. "I think the Chinese side certainly understands that the world is watching," Mr Cheng said.

Yang's fortune was estimated by Forbes in 2001 at $900m (£550m), but his businesses have shrunk since his arrest. His current net worth is unknown.

Yang, 40, was named last year to lead North Korea's Sinuiju Special Administrative Region, which was touted as an attempt by the isolated Communist regime to open up to the outside world and revive its crippled economy.

Yang was known for his flamboyant lifestyle, travel by private jet and expensive cars. His company, Euro-Asia Agricultural Holdings, has been building a Dutch-themed property development in Shenyang. Yang moved to the Netherlands in 1987 and won asylum after the 1989 Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests.

His trial was held as the authorities in Shanghai investigated Zhou Zhengyi, also known as Chau Ching-ngai, the city's richest man, and Liu Jinbao, the recently recalled head of the Bank of China's Hong Kong arm.

Authorities say Mr Zhou's companies are suspected of illegally using bank loans to speculate in the stock market. Mr Zhou's wife has been detained in Hong Kong by anti-corruption investigators.

Mr Zhou was ranked by Forbes as China's 11th-richest man with a fortune estimated at $320m.