Property tycoon gets 16 years for bribery in China

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The Independent Online

A former snack vendor who rose to become Shanghai's richest man through a string of shady property deals has been jailed for 16 years the latest scalp in a crackdown on corruption in China.

Until recently, Zhou Zhengyi was the country's 11th-richest man with an estimated 150m fortune. His downfall was triggered when teams of government investigators arrived in Shanghai China's financial capital to investigate corrupt officials.

Zhou's business dealings reportedly involved large, illegal loans from the Bank of China. It is said to be the biggest financial fraud case since the founding of the People's Republic in 1949.

He was arrested in October 2006 as part of a criminal investigation into a Shanghai social security fund scandal involving 242,000. The inquiry led to the ousting and subsequent disgrace of the head of the Shanghai Communist Party, Chen Liangyu, who is also due to be sentenced soon. Dozens of other party officials and executives have been jailed or investigated in connection with the case.

Some say Zhou's close links to the Shanghai faction cost him his freedom. His trial was set against the background of a broader power struggle between President Hu Jintao's leadership in Beijing and the former supreme leader Jiang Zemin's group in Shanghai.

Protesters had gathered outside the Second Intermediate People's Court to hear Zhou sentenced but many of them were whisked away in security vans.

Zhou, who only a year ago completed a three-year jail term for stock market fraud and falsifying documents, was convicted of five charges, including misappropriation of funds, bribery and forging VAT receipts.

He was accused of bribing officials at the Shanghai Futures Exchange, as well as trying to buy off managers from state banks for funds and loans worth tens of millions of pounds between 1997 and 2003.

He lived like a lord while in jail awaiting trial, and reportedly paid 13,000 in backhanders to a prison official, through her sister, to get special treatment. Several jail staff were sentenced for giving the multi-millionaire perks such as a television, air-conditioning unit, refrigerator and frequent visits by friends.

Zhou is one of a number of high-flying businessmen who made their fortunes in the 1990s but have since been investigated by the government. His wife is serving a jail term of four years and 10 months for fraud in Hong Kong.

His formal education did not stretch beyond primary school. He worked in a wonton noodle shop as a teenager but eventually made it to the business elite after earning large sums from stock dealing in the 1990s. As president of the Shanghai property group, Nongkai Development, he rode the wave of rising land values to become one of China's richest men.

For many Chinese, however, he was also the public face of forced relocation, where residents are made to leave city-centre homes, often illegally, to make way for shiny new office blocks and skyscrapers. When the 46-year-old was arrested, he was working on developing a prime piece of land in the city centre which involved the eviction of hundreds of families.

Zheng Enchong, a lawyer jailed for two years in 2004 for trying to sue the government on behalf of evictees, was briefly detained by police as he tried to attend Zhou's sentencing.

"According to normal legal precedents, Zhou Zhengyi should have been at least sentenced to death with a two-year reprieve," he said after being freed from eight hours in a cell.

One of the evictees, Tong Yali, added: "I don't think 16 years is long enough. He victimised too many ordinary people. The government had to send him back to prison because there are so many people watching his case, but this is not going to solve the corruption problem because the government is still protecting a lot of developers like Zhou."