Portrait of a femme fatale who brought down China's elite

Clifford Coonan
Saturday 19 February 2011 01:00

A respected magazine has provided the most detailed picture yet of the complex life of a billionaire businesswoman responsible for the downfall of some China's most powerful figures in a sex-and-corruption saga that has gripped the nation.

Li Wei slept with up to 15 top business and party figures before turning on some of them in a series of corruption cases to save herself from a long prison sentence, according to Caijing business magazine. Her contacts book contained some of the most powerful men in the land, as she used her beauty to break into the secretive bastion of powerful men that tightly control China, according to the magazine.

Ms Li was jailed on tax fraud charges in 2006 but was released early this year and now lives in Hong Kong. The magazine alleges that she was released early because her diary contains fresh allegations of "immoral relationships" with "high-ranking officials", which is code for officials at the most senior levels in the land.

Ms Li reportedly created a vast network of protection and favour in the provinces in Yunnan, Guangdong, Beijing and Qingdao to build a multibillion-pound business empire in return for sexual favours. As her corrupt protectors went to jail, she turned herself in and was given a lenient jail term.

"You cannot invest all your resources and opportunities into one person, you have to construct a huge relationship net, like an umbrella," Ms Li was quoted as saying by Chinese media. Her empire at its peak consisted of more than 20 companies in Beijing, Qingdao, Shenzhen, Hong Kong and overseas, in industries including tobacco, real estate and advertising. She owned 183 petrol stations in Beijing.

A great friend of Wang Yi, vice-chairman of the China Securities Regulatory Commission, her shares and bonds did very well. Her assets were at one point worth about £1bn.

Born in Vietnam in 1963 of mixed French-Vietnamese parentage, she moved at the age of seven with her father to Yunnan province in search of a better life. She sold tobacco as a youngster, but her ability to manipulate the arcane system of building connections, combined with her considerable allure, transformed her into a formidable power broker.

Zheng Shaodong, the former chief investigations officer at the Ministry of Public Security in Guangdong province, got her a residence permit. After earning legitimate resident status, she married a top official at the local tobacco bureau.

Through her husband, Ms Li managed to gain access to former Yunnan governor Li Jiating, who became her lover. She helped him get resident status for his son in Hong Kong in exchange for tobacco export quotas. The governor narrowly escaped the death sentence in 2003 for taking more than £19m in bribes.

Ms Li became involved with Du Shicheng, the former party secretary of the rich city of Qingdao in Shandong province. Through her relationship with Mr Du, she secured top-notch real estate in Qingdao, a coastal city that was once a German protectorate, and soon became one of the city's biggest property developers.

Mr Du introduced her to his good friend, Chen Tonghai, the chairman of Sinopec, China's oil and gas giant. He too became Ms Li's lover, and he gave her gifts of millions of shares in companies owned by Sinopec.

Mr Du's revelations about his friend's corrupt activities precipitated Mr Chen's downfall. He was sentenced to death with a two-year reprieve. Ms Li's testimony was central to the conviction of many of the officials she entertained in her boudoir.

Some of her former lovers are serving time in Beijing's Qincheng high-security prison, which primarily houses political prisoners but has been used for corrupt cadres.

Aware that corruption could undermine the rule of the Communist Party, the leadership has organised several high-profile campaigns in the last few years to try to stamp out graft.

According to a survey by state prosecutors, more than 90 per cent of the country's senior officials punished on serious graft charges in the past five years have kept mistresses.

The victims

*Chen Tonghai

Ex-chairman of China's second-largest oil company, Sinopec, given a suspended death penalty in 2009 for taking 196m yuan (£17.5m) in bribes.

*Li Jiating

Ex-governor of Yunnan province, sentenced to death for corruption in 2003. Thought to be in Qincheng Prison, Beijing.

*Liu Zhihua

The ex-vice-mayor of Beijing, who supervised preparations for the 2008 Olympics, was sentenced to death in 2008 for taking $1.45m in bribes. His sentence may be commuted to life imprisonment.

*Zheng Shaodong

Ex-head of China's Economic Criminal Investigation Bureau received a suspended death sentence for corruption.

*Huang Songyou

The ex-deputy head of the Supreme Court is currently serving a life sentence for embezzlement and receiving bribes worth £500,000.

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