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The Communist Party chief famed for building China’s high-speed rail network has been given a suspended death sentence after he was revealed to have siphoned off hundreds of millions of dollars to fund a luxury life with 374 houses, 16 cars and a harem of mistresses.

As China’s railways minister, Liu Zhijun earned the nickname “Great Leap Liu” for his lightning overhaul of the country’s decrepit rail system into the world’s largest bullet train network.

But his extraordinary fall from grace came just as fast, as it emerged he had been presiding over one of the greatest thefts in Chinese history, embezzling more than 3 billion yuan ($535 million).


On Monday he became the highest ranking official to be punished for corruption since Xi Jinping, the new Chinese president, promised to clean up the party. The bespectacled 60-year-old was seen on state television weeping at the end his brief trial, which saw him sentenced to death with a two-year reprieve on charges of bribery and abuse of power.

The sentence – which, if Liu cooperates with the authorities, is likely to be commuted to life in a relatively comfortable prison – reflects the conflict within a Communist Party torn between the desire to rehabilitate its tarnished image and the need to manage its own internal politics. It had struggled for two-and-a-half years to decide what to do with Liu, a former farmer’s son hailed for his professional achievements and with political backers of the highest influence.

In the end, Liu faced charges over just a fragment of the 3 billion yuan embezzlement turned up by investigators. He was convicted of taking 64.6 million yuan in bribes in exchange for contracts and promotions. The court ruled that his assets should also be seized. But, in a move seemingly designed to help Liu escape the death penalty, most of his assets were treated as the property of one of his intermediaries, a businesswoman named Ding Shumiao.

“If he had been charged with the full extent, he would have been executed, there was no escape for him,” said a source familiar with his case. “The investigators collected a lot of evidence but only released a small amount to the prosecutors.”


Investigators have found that as well as the houses and cars, Liu had accumulated a hoard of paintings and jewellery and had stashed at least 800 million yuan in cash. Reports in state-owned media have suggested that he also kept 18 mistresses.

His true wealth, however, may have been far greater and almost all the properties that investigators did locate were held under the names of intermediaries.

“One of my clients, a property developer in Qingdao, said he had given two houses to Mr Liu but never formally transferred the deeds. Liu used them to house a couple of his mistresses,” said one lawyer.

Two sources with close connections to the railways ministry said that Liu was treated leniently because of his ties to Hu Haifeng, the son of former Chinese president Hu Jintao, and to Wang Xinliang, the son of the former politburo member Wang Zhaoguo.

As the politics of the case went back and forth, details designed to blacken Mr Liu’s name leaked into the Chinese media, including an allegation that a 46 million yuan television adaptation of the Chinese classic, Dream of the Red Chamber, was funded partly in order to allow Mr Liu to sleep with some of the 23 actresses involved.

Some analysts said the verdict was a blow to the credibility of the new anti-corruption campaign. Joseph Cheng, a politics professor at the City University in Hong Kong, said: “People are already very cynical about this campaign. This is 3 billion yuan you are talking about.

“How can you say you are serious about corruption when the top leaders never get executed and live comfortable lives in prison?”

The Daily Telegraph, London




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