19 August 2019

A tycoon pays his way out of prison

In 2007, tycoon Zhang Hai was sentenced to 15 years in prison for fabricating financial statements and embezzling 700 million yuan. He left the country after he was released during the Spring Festival in 2011.

Now the official media has revealed that Zhang paid more than 360,000 yuan in bribes to 18 officials in three prisons and six in the judicial system to earn a luxurious life inside prison and shorten his jail term by four years and two months.

One of the officials, Ding Feixiong, a former deputy head of the central court of Shaoguan, reduced his sentence by two years, one month and 28 days after receiving 300,000 yuan from Zhang.

The story confirms what the public knew all along – you can pay to reduce your sentence in prison and improve your conditions. There is one prison for ordinary inmates and another for the rich and powerful.

Zhang became a household name in 2002 when he and business partners spent 338 million yuan to acquire a 75 percent stake in Jianlibao, a soft-drink firm based in Foshan, Guangdong province. He became its chairman and was, at 28, the youngest chairman of a listed company in China.

Founded in 1984, Jianlibao aimed to compete with Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola and produce Chinese soft drinks that would challenge those of the American giants. With aggressive advertising and catchy slogans, its products became popular. Between 2002 and 2005, Zhang sponsored the Shenzhen Jianlibao soccer team which won the Chinese Super League title in 2004.

But Zhang was more interested in speculation than running a successful business. He set up a new company in the British Virgin Islands and invested heavily in listed firms. By the end of 2003, Jianlibao owed 2.2 billion yuan, compared with 1.36 billion yuan at the end of 2001, before he took over.

In March 2005, Zhang was arrested in Foshan for embezzlement and fabricating reports and investments. He was held for more than two years before being sentenced to 15 years in February 2007.

The public learned that Zhang, the son of a civil servant from Henan province, had not even finished middle school although he claimed he was a university graduate, and he earned his first fortune as a “qigong master” at the age of 14 by selling videos and “healing” the sick. It was unclear where he got the money to buy Jianlibao.

He served time in Foshan, Panyu and Shaoguan prisons, but he used his money to obtain a lifestyle that was the envy of other inmates.

He had a private room of 40 square meters with a 30-inch LCD color television with over 30 channels, on which he watched football and soap operas late into the night. Ordinary prisoners were only allowed to watch the national news on CCTV every night.

Zhang had a special bed made for him, 1.5 meters wide. His family and friends could visit him at any time and his personal barber came to cut his hair. His room had many books and magazines, especially on company management. He also had his own kitchen, where he made food when he disliked the prison fare.

His room had hot water 24 hours a day and its own supply of electricity, so Zhang was not restricted by official sleeping hours. Ordinary prisoners rose at 6 am, worked eight hours a day in the prison factory and went to sleep at 10 pm when the room lights were turned off. Zhang got up when he wished and rarely took part in basketball, badminton and other sports with the other prisoners.

He did not do prison labor and was able to wear his own clothes, mostly sports outfits.

He had his own mobile telephone, which he used to come up with a plan to cut his sentence. It is said that he provided police with evidence to solve a home burglary case, and for which authorities decided to cut his jail term.

On Jan. 26, 2011, Zhang walked out of the Shaoguan prison, after serving just six years, and was met by his girlfriend and his secretary; the two stayed loyal to him during his time in prison and since then. After his release, he went to his native Kaifeng to see his 90-year-old grandmother and then spent time in a health center in Guangzhou to recuperate.

But a retrial last October discovered that Zhang himself did not provide the information that led to solving the robbery case but paid officials to obtain the evidence and then pretend it came from him. Fearing that he would be re-arrested, Zhang fled the country, probably taking his girlfriend and secretary with him.

The plot began to unravel in September 2012, when an officer at Foshan Prison was taken for questioning on suspicion of taking money from Zhang. The next day, Luo Jianneng, an official in the prison’s engineering department, confessed to having accepted 30,000 yuan from him in 2006.

On Jan. 30 this year, a Shaoguan court canceled the commutation of Zhang’s jail sentence and ordered him to serve another four years, one month and 28 days.

But the bird has flown and is not likely to come back.

– Contact HKEJ at [email protected]




Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker

EJI Weekly Newsletter

Please click here to unsubscribe