If Chinese accounts of billionaire tycoon Liu Han are true, the well-connected kingpin was a man with two lives. There was Liu the philanthropist. Liu the political adviser. Liu the charitable.
The other life, however, was darker: Liu the warlord, the murderer, the calculating tactician who would destroy anyone who got in his way.
On Friday, the latter life was in the spotlight in central China, where a court sentenced Liu and his brother to death for leading a “mafia-style” gang that authorities say deployed 36 agents, murdered nine people and amassed $6 billion in two decades. “Liu Han and Liu Wei were deeply evil,” the court said in its sentence. “Their means were extremely cruel, their impact on society was extremely bad.”
The sentence showed the seriousness of President Xi Jinping’s anti-graft campaign as well as the sometimes blurry line between crime and business among some of China’s elite. Since Xi came to power in November 2012, he has charged several high-level officials with corruption and discouraged overt extravagance among party elite.
And it would have been difficult to find a more ostentatious billionaire than 48-year-old Liu, who was once the chairman of Hanlong Group, one of the largest enterprises in southwest China, and came close to buying Australia’s Sundance Resources.
— People’s Daily,China (@PDChina) May 23, 2014
According to China’s state news agency, Xinhua, the tycoon’s “criminal empire has amassed nearly [$6.4 billion] of assets and hundreds of cars, including Rolls-Royces, Bentleys, Ferraris.” Under the subtitle “from petty thug to billionaire,” Xinhua’s report said police discovered 20 guns, 677 bullets, 2,163 shotgun cartridges and more than 100 knives — an unusual cache given the strictness of China’s gun laws.
“Liu Han and his accomplices spent their illegal gains on firearms, knives and vehicles to help offenders escape, hide out and to cheat the law,” the report said. “He awarded bonuses to the lieutenants who did his evil bidding, gave them houses, money and drugs. He bought political capital and built a ‘protective umbrella’ through bribery.”
Most outside observers agree the charges, the press accounts — and now the sentence — are extraordinary. Even more so are Liu’s alleged connections to Zhou Yongkang, China’s powerful former security chief who is rumored to be under investigation for corruption.
Xinhua alleged the mining tycoon, the 148th richest person in China, has been rotten for a long time. Born in 1965, he climbed his way to the top through opportunism, bogus deals and “flagrant crimes and killings.”
“With carrots and sticks, Liu Han established absolute authority in the gang,” Xinhua said. “Blood cleared the path for Liu Han’s businesses and surrounded by a cabal of ferocious gangsters, the wealth of Liu snowballed. … Those who hesitated to kill were expelled.”
By the time he arrived in Australia, he’d already made billions, money seen in the parties he threw, according to Reuters. He wore a diamond-encrusted, Franck Muller watch and ordered bottles of French wine that cost $12,000. On one night, he reportedly spent $100,000 on wine during one meal.
But Chinese investigators, meanwhile, were watching. They first focused on Liu following a brazen, open-air teahouse shootout in Guanghan on Jan. 10, 2009. Xinhua said several men climbed out of a car that rolled up to the front of the establishment and fired 10 shots. As the shooters escaped, three people fell to the ground, dead. “It was so fast,” a witness said. “It was like watching a movie.” Liu Wei was allegedly behind the killings.
And from there, investigators gradually peeled back the many layers of the brothers’ criminality, charges which came to a head in a courtroom Friday morning. The verdict said the brothers and their group had “in an organized fashion obtained financial gains via illegal activities,” “committed murder,” and facilitated “cover-ups and collusion of government employees.”
Liu denied the charges.