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A young man who used a technical error to cheat his bank of thousands of yuan faces a life sentence. Xu Ting discovered that every time he withdrew 1,000 yuan from his ATM, the machine showed a withdrawal of just one yuan. Letting his friend in on the secret, Xu withdrew 1,75,000 yuan since April 2006, and his friend withdrew 18,000 yuan.

Perhaps scared that he would be caught, the friend turned himself in and got a year’s imprisonment. Realizing his game was up, Xu disappeared, but called the bank, offering to return the money. He was told he would be jailed anyway. Xu remained in hiding for a year before he was caught and sentenced to life for theft. He has appealed against his sentence, with his lawyer arguing that the responsibility for a faulty ATM lies with the bank, and that the bank could have recovered the funds from Xu. His client should have been charged with embezzlement, not theft.

Newspapers and bloggers have criticized the sentence as too harsh. The youth was “enticed into committing a crime”, said some newspapers, while one blogger compared the sentence with a similar case in Britain, where a family was sentenced to a maximum of 15 months for withdrawing £1,30,000 from a faulty ATM.

Life sentences are common in China. The crimes may range from corruption in high places to peddling pornography on the internet. Mafia dons and high fliers such as secretaries to Communist Party bosses, who helped the latter make money, have received this punishment, even after confessing and aiding the investigations. Last year, two CEOs of State-owned enterprises got life for taking money from a social security fund to invest in construction.The youngest tycoon to feature in Forbes list of the 400 richest Chinese in 2006 was also sentenced to life for siphoning off capital from a company that supplied water and electricity.

Hard life

Life sentences have also been given for political crimes, and the accused have included mainlanders who have managed to get foreign citizenship. Among the unusual cases, there was the one involving a hotel manager and a ‘madam’ who arranged a three-day sex orgy for 300 Japanese tourists in a Guangdong hotel in 2003. The extreme punishment was seen to be related to the strong anti-Japanese sentiment on the mainland.

Recently, the foreman who managed the brick kiln where workers, mainly the mentally disabled and children, were held in slave-like conditions, was sentenced to life. His colleague, who beat a worker to death, was awarded the death sentence. Interestingly, the owner of the brick kiln got just nine years. He happened to be the son of a Party secretary, who was expelled from the outfit after the scandal broke.

Youth, as Xu Ting’s case shows, is not taken into account while handing down a life sentence. In 2002, two teenagers had set fire to an internet café that denied them admission, killing 25 people. They were sentenced to life. It was found that the café, in Beijing’s University district, did not have even the minimum fire safety regulations. The incident led to a crackdown on unlicensed internet cafés.

The sentence has also been awarded to an imposter who pretended to be a deputy editor with the Communist Party newspaper, the People’s Daily, and extracted as much as 3.79 million yuan from people on the promise of getting them official jobs, promotions or work transfers. Life under Mao was said to be uncertain; any ‘reactionary’ act could get one sentenced to hard labour in court or outside, accompanied by terrible public humiliation. But, in those days, even those sentenced to death could have their execution stayed by two years, or their sentences reduced, if they showed signs of repentance. No such leniency now.

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