Economic Gangsters: Corruption, Violence, and the Poverty of Nations

By Raymond Fisman; Edward Miguel | Go to book overview

Chapter Three
The Smuggling Gap

“It's not personal, Sonny. It's strictly business.”

—Michael Corleone, The Godfather

The story of Lai Changxing is a classic rags-to-riches tale of success in the exuberant capitalism of modern China. The son of illiterate, penniless farmers, Mr. Lai, along with countless others, sought his fortune in the Fujian provincial capital of Xiamen. He arrived in the mid-1980s, just as the Chinese government was beginning to loosen its chokehold on private enterprise. Mr. Lai came with no money and no connections, unable to read and write. By 1990 he was a millionaire. By 1999 he was a billionaire. He had a finger in all of Fujian's economic pies, from sports teams to hotels to shipping. His towering presence in Xiamen's economic life was such that locals joked of renaming the city “Yuanhua,” after his holding company.

Today, Mr. Lai's Horatio Alger story has unraveled. Where he was once known for lavish parties at the “Red

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