After just 20 days of being open as an exhibition, the Red Building of Xiamen Yuanhua Group on September 16 was ordered closed to visitors. The building that once served as a place to bribe senior officials had been converted into a place to serve as an example in an anti-corruption campaign by the Xiamen municipality. To explain the closing, officials cited concerns that the building did not meet security standards for such an exhibition. But the public was left wondering if other issues may have played a role.
This seven-story Red Building looks plain enough outside -- but inside Lai Changxing, owner of Xiamen Yuanhua Group, used 100 million yuan (US$12 million) to decorate this “office building” as a playground for corrupt government officials. He devised elaborate safeguards, such as building a secret path into the premises for the officials who feared their activities might bring censure if detected. While the officials were enjoying luxurious entertainments – including sexual services – and bribes in this safe haven, Lai Changxing recorded their activities with mini-cameras, then pressured the officials to work for his smuggling empire. Altogether three ministerial officials, 26 government department directors and 86 county officials became mired in Lai Changxing’s scheme. With their assistance, Lai Changxing smuggled over US$60 billion (530 billion yuan) worth of products in three and a half years, the biggest smuggling case since China was founded in 1949.
After the central government began its probe of Yuanhua case, the Red Building was handed over to a Yuanhua special investigatory work group. But long after the investigation was finished, the building remained a source of public speculation while only a few reporters managed to get permission to enter the building. These restrictions coupled with the building’s reputation for fabulous luxury helped enhance its notoriety and public’s curiosity as well.
In a visit to the building in May, Premier Zhu Rongji said: “The departments concerned should keep the Red Building intact as a warning for our party officials.”
Local departments took the Premier up on the suggestion, and set August 27 as the day for the start of the exhibition. In the days leading up to the opening, people living around the building would see, every day, hundreds of visitors gathering outside the building and trying in every way to get in. On August 27, visitors waited in a line over 100 yards long to buy a ticket of five yuan (70 cents). Though visitors had to wait for hours and finish their visit in 8 minutes (after 9th September, the time was shortened even more), they still rushed to get in line for this base of corruption tour.
This exhibition not only ignited visitors’ indignation towards corruption and smuggling -- it also aroused their ire at the evident lack of any effect system of monitoring the activities of the top local government officials.
Mr. Sun from the Dongdu Office of Xiamen Customs wrote in the guest book: “In the whole Xiamen Custom system, three custom leaders were proved to be accomplices of Lai Changxing smuggling group, and over 160 workers were involved in the case. We must learn from this bitter lesson and restructure the supervision system and operation procedures so as to eradicate corruption.”
Liao Yanpa, an old Party member at 74, also wrote: “Why was this smuggling case – the biggest since the founding of the People's republic of China – left unexamined until 1999? How is it that so many top leaders involved in this case became involved in corruption? Are we lacking an effective means of supervision? The state should take this case as a lesson and draw up relevant measures to watch those leaders.”
But as the exhibition continued, other reactions surfaced that caused public concern.
While some visitors did take the visit to the Red Building as a warning against corruption as the organizing committee expected, others saw the visit primarily as a chance to satisfy their curiosity. They wanted to see for themselves the fabulous luxury that they have heard of through media such as the double-sized bathtub that corrupt officials enjoyed themselves with massage ladies, the mini-cameras Lai Changxing used to record officials’ scandals, and azury coffers in which Lai stored millions to bribe officials.
The exhibition organizing committee’s charge of 70 cents per ticket was meant to try to limit the number of visitors. But there were no other restrictions, and 70 cents were not a problem for anyone who wanted to visit out of curiosity.
Following the opening of the Red Building, Xiamen city had an influx of visitors, apparently arriving in town just to see the building. Citizens saw increasing numbers of travelers rushing into and spending in a city with an economy that had been significantly hurt by smuggling activities. Most hotel rooms were booked, and the railway station and airport packed with people from all over the country.
Traveling agencies jumped on the bandwagon to set up a new tour: A Visit to The First Corruption Building.
All this conspired to make the Red Building, ground zero for the biggest smuggling case in China’s history -- a scar on the nation -- a tourist attraction for curiosity- and fun-seekers.
Moreover, many government departments in different cities and provinces were reported preparing for a visit to the building on government expense accounts. An article in Xinmin Evening News openly denounces this as corruption under the name of a study of anti-corruption.
“Since there have been so many corruption cases detected all over China, why don’t they study how to fight against corruption in their own places rather than “study” in another city using government funds?” the author asked in the article.
And the public also worried about whether the luxuries and bribes Lai offered to officials will somehow give the wrong idea to visiting officials’ minds.
On September 27, the Red Building was ordered closed forever to visitors. The main exhibition area in Yuanhua Group’s workshop, which neighbors the Red Building, subsequently had a dramatic 40 percent decline in ticket sales.
(Edited by Alex for china.org.cn according to Chinese reports in People’s Daily and Worker’s Daily October 26, 2001)