June 12, 2003
China turns wrath on flower king as signal to Koreans
From Oliver August in Beijing
YANG BIN earned a billion-dollar fortune from orchids and was acclaimed as one of the most successful of China’s new entrepreneurs.
Ranked second on the 2001 Forbes list of rich Chinese, the flamboyant “flower king” built a replica Dutch town on the Manchurian plain, complete with replicas of Amsterdam’s railway station and palace.
Yet today Mr Yang is expected to be sentenced to ten years in jail after a two-day trial on charges of bribery and theft. His spectacular fall from grace is blamed on corruption involving small sums. The real reason for his downfall, however, is believed to be his co-operation with North Korea behind Beijing’s back.
After studying in the Netherlands in the 1980s, he made his fortune by growing orchids and exporting them worldwide. Mr Yang acquired Dutch citizenship and came to dominate business in China’s North East with a plan to supply the whole of Japan with cheap vegetables.
He was arrested last year, shortly after accepting an offer from North Korea to run a free-trade zone on the Chinese border that was meant to earn foreign currency for the hermit state.
Beijing objected to Mr Yang’s surprise appointment. Many North Korean businesses are known to be fronts for counterfeiters and smugglers. The arrest of Mr Yang was seen as a move by Beijing to rein in its neighbour. Asked about the trial, Fu Ying, the director-general for Asia in the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said: “Our actions are understood by our neighbour.”
Mr Yang’s fortune was estimated at £540 million, but his businesses have shrunk since his arrest and he has not appeared on any rich list recently.
The two-day trial, which will end today, is being held at the Intermediate People’s Court in the northeastern city of Shenyang, a two-hour drive from the Sinuiju Special Administrative Region, which Mr Yang was supposed to head.
In a sign of the sensitivity of Mr Yang’s case, his trial arrangements were made by China’s Supreme Court in Beijing. On Monday, the Shenyang court held a mock trial in Mr Yang’s absence, at which judges and prosecutors rehearsed their arguments.
A source close to the case told The Times: “The court tries to avoid unexpected incidents. What if the criminal keeps silent in court? What if he withdraws his confession? That’s why a mock trial was necessary.” Indeed, the Government was leaving nothing to chance. A circular was sent to all Chinese media outlets this week ordering them only to use material issued by the official Xinhua news agency. A journalist outside the courthouse in Shenyang said: “Magazines have been told not to publish their own stories on Yang Bin.”
Yet even before the trial started, the journalists outside were told the verdict and sentence: guilty; prison for seven to ten years. Since Mr Yang is a foreign citizen, he may be expelled after serving part of his sentence. China has an unofficial policy of releasing foreigners early after having bargained with their countries for political concessions.
Mr Yang is best known in China for his “Holland Village,” a tourist park with a lake, villas, a five-star hotel and an upmarket housing estate. The Dutch theme park includes replicas of the international court at The Hague, two canals and a row of three-storey shops with elegant roofs, dated 1882 and 1886.
The land around the park was used to grow tomatoes, cucumbers and radishes that were to be sold in Japan. Toshiki Kaifu, the former Japanese Prime Minister, called Holland Village “a vegetable basket for Japan”.
Today, the village is forlorn. The buildings are closed, with just 100 security staff remaining of the thousands of people who used to work there. The shops stand empty, some with windows broken, others are open to the elements. The replica of Amsterdam station, which Mr Yang used as an exhibition centre, is closed.