A gangster who kidnapped tycoons gets a death sentence
When neighbors objected to an illegal structure Cheung Tze-keung built on the roof of his luxury
Hong Kong apartment, he agreed to meet them. Cheung, recalls a resident, showed up with more than 20 toughlooking men. “They all wore white gloves and lined up in rows with their arms crossed,” says the neighbor, who fears being named. “Cheung sat in the middle. He said he had decided not to do anything about the illegal structure and asked if anyone had an objection. Nobody dared say a word.”
That incident two years ago was typical of the brazen style of Hong Kong’s most notorious gangster. A Lamborghini-driving former laborer, known as Big Spender for his gambling exploits, Cheung made his own laws.
His arrogance had grown when, in 1995, he was freed on a technicality after serving three years for organizing the theft of $33 million from a security van. But then he overstepped the mark:
he is alleged to have kidnapped Victor Li, the Vancouver-connected elder son of Li Kashing, one of the world’s richest men, in an act that provoked the wrath of Chinese President Jiang Zemin himself. Last week, after a secret but much-leaked trial in China, Big Spender was convicted of that and other crimes and given a death sentence. But some Hong Kong legal experts remained uneasy, fearing a judicial precedent had been set in which Hong Kong people could face trial in China for crimes committed in the autonomous former British colony.
This summer, alarmed by the destabilizing effects of soaring crime and corruption in booming south China, Jiang had ordered a crackdown by a special Beijing-directed task force. “Some evil elements have recently perpetrated outrageous acts in Hong Kong and Macau, causing severe damage to the people’s interest and investors’ confidence,” he said in a surprise statement at Hong Kong’s handover anniversary in July. Shortly afterwards, police in Guangdong province, adjacent to Hong Kong, announced they had been interrogating Big Spender, 44, since January. Last month—amid extraordinary
security precautions—they put Cheung and 35 of his gang on trial in Guangzhou (formerly Canton) on charges ranging from smuggling explosives to robbery and murder.
Reports leaking from the Guangzhou courtroom detailed the ordeal of Victor Li, known to Canadians for his part in overseeing the controversial $3-billion Pacific Place project at Vancouver’s Expo 86 site (many Vancouverites were outraged when the properties sold out in Hong Kong before being offered locally). Big Spender is said to have spent $200,000 organizing Li’s kidnapping.
In May, 1996, nine men armed with AK-47 rifles and pistols allegedly held up the executive’s Nissan President limousine. Li, then age 32, was taken to a hut, stripped to his underpants and forced into a wooden box.
Then, Cheung called at the palatial home of his father, property tycoon Li Ka-shing (estimated net worth: $9 billion), to demand a ransom of $275 million. Within two days, what may be the world’s biggest-ever ransom was reportedly paid—and Victor Li was freed. Magnanimous in his triumph, Cheung is said to have told Li: “Your family has kept its word and not informed the police. So I will
keep my word, too. I will never trouble your family again.”
In September last year, the gang struck again. According to Chinese police, the victim was Walter Kwok, then 46, boss of the huge Sun Hung Kai property company. He spent six days stuffed in a wooden box before $120 million earned his release. Neither Kwok’s nor Li’s family reported the crimes to the Hong Kong police and they continue to refuse all comment. Instead, Li Ka-shing is said to have approached President Jiang for help. Eight more prospective victims apparently figured on the gang’s hit list, known as Operation Sun, with Hong Kong’s top civil servant, Anson Chan, and billionaire casino operator Stanley Ho among the targets.
The trial, with no press or observers allowed in, alarmed human rights organizations and lawyers. One accused claimed he had been starved of food and water in a bid to extract a confession. Both Cheung’s Hong Kong lawyer, who was not allowed into court, and his 64-year-old mother, Lai Sai-mui, petitioned Hong Kong authorities to seek his transfer to the territory, where there is no death penalty.
No extradition agreement exists between Hong Kong and the mainland, but former bar association chairwoman Gladys Li has attacked “the supine attitude” of local authorities in not asserting
the autonomy and jurisdiction of Hong Kong, as guaranteed in its mini-constitution, the Basic Law. In her view, the consequences are “chilling” because any act that broke China’s laws could be tried on the mainland, no matter where it was committed. Uncharacteristically, the Guangzhou court authorities responded to the criticism, saying the mainland had jurisdiction because most of the crimes were cross-border offences plotted in China.
Meanwhile, Big Spender’s trial has left big questions unanswered. Hong Kong police have sought to freeze the gang’s assets, but the bulk of the ransom remains unaccounted for. Tight security at the trial was apparently aimed at blocking any attempt to assassinate Cheung and colleagues, who could reveal embarrassing criminal connections. It is suspected they bought arms and explosives from corrupt Chinese army officers. Big Spender, however, is likely to take his secrets to the grave. He had 10 days to appeal, but such attempts rarely succeed in China. After that, the favored method of execution is a bullet in the back of the head.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.