The Grand Comedy of China's Biggest Bank Heist
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because someday this robbery will be made into a movie, and it’ll be a tragic comedy.
By Steven Butler
Hands Up: A look at history’s greatest heists and most intriguing robberies. Read more.
Winning the lottery may not be such good luck after all. That’s what happened to Ren Xiaofeng when he bought tickets with borrowed money, winning enough to pay it all back. You can guess what happens next, right? Going for that winning ticket proved addictive and, unfortunately for Ren, the “borrowed” money came from a bank vault that he was responsible for keeping safe.
So begins the tale of China’s biggest-ever bank heist. It would be an almost embarrassing comedy of errors involving two tons of cash — worth 51 million yuan ($6.7 million) — carted out of a vault under the nose of security and the police … had it not ended in tragedy.
All anyone had to do was use more money, place more bets — and up the odds of winning enough to cover the cost of the tickets. Right?
It started in the autumn of 2006, at the Handan branch of the Agricultural Bank of China, nearly 300 miles south of Beijing. Ren took 200,000 yuan from the vault, won the lottery and put what he had “borrowed” back. But it was all a little too easy: If it’s that simple, then all anyone had to do was use more money, place more bets — and up the odds of winning enough to cover the cost of the tickets. Right?
So Ren found a partner in fellow bank manager Ma Xiangjing. Moving two tons of red stuff — Communist China adorns scarlet notes with a likeness of Mao Zedong — was hardly a one-man job, and since Ma was also a manager of the vault, Ren could hardly keep it from him. The two men, both of whom were in their mid-30s, planned until the following spring before unplugging the bank’s security system and taking off with almost 33 million yuan in cash, according to accounts in the Chinese press. When police noticed the lapse and phoned the bank, Ren just made an excuse and no one paid any further attention … at least not at first.
When the bigger bets failed to pay off in winning tickets, the two doubled down in desperation and carted off six boxes with 18 million yuan inside, putting most of it into the lottery again. The huge ticket purchases were made without raising suspicion, because while China was transitioning to electronic, cash was still king. This time the men didn’t come up empty-handed, but 98,000 yuan in winnings was hardly enough to fill in the deep hole they had dug. And the bank had finally caught on to the fact that funds were missing. So on April 16, 2007, the two split the remaining 4 million yuan, bought cars and fake IDs, and ran.
Ma fled north to Beijing, where he was captured two days later; Ren fled 400 miles to the southeast, to the city of Lianyungang. With his face plastered all over the news, and a 50,000 yuan reward on his head, capture was only a matter of time. An alert car salesman became suspicious when Ren showed up haggard and unshaven, with a bag full of dough, plunking down 210,000 yuan for a black Honda with a sunroof before the banks had opened. In the end, Ren was spotted and turned in by three people — the other two were a taxi driver and Ren’s new landlord — and all three shared a reward. “It has been proved that offering monetary rewards is a good method,” remarked Wu Heping, spokesman for the Ministry of Public Security.
Ren repented in court and even offered up a long list of procedures to follow to prevent such theft from happening again. These included counting the money in the vault every once in a while and actually watching the surveillance video from time to time. Turns out the bank hadn’t taken a cash inventory in years. But repentance was futile; it was too late for Ren, or Ma, or their inattentive and complicit colleagues at the bank. The two were sentenced to death and executed almost one year later, three others faced jail time and many more lost their jobs.
Amnesty International has long campaigned against the death penalty in China, where annual estimated executions numbered in the thousands before Amnesty gave up trying to put out a definitive number, which is classified by Beijing. An Amnesty representative said that 55 crimes were punishable by death in China until recently, when the number was reduced to 46.
A cynical posting on the Chinese website Boxun, which covers human rights and other news, suggested that Ren and Ma’s principal sin was not bribing the right person. After all, the hapless pair’s scale of corruption paled when compared with that of some government officials who are rumored to have benefited from various graft-related crimes. Ma and Ren simply stole from a government bank … and lost the money to a government lottery.
- Steven Butler, Steve landed at OZY after years of reporting all over the world and living for long stretches in Asia and Europe for the Financial Times and U.S. News & World Report. He has managed correspondents everywhere as foreign editor at Knight Ridder but is delighted to be free of the printing press. Follow Steven Butler on Twitter Follow Steven Butler on FacebookContact Steven Butler