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Chinese Abuzz Over Tycoon's Slaying

January 24, 2003|Ching-Ching Ni | Times Staff Writer

SHANGHAI -- A man armed with a hunting rifle shot and killed one of China's richest men in his office this week, apparently to settle an old business dispute.

The assailant then turned the gun on himself, according to state media reports Thursday.

The victim, Li Haicang, was a self-made steel tycoon based in northern China's Shanxi province. Forbes magazine last year ranked the 47-year-old head of Haixin Steel the 27th-wealthiest person in China.

Li and his attacker, Feng Yinliang, were from the same rural hometown, according to workers at Haixin. Feng ran into money problems and had hoped to sell his paper mill to Li, they said, but a potential deal fell through. Feng lost more money in the stock market and came back to Li for a second chance, which apparently was refused.

Murder-suicides are rare in China, and the deaths Wednesday have touched a nerve in a country with an awakening economy. Official reports on such sensitive crimes tend to be deliberately sketchy, but the circumstances were enough to light up Internet chat rooms and turn the case into a barometer for China's conflicting attitude toward its budding capitalists.

"It's time for the rich people in China to think about the sources of their wealth," wrote one Netizen on Thursday. "You rob our country's resources, you treat people like slaves, you are worse than pre-liberation capitalists. This is your just reward. Long live Chairman Mao! Long live the people!"

"I don't know how he got rich, but most rich people did it by stealing from the people," another wrote. "Our country's graft-fighting effort has a long way to go. I am a Communist Party member. I worry that the collapse of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union will become our tomorrow."

Other voices were more grounded in China's new reality -- that capitalism, not communism, is the Chinese economy's real saving grace.

"What a shame. It's OK if a provincial leader dies. But entrepreneurs -- they stand for jobs," read one posting.

The attacker also drew sympathy. "Nobody would kill himself unless he was forced into a corner," one posting said. "In today's society, who cares about the poor? Not the law. Not nobody!"

But one Web surfer praised the tycoon as a local hero who labored in the fields as a farmer and toiled next to the workers in his own factory until he became a suit-wearing titan.

Stunned employees at Li's office also vouched for their boss.

"How could something like this happen to him?" said a staffer who answered the phone and gave only her last name, Zhang.

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