BEIJING — It seemed like a gift from heaven in a country where very little is free. When security guard Xu Ting went to an ATM in the southern city of Guangzhou on a Friday night in the spring of 2006 and withdrew $140, he noticed that it only deducted 14 cents from his account. Over the next eight hours, he made 170 more withdrawals, pocketing upward of $24,000.
During the next several months, he lost some of the money to a thief on a train, tried to start up a company that failed, and gambled most of the rest on thousands of lottery tickets that turned out to be losers. With little cash left, he got a job.
Then a routine police ID check led to his arrest.
Xu's disappointment at how little the windfall had changed his life was nothing compared with what happened next. He was ordered imprisoned for life by a Chinese court late last year. The crime: bank robbery.
Xu's case has attracted widespread attention in China, fanning public ire at the judiciary, the banking industry and corrupt officials who get away with far greater crimes than ordinary people who can't get a break.
Fearful of the growing anger over perceived injustice and China's widening rich-poor gap, the government late last week held a retrial for Xu, a rarity in a country where the state is presumed to always be right. A verdict could be announced as early as the end of the week.
For Xu's father, the initial court decision suggests China's laws have not kept up with societal changes or common sense, a view some legal experts share.
"My son is not a bad kid, but it's such a money society," said Xu Cailiang, his father. "I don't know much about the law, but I think this sentence is totally unreasonable. Ninety percent of people in China would have taken the money."
That figure may be conservative. In an Internet survey in late December, just 7% of 19,437 respondents said they would stop withdrawing money and promptly report the mistake to the bank.
"We are not saints," said an anonymous posting on a popular website, Tencent.com.
Xu's father, 50, says his son can hardly be expected to follow the sort of mores he did growing up. When Chairman Mao led the nation, most people were scrupulously honest and society shared a common sense of purpose.
"The difference between then and today is like heaven and earth," he said. "Now everything depends on connections and graft. It's a slippery slope."
In the last decade, credit and debit card usage has exploded in China, with anger toward banks fanned by poor service in the state-run banking sector.
"The customers have seen enough of their arrogance and snobbishness," said a recent article on the Dahe News government website.
Supporters say Xu's bank is partly to blame for not maintaining its ATM. They also note that the bank never actually suffered a loss, since the $24,000 was refunded by the ATM manufacturer. "The analogy in Xu's case might be to someone finding money on the street and not turning it in," said Wu Yichun, Xu's lawyer. "This should be a civil, not a criminal, case."
Others slam China's banks for cheating their customers without penalty even as Xu got a life sentence. Internet postings criticize financial institutions that refuse to reimburse customers after their ATMs spit out counterfeit bills or blank "test" paper. In one case cited online, a Mr. Chen from Beijing discovered $14 from the ATM he was using was fake. The bank refused a refund on the grounds he didn't have evidence it came from its machine.
In another case, a Chongqing man surnamed Huang, who declined to give his first name, had a similar experience with $30. Eventually he became so infuriated with the bank's unresponsive attitude that he attacked and damaged the machine.
Others claim "ATM phobia" after the Xu case, fearful a machine will spit out more than expected and land them in trouble as well.
And an article from Britain's Daily Mail that was widely circulated in China tells of a similar ATM in Bristol that, in October 2006, spit out 20 pounds for every 10 pounds withdrawn. That turned into a giant street party. Why, when it happens in China, does Xu get life imprisonment? several Internet postings asked.
In recent months, the anger over banks has become more pronounced. Foreign banks have started building a presence here after international trade rules forced China to open the market, and the differences are not going unnoticed.
Until now, Chinese consumers had little choice but to go to a state-run bank. One survey found the average waiting time at China's four largest financial institutions was 41 minutes.
Another survey, released last year on the Dahe News site, found 79.5% of Guangdong residents would opt for a foreign bank over its domestic counterparts.