BEIJING — Leaders of China's elite state industries are renowned for their power, influence, and – in several recent cases – corruption. Increasingly, they are paying the price.
On Friday, the former head of the company that runs airports in Beijing and more than 30 other Chinese cities was put to death after the People's Supreme Court upheld his sentence in a $16 million bribery and embezzlement case.
Li Peiying's execution came two days after word emerged that the head of China's nuclear power program was under investigation for alleged corruption. Just last month, the former chairman of China's second-biggest oil company, Sinopec, was also convicted of taking $29 million in bribes and given a suspended death sentence.
The heads of state-owned enterprises "possess power and money, making it easy to give rise to corruption," Wang Yukai of the China National School of Administration was quoted Friday in the Communist Party newspaper Global Times as saying.
China has long struggled against corruption among high-level Communist Party officials, hoping high-profile takedowns will help scare the rank and file straight.
Shanghai's former powerful Communist Party chief, Chen Liangyu, became the most senior official to fall when he was sentenced last year to 18 years in prison for his role in a pension fund scandal. Two years ago, the director of China's food and drug agency was executed for approving deadly fake medicine in exchange for cash.
Recently, state enterprises have drawn the most attention, with critics pointing to their dual status as state agencies and commercial companies – many are listed on stock markets – creating unique opportunities for abuse.
State-owned companies dominate energy, transportation and other key sectors that wield vast political influence and access to financing from state banks. Many top executives hold the rank of high-level bureaucrats, giving them entry to the highest levels of power.
Capital Airports Holding Co., of which Li was chairman, falls under the ownership of the Cabinet-level Civil Aviation Administration of China. According to the company's Web site, it operates more than 30 airports in nine provinces with assets of more than 100 billion yuan ($14 billion) and 38,000 employees.
Li, a former chief of Beijing's airport police, oversaw the company's formation in 2002 and presided over its listing on the Hong Kong stock market and the construction of a massive new terminal in time for last year's Olympic Games. According to its Web site, the company's airports handle 30 percent of all airline passenger traffic in China.
Li apparently proved susceptible to abuse of his authority, trading loans and loan guarantees in return for bribes while looting state coffers, according to state media.
In February, a court in the eastern city of Jinan found Li guilty of accepting almost $4 million in bribes and embezzling about $12 million in public money between 1995 and 2003. It wasn't clear when he was arrested, although documents issued in 2007 still list him as chairman.
Earlier state media reports said most of the bribes Li took came from Beijing nightclub owner Qin Hui in exchange for $90 million in loans or loan guarantees furnished by Capital Airports Holding Co. The official Xinhua News Agency did not say when the Supreme Court ruled, and did not describe the method of execution.
In handing down its sentence in February, the Jinan Intermediate People's Court said there was evidence that Li had solicited the bribes, making the crime more serious. It said the amount of public funds Li stole resulted in "extremely large economic losses" for the state and constituted an "extremely serious crime," rejecting his lawyer's argument that he deserved leniency for having returned the stolen funds.
China puts to death more people every year than all other countries combined, with 5,000 executions expected to take place this year, according to the San Francisco-based Dui Hua Foundation, a human rights monitoring group. The Chinese government itself does not provide an annual count.