And Finally

An arresting story

The story of a prisoner whose patent saved his life

Jail w

Perhaps as a consequence of the TV censor’s escalating restrictions, more people are turning from the small screen to the real world in search of gripping stories. And recently, the tale of one of China’s most legendary prisoners has captivated the web.

The protagonist of this story is Li Hongtao, a graduate from the prestigious Zhejiang University in Hangzhou. According to the Hainan Special Zone Daily, which recounted Li’s extraordinary story again this month, Li’s troubles began when he moved to Yunnan province, where at the age of 26 he began an affair with a young student.

Li’s wife discovered the affair and fell into a depression, which left Li racked with guilt and drove him to self-harm. What lifted him out of this despair was a proposal from an old classmate to form a business together. But, lacking capital, Li chose to raise funds via fraud. He forged a bank’s seal and used it to swindle a company out of Rmb80,000.

In 1992 Li was arrested but he soon managed to escape from prison. At this point he decided to embrace his new life of crime. He skipped town and first stole a car and later a police car. He was arrested again that same year.

Amazingly, Li escaped from jail for a second time, tunnelling his way out of his cell with two other detainees. Three weeks later he was recaptured and in 1993 the court, having had enough of his antics, sentenced him to death.

The sentence was due to be carried out in 1995 but on the eve of the execution, Li successfully received a patent on an electronic device. According to Chinese practice – which seeks to encourage industrial innovation among its jailbirds – this was sufficient to grant him a stay of execution for a year.

Li patented several more devices during his time behind bars and was eventually released in 2009. Finally a free man, he used his experience to launch a new career. His new business line: creating security systems for prisons.

While netizens have been marvelling about the story in recent weeks – it went viral after being extensively shared on WeChat – others have questioned the veracity of his tale. Last year the Beijing Youth Daily ran an exposé on the shady world of patent trading, where agents help prisoners pay inventors to patent creations under their names so that they could commute their sentences. According to the report, fees for this service range from Rmb6,800 to Rmb60,000 (see WiC268).

Li’s patent applications do raise some questions. Most strikingly, his patents are filed under a pseudonym: Yang Hongjun. A reporter for Beijing News, who investigated the inconsistencies of Li’s story, noted that in some exceptional circumstances (such as being sent from prison) a patent application might be made under an assumed name.

But what was strange about the patents ascribed to Yang Hongjun is that four of them were made after Li’s release and one was even made before his arrest.

The reporter reveals an even larger hole in Li’s narrative: the story claims that in 1995 Li’s patent was awarded a prize at the Fifth China Patented Invention Exposition, but the reporter found no such event.

Finally, a Beijing-based lawyer concluded that in 1993 the charges Li was facing – fraud, theft, and fleeing from custody – would not have warranted a death sentence, a detail some netizens pondered over too.

With all its twists and turns – and possible inconsistencies – Li’s story continues to fascinate China’s netizens. Whether his 15 minutes of internet fame will prove good for his business remains to be seen.

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