City, fighting corruption, opens vice den to public

Saturday, September 1, 2001

XIAMEN, China -- He invited them in, and each became a tentacle of his empire -- a deputy mayor, a customs chief, sundry civil servants who liked their liquor and their women 20 years old. When Lai Changxing made it worth their while, authorities say, Xiamen's leaders fell in line.

By the time police accused him in 1999 of running a multibillion-dollar smuggling ring, Lai had hundreds working for him across this port city -- and, the central government says, scores of local and provincial officials in his astonishingly deep pocket.

Lai fled to Canada and many of his associates were jailed or executed. But the opulent walled compound where authorities say he bribed his way to success has been opened as a museum -- a vice den turned propaganda tool that depicts China's struggle against corruption and shows what the consequences can be.

"Now people can see what we're up against," Cao Fang, the exhibit's deputy director, said Friday. "They'll see how we're building our legal system, and they'll have more faith in it."

Honglou, Chinese for "Red Mansion," opened this week to long lines. In its first four days, more than 8,500 people paid about 60 cents each to see how their homegrown Al Capone did business.

There apparently wasn't much that didn't happen in the seven-story red-brick building, which cost Lai $17 million. The art was erotic, the easy chairs motorized, the karaoke machine well-stocked and the massage tables at the ready.

Room 305 is an exercise room, Room 404 a movie theater that seats 30. Room 601 is the presidential suite -- where top officials slipped in through secret entrances for trysts with procured women.

For Cao, his exhibit is pretty straightforward.

"This isn't a tourist site," he said. "It's education."

Quite possible. But in spotlighting Lai so enthusiastically, China, which has seen firsthand what personality cults can do, also risks glorifying him. The Red Mansion is informative but, with its roped-off chambers of excess, is also something of a corruption theme park -- a Graceland of graft without the shag carpeting and the banana pudding.

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