Chinese businessman Lai Changxing is escorted by security guards into a Vancouver federal courthouse on July 12, 2001.

Story highlights

Lai Changxing became one of China's businessmen in the 1990s

He fled to Canada after the Chinese authorities accused him of smuggling

After more than a decade, he lost his fight to avoid extradition last year

A Chinese court sentences him to life imprisonment

CNN  — 

A Chinese court on Friday sentenced Lai Changxing, a tycoon who spent more than a decade as a fugitive in Canada, to life in prison for smuggling and bribery, the state-run news agency Xinhua reported.

Lai, 53, was sentenced by a court in the southeastern port city of Xiamen in Fujian Province, where the Chinese authorities say he ran a multi-billion dollar smuggling operation in the late 1990s.

Born into a peasant family, Lai received little in the way of education. He nonetheless rose to become one of China’s richest and most flamboyant businessmen.

His company’s interests included products as varied as cigarettes, cars, luxury goods and oil.

But in a crackdown on corruption, the Chinese government said Lai’s business was trading the goods illegally. It accused him of bribing dozens of government officials and telling his staff to do the same.

Lai evaded the authorities and fled to Canada in 1999. He was subsequently detained and spent years fighting extradition back to China. He lost that battle last year and was returned to China in July.

His lawyers had said they feared he may face the death penalty in China like others convicted of profiting from the smuggling operation.

But the extradition deal with Canada appeared to have prevented that outcome. Under Canadian law, nobody can be deported if they will face the death penalty.