London (CNN Business)The former chairman of China’s most valuable drinks maker, Kweichow Moutai, has been sentenced to life in prison after a court found him guilty of taking bribes.
In the latest example of Beijing’s long-running crackdown on corruption, a court in the company’s home province of Guizhou on Thursday sentenced Yuan Renguo for accepting bribes, including property, worth nearly 113 million Chinese yuan ($17.5 million).
In a statement, the court said that an investigation found he had used his various positions at Kweichow Moutai between 1994 and 2018 to help distributors secure deals for Moutai baijiu, the company’s hugely popular luxury spirit.
Moutai baijiu is a clear, potent spirit that’s been dubbed “firewater,” thanks to the fact that it’s 53% alcohol. The red-and-white bottles of its flagship product, “Feitian,” or “Flying Fairy,” are a staple at Chinese state banquets and business events. It was also known to be the favorite tipple of Mao Zedong, founder of Communist China.
The court said that Yuan had confessed to most of his crimes and was therefore “punished lightly,” adding that all his private property had been confiscated.
Yuan’s sentencing serves as a stark reminder of Beijing’s long-running clampdown on corruption, which has affected Moutai previously.
In 2013, the company’s sales slumped and its share price tumbled when President Xi Jinping embarked on a drive to stamp out extravagant spending among officials, including on expensive liquor.
Still, it remains one of China’s most valuable companies with a market capitalization bigger than the combined value of global distillers ABInBev (BUDFF), Diageo (DEO) and Heineken (HEINY).
China regularly investigates powerful executives for corruption — while using the findings to send a warning to others. In January, a Chinese court sentenced the former chairman of one of China’s biggest asset management companies, Lai Xiaomin, to death after finding him guilty of bribery.
Yuan’s sentencing takes place against a wider crackdown on private enterprise by Xi, which has squeezed China’s tech giants and heaped pressure on prominent business leaders, such as Jack Ma of Alibaba (BABA).
— Shawn Deng, Laura He and Michelle Toh contributed reporting.
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