Canadian diplomats monitoring Chinese trial of accused smuggler Lai Changxing

Accused smuggling kingpin Lai Changxing.The notoriously opaque Chinese justice system is being closely watched by Canadian diplomats as the trial Lai Changxing gets underway.

Lai spent more than a decade in Canada fighting extradition back to China on allegations of being the head of a vast smuggling operation in his native province of Fujian in southern China, which authorities claim moved up to $10 billion in contraband.

Chinese investigators claimed Lai, 53 and his cronies bribed local officials to avoid paying import taxes on everything from cigarettes and automobiles to oil between 1996 and 1999, CBC News reported.

Agence France Press reports Lai's trial began Friday in Xiamen, Fujian.

Canadian diplomats monitored proceedings "pursuant to the assurances provided by the government of China" that Lai will not face the death penalty, an embassy spokesman in Beijing told AFP.

Lai fled to Canada in 1999 amid a crackdown on corruption in China and purchased a home in Vancouver. He was arrested at a Niagara Falls, Ont., casino the same year, beginning an odyssey through Canadian courts that lasted until his extradition in July 2011.

Lai argued he would not get a fair trial in China and would face the death penalty on his inevitable conviction. More than 600 people associated with Lai's operation were investigated, 300 were punished and at least two officials were executed, CBC reported.

It's an indication of how badly Chinese authorities wanted Lai back that they issued a rare promise he would not face execution. That assurance cleared the way for his extradition.

"He will probably get life in prison," Lu Qi, a lawyer in Shaanxi province, told Britain's Telegraph. "The others were given the death penalty, but the law has since been amended. Life is now the maximum penalty for these crimes. Lawyers believe there is a link between this amendment and Mr Lai's case."

Lai remains popular in Xiamen, the Telegraph reported, because he spent money on schools, roads and bridges in the city.

"My primary school was built by him," local resident Cai Yong told the Telegraph. "I think a third of the city's businesses were linked to him at one point. He helped one of my uncles and never asked for anything in return."

China's Xinhua state news agency said some of Lai's friends and family were permitted to attend the opening day of his trial but no details of the proceedings were released. Chinese courts are normally not open.