The investigation into the dealings of tycoon Liu Han has revealed the intricate relationships between officials and businesspeople on the mainland.
Liu, who was tried on charges including murder and leading a mafia-style gang, built his empire into a vast web connecting many senior officials across the country, according to people with direct knowledge of the investigation. The 21-day hearing into the dealings of Liu and 35 associates adjourned on Saturday.
The mining magnate denied most of the allegations against him, including running a criminal gang, when he appeared at the Xianning People's Intermediate Court in Hubei province, according to a court summary.
Liu's political connections ensured his case was given priority by President Xi Jinping, one of the sources said.
The 48-year-old businessman could be sentenced to death if found guilty and his 855 million yuan (HK$1.1 billion) fortune confiscated. Most senior officials with connections to Liu would escape censure, said the sources, who declined to be identified citing the matter's sensitivity.
So far, Xinhua has reported only that three junior police officers in Sichuan, Liu's home province, have been convicted of corruption and covering up gang activities, despite the case being described as the largest prosecution of a criminal gang on the mainland for many years.
The sources said the long list of senior cadres who may have received money from Liu included high-ranking current or former officials from Hainan, Yunnan and Chengdu, capital of Sichuan.
While close ties between the business community and party officials are common on the mainland, Liu's case has exposed in surprising detail large networks of the rich and their uncertain role in political struggles.
Liu met Zhou Bin, the eldest son of retired domestic security tsar Zhou Yongkang, in 2003 through a senior official from Aba autonomous prefecture, in Sichuan, sources said.
After their first meeting, Zhou Bin sold an Aba-based tourism company to Liu for some 12 million yuan, even though it was said to be worth less than six million yuan, because Liu wanted to "maintain a relationship with Zhou Bin", one source said.
Liu later gave the Aba official a gift worth a few hundred thousand yuan, they added. Years later, the official took up a senior position in Chengdu.
Both Zhou Bin and his father are under detention for corruption investigations, while the Chengdu official remains in office after he returned the gift to authorities and assisted their investigation of the Zhous, another source said.
Investigators also discovered another senior Sichuan official, who was promoted and moved to Hainan, received about 1 million yuan in gifts from Liu, including rare artefacts and thousands of yuan for his daughter's wedding.
The Hainan official appeared at the 2014 Boao Forum for Asia earlier this month, a high-profile international gathering of political and economic figures, and even made a speech at the event.
Liu was also a personal friend and long-time mahjong partner of a senior Yunnan official, the sources added. To maintain his relationship with other senior officials in Yunnan, Liu often carried tens of thousands of yuan to mahjong games at the official's home and most often went home empty-handed.
The Yunnan official is currently serving in the national legislature.
A former senior political adviser in Yunnan said he had reported the alleged corruption of senior officials in the province for years, and was disappointed by the authorities' inaction. "Officials higher up still resist punishing those two," the adviser said. "Someone is still protecting them, and the top leadership needs more time to settle disputes among the inner circle."
A large number of officials offered to assist the investigation of Liu, the sources said. Liu and his associates also lavished money on senior officials in Inner Mongolia, state-owned China Development Bank and the Political and Law Commission, investigators claim.
It is not known if officials who received money or gifts returned favours to Liu's gang. Liu built Sichuan Hanlong into a prominent energy conglomerate worth an estimated 855 million yuan, according to Shanghai research company Hurun Report.
Under the mainland's criminal code, officials who "abuse their authority by enabling profit for others" or taking bribes worth more than 100,000 yuan can be sentenced to death.
Zhang Ming, a political scientist with Beijing's Renmin University, said the decision not to punish certain officials showed that Liu's case was entirely political, not judicial.
"The worlds of business and official power are so entwined, and every single official in the country could be punished if the top leaders ordered complete scrutiny," said Zhang. "To choose which officials should be punished depends on political requirements."
A family member, who declined to be named, said Liu was innocent. "You could charge him with anything, including economic crimes. But he is not a gangster," he told the Post earlier.