Fugitive Lai Changxing continues to torment mainland authorities from afar. Last week, a public auction of the twin towers designed as a hotel and corporate headquarters for Lai's now-defunct Yuan Hua Group failed to attract a single bidder. And as authorities struggle to dispose of his assets, they are facing an unexpected public relations battle on the streets of Xiamen. While Lai is officially portrayed as the villain at the heart of a vast smuggling network, there is more than a little public sympathy for the man and his methods in the Fujian port city. 'Smuggling helped the economy, and it didn't hurt anyone,' said taxi driver Wei Lianping. He chuckles over the long list of Communist Party officials brought down by their links to Lai and the Yuan Hua Group, and he marvels at the massive, but unfinished, buildings Lai had to abandon and the state tried unsuccessfully to sell for nearly 170 million yuan (HK$160.5 million) at the July 18 auction. This tolerant view of China's most wanted man - who is fighting Beijing's efforts to have him extradited from Canada - is shared by many. 'The Yuan Hua Group had a lot of money and much of it was invested in Xiamen,' said another taxi driver. 'Their collapse has hurt the economy.' Tipped off that he was under investigation, Lai fled to Canada in 1999. His petition for refugee status has been turned down but the lengthy appeals process should ensure that he stays beyond the reach of China's police for another two years. In the meantime, the government has tried to curb the public's fascination with the flamboyant businessman. It has cracked down on the stream of books and magazines that catered to the demand for details of his flashy lifestyle and his part in official corruption. 'There was an official document saying that only two authorised books on Lai Changxing could be sold,' said a magazine vendor near the former headquarters of the Yuan Hua empire. When the state tried to auction off the Yuan Hua Group's massive twin towers, dozens of journalists from across the mainland crowded a modest auction hall. But many of the official media reports from the aborted auction did not even mention Lai. The Yuan Hua Group is reported to have been Lai's vehicle for smuggling 53 billion yuan worth of goods and evading taxes estimated at 30 billion yuan, according to state media. Officials estimated they could recover about two billion yuan from the sale of his assets, but the auction's failure has put even that modest figure in doubt. The state has already collected more than 60 million yuan from the sale of a residential property owned by Yuan Hua, and more than 50 million yuan from the sale of stock it held in listed companies. The group also owned a prime plot of land - where it planned to build an 88-storey commercial complex, an upmarket residential development - and the infamous Red Chamber, where Lai was believed to have wined and dined party officials who helped smooth the way for his smuggling operations. The Red Chamber, named after the Qing dynasty novel describing the decadence of a wealthy mainland family, was briefly opened to the public as an 'anti-corruption museum'. As many as 2,000 people a day queued to view the sauna, bedroom and twin bathtubs, as well as a 700,000 yuan tiger skin given to the Xiamen Customs chief who was later executed for his part in Lai's operations. A fruit vendor at a market next to the now-closed museum laments the loss of business. 'Business was much better when the Red Chamber was open. Lots of people were here then.' Not surprisingly, Lai is recalled fondly by his neighbours in his home town in Jin Jiang county, north of Xiamen. The village middle school, which takes its name from the Yuan Hua Group, was built with money from the Lai family enterprise. Some 700 students are enrolled at the sprawling school, which has computers and other facilities to rival schools in much bigger cities. A banner stretched across one of the school's buildings proclaims: 'Today I am proud of Yuan Hua. Tomorrow Yuan Hua will take pride in me.' The entrance to the local village is marked by an imposing gate that notes it was erected by Lai Changxing. Neighbours are reluctant to speak ill of the Lai family. 'All of the four [Lai family] brothers were well liked,' said neighbour Lai Changhua.