The legend of Ren and Ma (more 'defy' than 'DeFi' but still a great story) or how two lottery-crazed bank clerks cooked up China’s biggest bank robbery of all time

Handan is an industrial city of three million people in northern China, about a two hour bullet train ride from Beijing. Pollution from coal-burning factories regularly fills the sky and blots out the sun. On April 16, 2007, the fuzzy, grey star had just set, and the bustling streets cast further into darkness, when police detectives arrived at the Agricultural Bank of China. Nervous employees led them to the vault. They didn’t have the keys to open it, so officers broke through the heavy steel door.

When detectives entered the vault, they were stumped by what they found — or rather, what they did not find. There were no tasered guards with their hands bound: Round-the-clock watchmen had worked their shifts without incident. The vault itself showed no sign of forced entry: The 60-centimeter-thick, steel-plated walls were intact. Security cameras and trip alarms operated normally.

Bank officials struggled to explain why they had waited hours to call the police. A lot of money was unaccounted for.

And the suspects had left behind only one piece of physical evidence: a bag full of lottery tickets.

In many ways, Ren Xiaofeng had already won the lottery. He was the youngest of four in an upwardly mobile family from northern Hebei province. Ren was handsome too, with chubby, prosperous cheeks.

As China opened to the world in the 1980s, rural young men of his generation migrated to cities to labor in factories and at construction sites. But Ren bypassed that arduous journey — his parents made the great leap forward for him. Before he was even born, Ren’s father, a Communist Party cadre, moved the family from their village in rural Hebei province to the small city of Daming. Ren took ping-pong classes through his father’s sports connections, attended a good school in the old walled town, and then for high school moved to busy Handan. His dad wasn’t wealthy, but he had enough guanxi to pull strings — and sufficient wealth to likely pay bribes and buy gifts to secure Ren a job at the city’s largest, most prestigious branch of the Agricultural Bank of China, one of the country’s “big four” financial institutions.

Ren stood out on his own: His fingers were some of the fastest in the land. At the time, most Chinese banks didn’t have sophisticated electronic bill counting machines. Tellers were trained — drilled, really — to count by hand. Some strummed stacks of cash with four or five fingers as the bills went click click click like bicycle spokes. Others stabbed with their pointer fingers, like a sewing machine needle, while flipping bills. Another method involved waving out cash like a hand fan.

Ren stood out on his own: His fingers were some of the fastest in the land.

In five minutes, a decent teller could count 800 bills, double check the count, and band and stamp the wad of cash. Elite counters like Ren could blur through 2,000 bills in the same amount of time. Banks regularly held inter-branch competitions, and Ren won a local contest, then placed second in a provincial tournament. The bank was proud of its native son and promoted him to management. He soon met a beautiful woman at work and proposed.

And finally, in 2004, the capstone: Ren’s young wife gave birth to a boy and a girl, celebrated in China as dragon-phoenix twins (the dragon represents the boy, phoenix the girl). By the early 2000s, with China’s one-child policy still in effect, having fraternal twins (odds: 1 in 43) was like hitting a jackpot. The family lived in a modest apartment block where neighbors cooed over the twins, and Ren’s parents often visited to babysit. His life was the definition of double happiness.

But in 2006 Ren caught a bad break: The Agricultural Bank of China culled its leadership ranks. Ren, 33, was demoted from manager to a less prestigious job: handling cash withdrawals for the vault. The bank cut his salary in half. He needed more money to support his young family. Ren had always been so fortunate, colleagues said. Why didn’t he try gambling?

When the Communists seized power in 1949, they banned gambling across China. By the time Ren decided to lay down bets, the only legal gambling was at casinos in Macau, horse racing in Hong Kong — both of which were too distant and pricey for him — and the state-run lotteries. A third of the lottery revenue went to social projects like old-age care, public sports fields, and the Red Cross. By 2006, the China Welfare Lottery and China Sports Lottery were booming, with $10.4 billion in revenue and growing.

The money was sorely needed. The 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing loomed, and organizers were desperate for cash. The games would be a coming-out party for China’s global ambitions, and the price tag was an eye-watering $45 billion — the most expensive in history.

State-run TV broadcast the nightly drawings from a Beijing studio where large plastic bubbles roiled with numbered balls. Ren bought a ¥2 ticket (worth about 25 cents) for the Chinese Sports Lottery. He lost. He bought more. He watched the balls bounce the wrong way again.

The losses stung because they didn’t comport with his otherwise lucky life. More upsetting, they didn’t comport with everyone else’s luck. When he looked around China in 2006, his great fortune — beautiful wife, dragon-phoenix twins, a stable job — didn’t seem so great.

At the bank, Ren had a front-row seat to the greatest economic expansion in world history. China’s economy enjoyed double-digit growth — but Ren was on a fixed salary. Property prices soared — but Ren rented in a modest building for bank employees. The Shanghai Composite Index roared: Newly minted millionaires bought bottles of Chateau Lafite Rothschild at hundreds of dollars a pop and mixed it with Coca-Cola. Even in the dusty backwater of Handan, local coal magnates filled Handan’s bank vaults with mountains of cash. Everyone else seemed to be getting richer.

Ren had two new mouths to feed and aging parents. After work, he visited dank, hole-in-the-wall lottery shops. When he cashed the occasional winning ticket, a barcode scanner chirped a sad beep beep to announce his modest payday, and the shopkeeper fished some loose yuan from a drawer. Walking home, rubbing a few grubby bills between his fingers, Ren could smell greasy gutters and filthy public toilets. It contrasted sharply with his days attending to the finances of the city’s nouveau riche entrepreneurs, counting out thousands of crisp, red ¥100 bills as Chairman Mao’s suspicious face stared back.

If Ren was looking for further justification to bend the rules, he could easily find it. The worst-kept secret in China was that the lottery was a cesspool of corruption: Officials swiped top prizes, vendors printed phony winning tickets, and private citizens stole cash to play.

At some point, everything that Ren was about to do next must have made perfect sense. He had enjoyed 33 years of ceaseless luck. And where had it gotten him? Living in the Dickensian grime of the Chinese economic boom, witnessing epic levels of official graft by his bosses and the government, trapped in a dead-end job, and blessed with the curse of a large family to feed on a shrinking salary. He needed to press his good luck further. Like a Chinese Walter White, with no promise of a future in sight, he wanted to provide for his family using his know-how. Ren knew how his bank worked — how money got into the vault and how it got out.

Ren came up with an idea that was as audacious as it was ludicrous. He would rob the bank — really just borrow the money, in his mind — buy enough tickets to win the jackpot, return the principal and keep the profit.

The bank had two vault managers. Both men needed to use their keys to open the heavy steel door. In October 2006, Ren recruited Zhao Xuenan for his plan, and then cajoled the other manager, Zhang Qiang.

It was an easy sell; bank security was a joke. Nearly all of Ren’s colleagues had gotten their jobs through family connections and bribes. It bred a sense of entitlement and laziness. Most mornings a line of frustrated customers stretched down the block because the bank rarely opened on time. A culture of looking the other way — “one eye open, one eye closed” in Chinese parlance — discouraged employees from speaking up when they witnessed security lapses. It wasn’t their money. Security guards often dozed by the entrance of the bank.

On October 13, 2006, the three men stole ¥100,000, or about $12,500. (Conversions throughout are at the exchange rate at the time.) They divvied up the money, and Ren took part of his cut and bought ¥20,000 worth of lottery tickets.

One by one, the chosen balls rolled down a ramp. Ren looked up at the TV screen. He looked down at his tickets.

That night, Ren watched as a TV host prepared the drawing in Beijing. Upbeat synth music played in the background. Balls jittered around their large plastic bubbles. This was the end of Ren and his foolish plan. The end of his promising career too, and his young family and good name.

One by one, the chosen balls rolled down a ramp. Ren looked up at the TV screen. He looked down at his tickets.

He had won.

Ren’s incredible luck was back. Ren Xiaofeng was back! He hadn’t hit the jackpot, just a mid-tier prize worth ¥100,000. But it was enough to quintuple his ¥20,000 investment.

Convinced his good fortune would continue, he bought more tickets. He lost, gambled more, and hit a losing streak so bad he blew through the ¥100,000 the trio had stolen. Ren and the guards then swiped another ¥100,000. But vault manager Zhang became scared. He announced he’d use his personal savings to replace the stolen cash. Ren forged ahead and bought more tickets anyway.

Then in another mind-boggling stroke of luck, Ren again hit pay dirt, winning ¥210,000, worth about $26,500 — enough to return the cash from both robberies. To fatten their payday, Ren and Zhao lied to Zhang and told him they’d lost. The worried accomplice forked over ¥20,000 to help settle up. Ren and Zhao then used part of their winnings to replace the rest of the stolen cash and pocketed a modest profit.

The trouble with luck is that you can have too much of it. Shortly after returning the stolen money to the vault, Ren received another injection of good fortune. The bank demoted him again — down to vault manager. Ren’s wife and coworkers would have consoled him about the disappointing news. But he was elated. He now had one of the two keys to the vault.

Robbing the bank again with the same conspirators was not an option. At best, both men would want payoffs to keep quiet. At worst, jittery Zhang might blow the whole operation. Ren needed a new accomplice — one with steelier nerves.

Five months later, such a man appeared. In March 2007, Ma Xiangjing was named Ren’s co-manager. At first blush, Ma did not seem like an ideal conspirator. They were very different people. Ma, 37, was a country boy who had bootstrapped his way up from a flyspeck village where three-quarters of the residents are relatives. Even today, a neighbor will jerk her thumb and direct visitors: “That way for Ma,” motioning down the block. “And that way for Wang,” she adds, gesturing the other way.

Ma’s childhood in the Chinese countryside was tough. He led raids on neighboring farms to steal sweet potatoes, corn, peanuts — anything he could get his hands on to fill his belly. He was ambitious too; when the other village boys joined the country-wide migration to big cities to work unskilled jobs on construction sites, he joined the army.

Like Ren, Ma’s father was a local cadre — less influential than Ren’s dad, but connected enough to score him a job at a local Agriculture Bank branch. But Ma didn’t depend on luck: he worked hard to get ahead, and his honesty won him promotions. He once found ¥200,000 that a customer had dropped; Ma tracked down the owner and returned the cash. He finished first out of 25 candidates in a bank-wide written exam and earned a promotion — relocating him to Handan.

Ren and Ma were already acquainted, though just how well is unclear. Today, bank employees murmur that Ren may have even facilitated Ma’s transfer. Perhaps he had already concocted a new plan and wanted a confederate he could trust. Or perhaps they were mere acquaintances when Ren spotted Ma’s fatal flaw: The upstanding country boy loved to party.

After moving to the big city, Ma became a night owl. His 11-year-old son attended school in the city and lived with him, but it did not stop Ma from living hard. He began drinking immediately after work. He chain-smoked Purple Diamond cigarettes, a conspicuously cheap brand with a nauseating aftertaste. His wife lived an hour’s drive away; when he was sufficiently drunk, Ma headed to “entertainment venues,” — a code word for brothels — newspapers would later report. Ma earned ¥2,300 a month — about $10 a day. He needed more money to support his new lifestyle.

On March 14, 2007, Ma took over as the co-manager of the vault. He now held the other precious key. Ren made his pitch to Ma: Handan is pricey. How would you like to make a little extra cash?

On March 16, two days after Ma took possession of the key, he and Ren cut the power to the vault security cameras. The pair worked quickly and stole ¥50,000, or roughly $6,500 — just a few pounds of cash that could easily be tucked into a satchel. The robbery was just like Ren’s first string of hits: too easy.

Ren handled the lottery ticket buys. He picked the numbers. He spread the purchases among a handful of lottery vendors around Handan who knew it was an illicit scheme: They even kicked back part of their 7% sales commission to Ren for funneling business their way. Ren and Ma then watched as a pneumatic tube pumped air into the chamber, the lottery balls lifted, bounced wildly, and then rolled out.

They lost.

Ren and Ma again used their keys and took more cash. Ren bought more lottery tickets. He gave Ma more bad news: they’d lost again. And again. After a few days, they won — but only ¥20,000, or $2,600, just a fraction of that day’s ticket buys. The break-ins continued almost daily for a week, then two. They took more cash each time too. Their losses mounted.

On March 29, bank employees performed the monthly vault check. A typical inspection might involve counting cash and checking security tapes. According to court documents, this check was so cursory that staffers didn’t even open safety deposit boxes — they just scanned the room briefly and declared everything in order.

Ren, meanwhile, kept far more meticulous records. He tabulated the amount they had stolen, the few small wins they had, and, most important of all, the total amount they owed the bank. Every lottery loss necessitated another robbery. Every robbery added to their debt. It grew from ¥50,000 to ¥1 million and then ¥2 million and beyond.

As their losses ballooned, Ma lost his nerve. Bank employees today gossip that Ma actually feared Ren: His family had more influential connections. If Ma ratted out his conspirator, he was sure to be the one who got blamed for the robberies.

Every lottery loss necessitated another robbery.

Ren insisted that the only way out was forward. A big win could still save them. Top prizes could reach millions of dollars, more than enough to replace the stolen cash and provide a tidy windfall. They simply needed more tickets. This was of course a fundamental misunderstanding of how lotteries work. Past losses did not mean they were due for future wins. Ren was simply hoping that his luck would return.

When Ren wasn’t buying lottery tickets or taking cash out of the vault, he played cards with co-workers. He made small wagers that wouldn’t replace the money he had lost, but might help him conjure up that desperately needed, long vanished luck.

As Ren and Ma hemorrhaged funds, the Handan Sports Lottery won big. On April 11, 2007, Handan was the number three market in the province with ¥5 million in sales. On April 12, that figure jumped to ¥7.6 million. The next day: ¥10.5 million, worth about $1.3 million. Giddy lottery officials watched a sales frenzy they would later call a “Category 3 storm.”

With cash pouring in, Sports Lottery officials took out ads — splashed with the lucky color red — in the Handan Evening News to promote a new game set to premiere in the coming weeks. When Ren and Ma opened the newspaper to check their lottery numbers, and read on to distract themselves from their dismal fortunes, the advertisements winked back.

Around this time, early April 2007, a boy from Ma’s home village went to dinner in nearby Linzhang. He attended school in the modest-sized town, and his father paid ¥3 a day for him to eat meals with a fellow villager who had relocated there. Ma Xiangjing was at dinner too. He had returned unexpectedly to Linzhang. He needed to drop off his son with his wife, he said, because of an upcoming business trip.

As dinner wore on, Ma got drunker. Suddenly, he began sobbing. He sat wreathed in cheap cigarette smoke and surrounded by empty beer bottles. Tears poured down his face. The boy was confused. Why was a grown man crying?

Ren and Ma had just gotten bad news: High-ranking bank officials were coming to Handan to check up on the city’s vaults, probe security and — critically — do a cash inventory. Ren and Ma would face years in prison — maybe even the death sentence.

Or perhaps Ma was crying because he knew what Ren had planned next.

On April 13, shortly after Ma broke down in Linzhang, Ren returned home to his apartment in Handan. He was in a bad mood. His wife asked what was wrong.

Even before learning about the impending visit, Ren had begun to share Ma’s doubts about their scheme. Their deficit had grown large. Their first robbery had been ¥50,000. Now Ren tabulated their losses: ¥33 million, worth about $4.3 million. Very soon they would be unable to gamble their way out.

“I bought ¥10,000 worth of lottery tickets,” Ren told his wife, rounding down more than a little. “I didn’t win. And now I’m worried.”

His wife laughed. Ten thousand yuan was a few months’ salary — nothing to sniff at, but not enough to look so utterly distraught over.

“If it’s gone, it’s gone,” she said. She even offered to give him cash to buy more tickets.

Ren had other ideas. Faced with the prospect of being caught, he would make one final score. If the plan was to flee with the loot, Ren and Ma could rob the bank at night, as they had done previously. But Ren and Ma now needed to hit the vault in broad daylight, during working hours. His plan required it.

The duo’s last, best path to freedom, he decided, turned on an insane gambit: In a city where lottery vendors could only print ¥50,000 worth of tickets per customer, Ren and Ma would steal ¥18 million, print hundreds of thousands of lottery tickets, and win the jackpot. All in a single day.

As his wife slept, Ren tossed and turned until dawn.

The next morning, Ren told his wife that he was headed out of town for business. A neighbor opened the gate for him; he honked his van and waved goodbye.

Soon after Ren arrived at work, he entered the vault. In his haste, he tripped a security alarm. It shrieked. He looked up. A CCTV camera blinked back at him, recording his every move. Ren did the only thing he could do: he waved.

Sitting at his post, a security guard saw Ren, the bank’s trusted vault manager. The guard silenced the alarm.

Ren and Ma proceeded to pack ¥18 million, worth roughly $2.3 million, into safe-deposit boxes. They dragged the boxes into the cash-counting room.

Ren and Ma then drove to a nearby restaurant. Three trusted lottery vendors — Zhang Jianfeng, Liu Tao, and Bi Litian — were waiting with large bags. Ren told them that he was helping a local iron ore magnate make a massive lottery ticket purchase. They drove in separate cars back to the bank and parked in the courtyard.

In the counting room, Ren and Ma dumped cash from safe-deposit boxes into bags.

“What are you doing?” a guard asked.

A local tycoon was making a large withdrawal, Ren said as he cracked open boxes and dumped out hundreds of thousands of red notes.

Ren placed several bags containing ¥6 million in a back corridor — apparently pretending the stolen money was a recent deposit — and then walked into the main bank hall. In a series of transactions, he wired the “deposited” money into bank accounts for Zhang and Liu, his ticket vendors.

Ren and Ma then lugged more safe-deposit boxes out to Ren’s van. The lottery vendors sped away in their own car: They had only six hours to print out hundreds of thousands of tickets before the 8:30 p.m. drawing.

Ren drove his van to the edge of the parking lot and — through his window — bought a pair of sunglasses from a street vendor. He paid so leisurely that a car behind honked. Then he slapped on his new shades, shifted into drive, and turned out of the lot.

For hours Ren and Ma raced around the city, visiting other Agricultural Bank branches to deposit stolen money back into the bank — but into accounts for Zhang, Liu, and three more lottery vendors.

Their accomplices had likely shuttered their shops for the afternoon, Handan vendors now speculate, to coax reams of tickets from their printers.

By 8:30 p.m., Ren and Ma had done the impossible. They had stolen ¥18 million from under the noses of guards and clerks. They had pumped most of it back through the same bank. They’d printed hundreds of thousands of tickets. And now, at the lottery headquarters in Beijing, air flowed into the familiar plastic chamber. The numbered balls stirred to life.

By 8:30 p.m., Ren and Ma had done the impossible. They had stolen ¥18 million from under the noses of guards and clerks.

Hitting the jackpot would just barely cover all their thefts. If they won, they might collect the oversized check wearing a panda, monkey, or off-brand Mickey Mouse costume to hide their identities, as some winners were now doing. They would return the money to the vault. Their lives would continue.

If Ren and Ma lost, they faced certain prison sentences — and perhaps even death, under draconian Chinese corruption laws.

The balls began to float like ghosts, then jitter and pop. One by one they came out.

They won.

Their haul: just ¥98,000, the same mid-level prize Ren had won the year before when it all began. Not nearly enough. Out of options, it was time for them to run.

A few hours later, Ren and Ma met outside the hospital, a few hundred yards from the bank. They’d have a better chance of getting away if they split up, Ren told Ma. Only ¥3.9 million remained from that morning’s robbery. Ren gave Ma ¥600,000 (around $78,000) and made him promise to never contact him again.

When the sun rose on Handan the next morning, local lottery officials received an urgent message from provincial headquarters. Sales that week had shattered records. By the middle of the month, Handan had raked in ¥40 million, four times last year’s receipts for all of April.

More shocking: The day before, on April 14 — the day Ren and Ma robbed the bank — lottery sales hit ¥15.4 million, breaking the daily record and putting Handan squarely in first place, passing Shijiazhuang, the provincial capital with an urban population three times larger.

China had been rocked by embarrassing lottery frauds before. Corrupt officials were now using the lottery to launder money as well. The sudden surge in sales merited an official note: Congratulations. Whatever you’re doing, keep it up.

The city’s taxi drivers were the first to find out. Around 2 a.m. on April 17, a cabbie working the night shift spotted police cruisers parked outside the bank. He radioed the handful of drivers working late: Police had cordoned off the street.

As dawn broke, more cabbies passed the bank, barking updates into the radio and to the city’s thousands of taxi drivers. Passengers overheard the chatter and brought the gossip into their offices, carrying word of the robbery deeper into the city’s bloodstream.

After Ren and Ma had met outside the old hospital to divvy up the remaining cash, they skipped town. On Monday morning, two days later, bank employees became suspicious when neither man appeared for work. A manager tried to call them. Both men’s cell phones were turned off.

The vault itself was locked: only Ren and Ma had keys. Stunned, confused, and then, terrified, bank officials delayed calling the police. A bank director later said he wanted to track down the rogue employees himself without involving authorities. As long as the vault remained closed, some alternate explanation for the sudden disappearance of his two vault managers, however remote the odds, still existed.

When bank managers finally called the police, officers broke through the steel door. Bank officials entered to find their worst fears realized: They’d been robbed. Inside, they found a plastic bag filled with bundles of losing lottery tickets. Why Ren would have left them remains a mystery — a taunt, perhaps, or absentmindedness, or merely a plea for forgiveness: Hey, at least the state-owned bank’s money went to the state-owned lottery.

That morning, word spread so quickly through the taxi radio network that state-run media couldn’t ignore the story any longer. By midday, radio stations reported basic details of the case. By nighttime, local TV beamed the news around the province. Newspaper reporters from around the country descended. The Chinese press rarely reports truthfully on official corruption, then and now, which made the media frenzy all the more remarkable.

It was official: Ren and Ma had stolen ¥51 million, worth $6.6 million. They were now the most prolific bank robbers in Chinese history. And they were still at large.

Newspapers around China published stories speculating how Ren and Ma could have pulled it off. They had lugged out more than 3,300 pounds of cash, journalists reported, a figure that an expert later revised upward because accumulated dirt on the bills would have added another 600 pounds. Journalists swarmed Ren and Ma’s hometowns. Many villagers said Ma was an honest man, and their initial reaction was doubt.

“No matter how much guts you gave him,” one said, “he couldn’t have done this.”

The robbery even earned a segment on China Central Television’s nightly news broadcast with 135 million regular viewers. Handan residents were almost proud that their tiny city had made national headlines. Online, commenters were aghast at the bank’s slipshod security, but others couldn’t help but cheer on Ren and Ma, the Robin Hood gang of Handan. Internet chat rooms filled with rumors that they had already fled the country.

In Beijing, one of Ma’s childhood friends, Ma Hailin, was selling apples, peaches, and pears at a streetside stand near Capital Airport one morning when he opened a copy of the Beijing Times. A small item from Hebei, his home province, caught his eye. As he read, Ma Hailin saw the name of his tiny home county, Linzhang.

“Hold on,” he said to himself. Staring back at him was the name of his childhood friend — the successful one with the school teacher wife and the fancy bank job. He read in disbelief.

By the time the police broke down the vault door, Ren and Ma were long gone.

After parting ways at the hospital, Ma took a long-distance sleeper coach to Beijing, and then a public bus to the outskirts of the city. All around him, the capital was transforming itself. Traditional alleyways known as hutongs were demolished. New Olympic sports stadiums went up. Cartoon dolls with names like Beibei and Jingjing — the official mascots of the Games — were plastered everywhere. Ma himself had partially bankrolled the construction boom with his lottery losses.

Ma arrived at a small slum outside Beijing’s Fifth Ring Road. An old army buddy, Song Changhai, lived there with his wife. He let Ma spend the night, and then helped him rent a small room in the neighborhood.

Ren made haste too, but was careful to cover his tracks. Handan police found the escape van abandoned in an alley. Inside there were only a few empty bags.

Handan police set up a tip hotline. In the first day, they received 10,000 calls from Chinese citizens hoping to claim the ¥200,000 reward for Ren and Ma’s capture. As soon as detectives hung up on a caller, the phone rang again. Officers struggled to keep their mobile phones topped up with enough credit to field long-distance calls.

Police around the country were on the case too. Hundreds of miles southeast, Ren Xiaofeng carried his luggage into the Nanjing railway station. A passenger overheard him identifying himself at the ticket window, and officers grabbed him. But it was the wrong Ren Xiaofeng. Police at the train station nabbed two more Ren Xiaofengs that day, each time the wrong man. In a country of 1.3 billion people, more than 4.2 million have the surname Ren.

The real Ren Xiaofeng had planned more cleverly. After he abandoned the van, he drove east in a Volkswagen Jetta carrying ¥3.3 million, plus a fake ID, several more IDs from family members and coworkers, burner phones, and roadmaps — all of which he had purchased or stolen days earlier in case the lottery balls didn’t bounce his way. He avoided highways with security cameras and took side roads.

Ren arrived in Dezhou, ditched the car, then paid a taxi driver ¥300 to drive him to Rizhao, a small city south of the port of Qingdao. He spent the night, then took another taxi south to Lianyungang, a small coastal city.

As he fled, Ren ate little — he had no appetite. He could barely sleep either. But when he scoured the newspaper for reports of his escape, his eyes drifted helplessly to the box of lottery results. On the road, he watched small-town lottery shops drift past the window.

“My hand was itching to buy more,” he said later.

And he did: a few final, futile offerings to the lottery gods.

On April 16, at 7:55 am, Wang Li, the sales manager of Lianyungang Honda, arrived at work to find a tired, unshaven man and his taxi driver. He’d been waiting for 10 minutes. And he wanted to buy a car for ¥200,000.

“What’s your last name?” Wang asked, trying to engage the obviously downcast man. “Are you in town for business or pleasure?”

He muttered vague answers and kept his eyes on a black Honda with a sunroof. He wanted it immediately, now, today.

“Cash or credit?” she asked.

“Cash.”

He motioned to the driver, who carried over a large duffel bag. Zipping it open, Wang saw bricks of cash inside.

“This needs to be deposited in the bank first,” Wang said.

The unkempt man shifted uneasily.

“Which bank?”

“It’s not far at all,” she said. “Do you know the Agricultural Bank of China?”

Ren removed a few bricks, paid the driver and locked the rest of the cash in Wang’s office.

As Wang drove Ren to the bank, her nervous customer peered out the window.

“How’s law and order in Lianyungang?” he asked suddenly.

She knew it. He was a property investor! Wang praised the top-notch police department, low crime and tight security. Her mystery buyer fell silent again.

At the bank counter, Wang filled out a deposit slip. As she scribbled and chatted with the teller, Ren stood stiffly with his back to the counter, avoiding eye contact with bank employees.

“Hurry up,” he said. “I’m hungry.”

“Almost done,” Wang said. “And save your money. I’ll buy you breakfast.”

“I’m too hungry. I can’t wait any longer.”

The bank clerk pushed the stack of cash back through the window.

“Please double check the amount,” the teller said.

Ren Xiaofeng was surrounded by clerks, guards, security cameras and early-bird customers. He had a ¥200,000 reward on his head, and now he was back in the same bank chain, giving them back their stolen money. But even with his freedom dangling by a thread, Ren could not resist showing off.

Bank employees crowded around to watch as Ren fanned out ¥210,000 and counted with lightning speed. Red bills whizzed through his fingers, those same fast hands that had won contests and secured a promotion. Bank tellers muttered in amazement. Ren’s face was plastered all over the news. But all they saw were his hands.

Red bills whizzed through his fingers, those same fast hands that had won contests and secured a promotion.

Later that morning, Wang handed him car keys and watched Ren drive off the lot. In the showroom, she joked with a colleague.

“That guy has enough money on him for a Mercedes-Benz,” she said. “He’s gotta be a fugitive.”

Ren drove away with the intention of continuing his escape. He went to a suburb and used his alias to rent a garage — a small, windowless room to hole up in for a few hours. But with Lianyungang crawling with police — and after the heart-stopping trip to the bank — he realized driving out of the city would be impossible.

Remarkably, Ren went back to the dealership a few hours later to return the car. Perhaps he needed the cash — ¥200,000 was a large chunk of his ¥3.3 million get-away fund. Media reports would later imply that he may have had a crush on Wang Li, a friendly port in a storm.

Either way, it was a risky move. He had carelessly displayed his cash-counting prowess for local Agricultural Bank employees. At any moment, news of the robbery might break. Wang had only to turn on the TV and learn that her client was China’s most-wanted criminal.

But Ren was in luck: When he returned to the Honda dealership, Wang was as cheerful as ever. A refund was against regulations, she was sorry to say. He offered her a bribe to bend the rules: ¥5,000. She politely refused. How about ¥10,000? She said no again. He then offered to take her to dinner. She declined. That night, he ate a bowl of noodles on the side of the road and hid out in the garage, barely sleeping.

In the morning, Ren switched his plan. It was too dangerous to keep running. He’d stay in Lianyungang and wait until things blew over, then send for his wife and twins. He rented a three-bedroom apartment for his family. Then he went back to the car dealership for a third time and left the car with Wang Li. Sell it at any price, he told her. He’d come back for the money.

His spirit sapped, Ren went to the beach. He then bought mineral water and bread and holed up in his rented apartment looking at photos of his twins until he fell into an uneasy sleep.

All over Lianyungang, the local Public Security Bureau was fielding calls from tipsters who claimed to have spotted Ren. Police instructed the traffic radio station to broadcast continuous alerts. Officers distributed 2,000 reward posters to taxi drivers. Lianyungang residents were almost giddy: A walking, talking ¥200,000 lottery ticket was in their city, and some lucky resident would find it.

Among the tipsters was Wang Li. When news broke about the robbery and the nationwide manhunt began, she called the police after a friend said her work anecdote sounded fishy.

When Ren woke up the next morning, he didn’t dare go outside — the police dragnet had intensified. Officers were checking internet cafes, hotels, and rental houses. At roadblocks, traffic police inspected cars leaving the city. Ren nibbled on bread and, later that night, turned on the TV. The local news carried a breaking report: Ma Xiangjing had been arrested in Beijing.

Acting on a tip, Handan police had driven through the night to reach Beijing in time to nab Ma in his army buddy’s neighborhood. He was still carrying most of the ¥600,000. Ma would soon confess to police, and then travel under police escort back to Handan, where a crowd formed at the train station to greet their now-famous fellow native.

Ren watched his accomplice’s arrest on TV with certainty. It was over.

A few hours later, 30 police officers surrounded Ren’s apartment block and settled in for a stakeout.

After tips from the Honda saleswoman and taxi driver, police fielded a call from a landlord who said his latest tenant looked a bit like China’s most wanted fugitive. They ran the ID he’d used to sign the rental contract: It belonged to Liu Jianfeng, director of personnel at the Agricultural Bank of China in Handan. All night, the officers hid outside, waiting for Ren to appear.

At 8:20 a.m. Ren emerged wearing slippers, dark bags under his eyes. Sun Yong, a 35-year-old cop, grabbed Ren by the neck and threw him to the ground.

“Are you Ren Xiaofeng?” he shouted.

“Yes, yes!” Ren cried. “I’m cooperating.”

Sun handcuffed his quarry and led him to a waiting police car. The newly minted police hero had made 2,000 arrests in his 14-year career. He’d solved an armed robbery in which the victim was drugged with anesthesia. He had cracked a murder case in which a young woman was found dead, stuffed inside a travel bag.

“Are you impressed?” asked Sun Yong, giddy at his good luck.

Ren seemed almost relieved.

“Yes,” he said. “I am.”

During an eight-hour interrogation, a detective asked Ren about his wife, children, and job. He showed little emotion. But when he asked about the lottery, Ren’s eyes lit up. He told them everything.

After being arrested, Ren and Ma fought to save their lives. They both pleaded guilty. Ren penned a five-page repentance letter and offered Chinese banks advice about how to tighten security and avoid future inside jobs.

“I really regret that I have been so stupid in doing such a dumb thing,” Ren told a reporter. “We were going to pay the bank back. We never intended to rob the bank.”

Both men had connections, but not nearly the kind they’d need to escape punishment in a corruption case that captivated the nation. As employees of a state-owned bank, they were technically civil servants. They hadn’t just robbed the bank; they’d embezzled from it. That meant tougher sentencing.

On March 31, 2008, Ren and Ma were executed. The Agricultural Bank of China banned employees from talking about the case. Local courts sealed the legal records. Ren and Ma passed into legend. Around Handan today, their names elicit chuckles, wonderment, and even a dash of pride. Local boys who took on the man and won, if only for a moment.

Four months after their deaths, on the lucky date of August 8, 2008 — the word for “eight” in Mandarin sounds like the word for “get rich” — China kicked off the Summer Olympics. The lavish ceremony featured 15,000 performers, cutting-edge pyrotechnics, and a $100 million price tag. The international press quickly hailed it as the “greatest ever” opening in Olympics history.

Not everything was as it seemed. Western news outlets soon reported that Chinese producers had digitally fabricated fireworks for television viewers. A child singer lip synced “Ode to the Motherland” after a high-ranking official deemed the real singer, a 7-year-old girl with crooked teeth, too unattractive. Another obfuscation went unremarked upon: As Michael Phelps dazzled at the Water Cube, and Chinese athletes nabbed record gold medals, no one knew that Ren and Ma’s roughly $6 million lottery escapade had helped bankroll the party.

In farming villages near Handan, new generations of young men set out for the big city hoping for better lives. They are grist for China’s ever-turning industrial mill. One of Ren’s distant cousins has also departed — gone to seek a better life. His wife remains in the village, sitting under a shop awning, breastfeeding their daughters. The girls, plump and smiling, are twins. Ren’s cousin might have the luck he needs to make it. Hopefully, not too much.

By David Gauvey Herbert

Journalist. Brooklyn. Writing: Businessweek, The Atlantic, The Atavist Magazine, Quartz and others.

Article originally published on December 4th 2019

Illustrations by Ruohan Wang

The Absurd Story Behind China’s Biggest Bank Robbery
Lottery-crazed clerks Ren Xiaofeng and Ma Xiangjing robbed the Agricultural Bank of China in Handan, Hebei province of over US$ 6 million.