Chinese Canadian winery owner who spent five years in a Chinese prison on charges of ice wine smuggling has defiantly maintained his innocence and recalled being “treated like corpses on a battlefield,” in his first interview after release.
John Chang, a Taiwanese Canadian vintner and owner of three wineries in Canada, was sentenced in 2016 to five years in prison on charges of what was considered one of the biggest ice wine smuggling cases in Shanghai back then.
But in his first interview with Hong Kong newspaper Singtao after release, the vintner detailed his ordeal in jail and claimed that he only pleaded guilty to avoid life in prison.
He described feeling hopeless the moment of arrest. “Some people treated us like corpses on a battlefield and tried to take everything we have. For instance, the day when we were detained, police sent us to do health check-up at a hospital and charged us close to RMB 800. It was after we arrived at detention center, we realized it was actually for free,” the vintner told the newspaper in an exclusive published on October 17.
Chang’s ordeal started when Chinese authorities alleged that he under reported the value of his ice wine exports to China. Wines that were normally sold for CA$69-95 a bottle in Canada were declared as less than CA$2-3 to Shanghai customs authorities.
The authorities singled out Chang given the size of his operation and identified him as the main suspect. According to information from Chang’s flagship winery Lulu Island Winery, it claimed to produce half of British Columbia’s ice wine production and accounts for 20% of Canada’s total wine exports to China.
The smuggled wines according to Chinese police amount to RMB 300 million (US$41.4 million), with RMB 200 million (US$27.6 million) being ice wine , and Chang and his wife Allison Lu owe RMB 20 million (US$2.7 million) in taxes.
“Police accused me of smuggling, but I can’t refute because all the documents that could prove my innocence were not with me. I am not allowed to communicate with outside world and was only allowed to hire a lawyer when the case was referred to prosecution,” Chang told Singtao.
At its height, Chang’s flagship winery Lulu Island Winery in British Columbia served as the hospitality center for China during the 2010 Winter Olympics. This made it a popular tourist spot for Chinese visitors, which according to Chinese media reports is where the trouble began.
Tourists would order ice wines upon visiting Lulu Island Winery and the wines would then be shipped to Shanghai and distributed by a local distributor. But according to police, Chang falsified declaration documents and under reported wines that would normally sell for CA$69-95 for CA$2-3 or 5-6 a bottle.
In the interview, Chang claimed that life in Chinese prison made him “confused and fearful”. He said a prison cell measuring less than 150 square feet was cramped with 10-12 people, and for eight months he would sit in a corner during the day and sleep on the floor. “Because I have been sitting for too long, my buttocks start to develop ulcers,” he said.
Before Chang’s arrest, the Taiwan-born businessman was hailed an immigrant success story and won numerous awards. In 2014, he even accompanied then Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper on a business trip to China to promote bilateral trade between the two countries.
He immigrated to Canada in 1998 and started in wine business. He owns Lulu Island Winery and Grizzli winery in British Columbia and Lailey Vineyards in Ontario.
Chang was released in March 2021 and thanked Canadian consulate in Shanghai for their help.