Nothing about the life and death of Xu Ming, the Chinese plastics industry tycoon who became a patron and ally of disgraced Chinese politician Bo Xilai, seemed normal.
The 44-year-old Xu, who founded profile extrusion giant Dalian Shide Group, reportedly died of a heart attack in prison Dec. 4 in the Chinese city of Wuhan.
His death attracted worldwide media attention because of Xu's close relationship to Bo, formerly one of China's most powerful politicians, and Bo's wife Gu Kailai.
Bo was sentenced to life in prison in 2013 for corruption, a year after Gu pleaded guilty to murdering a British businessman in what was apparently a business deal gone bad.
Xu's role? Court testimony and Chinese prosecutors alleged Xu bankrolled Bo and Gu's lifestyle, helping to buy a $3 million French Riviera mansion and paying for trips and personal expenses.
I met Xu twice, in 1999 and 2000, back when he was “only” the founder of window profile extruder Dalian Shide Group.
I was the Washington correspondent for Plastics News in 1999. Xu and his company held a Washington press conference to announce a huge investment that would make Dalian Shide one of the largest PVC profile extruders in the world.
DC, with its hyper-focus on politics and nothing else, was a strange place for a plastics business announcement like that. My memory is I was the only reporter who showed up.
Also strange was the presence at the press conference of executives of many European suppliers selling Dalian Shide the equipment. It was such a large contract that it came with an unusual degree of technology transfer from the Western suppliers to Dalian Shide.
"We are opening our secrets and our technology to a customer," an executive with German machinery company Reimelt KG said at the time. "This is not normal."
I interviewed Xu again at the NPE 2000 show in Chicago, when he came to announce more investments. I remember both events because they were unusual, and we at Plastics News were trying to figure out this young, ambitious guy, who then was only in his late 20s.
In 2006 I moved to China to report for Plastics News. Over the years, I tried again without success to interview Xu.
By 2005, he had branched into other businesses, including owning a professional soccer team, and was China's eighth-richest man, according to Forbes magazine. His aides told me he was giving maybe one media interview a year.
It was pretty clear it wasn't going to be with Plastics News.
I did interview Xu's brother, Xu Bin, at the Chinaplas 2014 show. He was there to talk about a Dalian Shide partnership with German's BASF SE on a new plastic window profile, so didn't shed any light on Xu Ming's situation. Can't say I really blame him.
Bo Xilai's trial was one of the biggest in China in decades. Some reports say Bo maintains his innocence and his supporters say the prosecution was politically motivated.
Xu was in the middle of all of it. He was imprisoned in 2012 and was apparently due to be released in September.
One of his business partners was reported to say that Xu was a “public relations genius” who knew how to get close to the right people in China's leadership. The New York Times said his case highlights the “delicate position of many ambitious businesspeople in China.”