Illustrations: Ruohan Wang



How two lottery-crazed bank clerks cooked up China’s biggest bank robbery of all time

David Gauvey Herbert
Published in
28 min readDec 4, 2019

HHandan 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.

InIn 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…



David Gauvey Herbert
Writer for

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