Chief defence lawyer Chen Youxi with Mr Ng's wife, Niki.

Chief defence lawyer Chen Youxi with Mr Ng's wife, Niki. Photo: Sanghee Liu

LATE on Thursday night Matthew Ng dropped his head to his hands and sobbed uncontrollably as defence lawyer Chen Youxi's closing submission reached its climax.

This was a Chinese criminal courtroom, where the Communist Party is accustomed to controlling minutely every aspect of the legal process, and yet the bookish-looking lawyer from Hangzhou had forensically and charismatically torn apart the prosecution case.

"If you lose, you admit it. If you don't want others to buy more shares of the company, then you offer a higher price," Mr Chen said on the last night of the three-day trial.

Accused ... Natthew Ng waves to wife Niki Chow on Thursday.

Accused ... Matthew Ng waves to wife Niki Chow on Thursday. Photo: Sanghee Liu

"But why arrest people? You are severely damaging the image of China in front of the world, violating China's commitments at the World Trade Organisation, as well as Chinese and international law."

Mr Ng rose to give his final, non-guilty plea to all four charges, repeating how police had explicitly offered to trade his freedom for his company - before being cut short by a judge who seemed unaccustomed to this brave new world without guilty pleas or grovelling self-confessions. Even the partial admissions the court did receive, from Mr Ng's two Chinese co-accused, were attacked in court as being improperly obtained.

Mr Ng was led out the courtroom back door, with his legs roped together, where his waiting wife, Niki Chow, spotted him and shouted his name. He raised his right hand in a defiant and emotional double-armed wave, with his handcuffed left hand holding a court file, before being ushered into a police van that would return him to detention for a long and anxious wait.

Mr Ng, like Rio Tinto executive Stern Hu, is an Australian-Chinese businessman and devoted family man who has been swept into the murky Chinese justice system by forces beyond his knowledge or control. But that's where the similarities end.

Hu was a modest, reserved northerner who walked into his Shanghai court room with a reputation for integrity - but emerged a broken man. On day one, he told the court how he had taken 11 million yuan ($1.67 million) in bribes including three million yuan that he had stashed at home in the family safe.

Mr Ng, in contrast, drove a red Ferrari. He was sharp and confident and remained so thoughout his trial. His entrepreneurial spirit traces back to a great-great-grandfather who sojourned in the Australian goldfields in the 19th century before returning to Guangdong.

And unlike Hu, Mr Ng's trial produced no confessions, no ''smoking gun'' evidence, and little to contradict claims that Mr Ng is the victim of a crude power play involving a state-owned company trying to re-take control of the hugely successful travel company, GZL, in which Mr Ng owns a 10 per cent stake.

In Hu's case, it took a rare alignment of personal, bureaucratic and top-level political interests for China's Ministry of State Security to bring down a foreign citizen at a multinational company. Mr Ng's case has been played out at a much lower level, but the circumstances are equally complex and opaque.

A senior member of the local security apparatus pointed the Sun-Herald to 2009, when the Communist Party's feared internal discipline commission swept through Guangdong province and carried out what was probably the most aggressive anti-corruption blitz in modern Chinese history. Of all China's murky channels of justice, few are more arbitrary and more secretive than when the Communist Party decides to go after its own.

The security official said the commission had pushed down through the equivalent bodies at the provincial and municipal levels, each of which have internal corruption issues. Pressure remains to obtain arrests and the return of state assets.

''Corruption is universal but you can only target some examples so that the others can be warned," the senior security official said.

"In China you know everyone has some connection with corruption, so if you detain one person and investigate you will certainly find some wrongdoing."

Sometimes the commission makes an example of people who are notoriously corrupt, such as the former boss of Guangdong province security apparatus, Chen Shaoji. At other times, however, motivations are not so clear.

Mr Ng's colleague, Zheng Hong, has been a Communist Party member of 30 years. He was chairman of GZL when it was a struggling tourism company and he facilitated a two-stage sale of control to Mr Ng's London-listed company, Et-China, for about $10 million. Last year Et-China moved to sell the assets to a Swiss company, Kuoni, for $US100 million ($97 million) - and officials at GZL's minority shareholder, Guangzhou Lingnan, saw the opportunity to strike.

Zheng was detained by Guangzhou Discipline Inspection Commission on September 20. There are very few accounts of what takes place in these sustained internal party interrogations known as shuanggui, except that they take place outside the purview of any law. Scholar Flora Sapio says the extra-judicial interrogations are designed to extract confessions because investigators ''lack the human and financial resources'' to gather evidence in a more professional way.

Usually, shuanggui is designed to avoid open court trials so as to control the public flow of information. This last bit hasn't gone to plan.

Mr Zheng did not comment on conditions in detention but he said he did not recognise some of the confessions he allegedly had made. Defence lawyers also challenged a lengthy, shuanggui confession by Et-China financial officer Kitty Yang, noting that she was not a party member and should never have been subject to the party's internal discipline procedures.

Ms Yang and Mr Ng's wife, Ms Chow, were both pressured by Discipline Inspection Commission officials to persuade Mr Ng to give up his stake of the company in exchange for his freedom. They passed the message on to Mr Ng, but he declined.

Mr Ng was detained by police on November 16, one day after he had refused an aggressive request from Guangzhou Lingnan's deputy chairman, Zhang (Joshua) Zhujun, to hand over his stake in GZL. Ms Yang was detained on November 25.

Defence lawyers, led by Mr Chen for Mr Ng, challenged the prosecution's evidence throughout the three-day trial. Mr Ng and Ms Yang asked to see the payment evidence on which the prosecutor alleged that Mr Ng had paid or ''embezzled" 100,000 yuan for personal gain - and told the court that it had been doctored. He asked why he was being charged over a "grey" payment (for information) that he did not and had no authority to sign, while the person who signed it walked free outside.

After the corporate acquisition Mr Zheng joined the board of Et-China. Mr Chen asked how 1.4 million yuan in ordinary director's fees could be a personal bribe from Mr Ng when Et-China had publicly disclosed them in its annual report - which Mr Chen waved theatrically in his hand - and Mr Zheng had even paid 500,000 yuan tax on it.

Mr Chen also ripped through two charges of misallocation of capital against Mr Ng, arguing one was a publicly disclosed, intra-group loan and the other was not in any way a personal crime.

Mr Zheng pleaded guilty to one charge, relating to a portion of 323,000 yuan in bribes he had allegedly received.

His daughter, Jasmine Zheng, an Australian citizen, said "my father has done great work. He has made a company on the edge of bankruptcy, such great contribution, and this is what he now gets."

Neither Mr Zheng nor Ms Yang made any confessions or allegations relevant to the four criminal charges against Mr Ng, who was defiant until the end.

Outside the court on Thursday night, defence lawyers, family and supporters were celebrating what seemed a historic moment in China's legal evolution. The defence lawyers had dominated the court room for three long days and reduced the prosecution to a rabble. Even the Australian government, which had ducked for cover during the many procedural irregularities of the Stern Hu trial, blasted the court's sometimes comical efforts to prevent an open trial.

Whether these are the ingredients of evidence-based justice, where a judgment will be based on careful legal argument, is anybody's guess.

The court, after all, is controlled by the Guangzhou Communist Party, as are the anti-corruption body that prompted the investigation, the police who made the arrests, the procurator who laid the four charges and the Lingnan company that wants to re-claim Mr Ng's assets.

Mr Chen, the star lawyer, maintains that justice will be done. At the very least, he has kept his word to show the world that China has ''a group of lawyers who dare to fight to uphold the law''.

with Zhang Yufei and Sanghee Liu