Few life stories are as soap-operatic as Lai Xiaomin’s. The fallen state financier dallied with more than 100 mistresses, according to Chinese media. He was subsequently caught with three tonnes of cash in one of his dozens of homes. The sheer scale of his thievery—1.8bn yuan ($279m) in kickbacks, the largest bribery case since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949—justified the death penalty, a judge opined. In a tragic denouement, Mr Lai was executed on January 29th.

The moneyman’s most serious offense—and the one that ultimately cost him everything—may have been something else. Under Mr Lai’s control, Huarong Asset Management, a state-run financial group, became the lender of last resort to China’s riskiest corporate borrowers. When state banks said “no” to loans, Huarong said “no problem”. Its lending helped private conglomerates get around capital controls and scoop up assets overseas. This enabled some of them to enlarge their balance-sheets—occasionally to breaking point. These strains put the broader financial system at risk. And that perturbed the communist regime’s paramount leader, Xi Jinping, who prizes stability—including the financial sort—above all else.