The botched hit job began in 2013 when real estate businessman Qin Youhui allegedly paid someone $280,000 to kill a businessman named Wei, who was suing Qin, according to The Guardian.
The hired hitman instead pocketed half of the money and hired someone else to perform the murder. The job was then contracted out three more times -- with the pot of cash dwindling each time -- until a fifth man, Ling Xiansi, was offered $14,000 to kill Wei in 2014.
Instead of killing Wei, Ling wrote him a note asking him to meet at a coffee shop.
“For just 100,000 yuan, I don’t want to kill you, but you have to cooperate with me," he said, according to the British publication.
The pair staged Wei's death and took photos of him gagged and bound. Wei disappeared for around 10 days and then went to the police, the Nanning Intermediate People's Court said on its website.
Qin and the contract killers were brought to trial in 2016 but acquitted, a rarity for a country with a 99.9 percent conviction rate, the Guardian said.
Prosecutors appealed and the second trial lasted three years. The men were given sentences ranging from two years and seven months to five years in prison.
In a statement, the court said the men deliberately deprived “others of their livelihood, with actions that constituted the crime of intentional homicide.”