This has been a good month for China in its efforts to seize fugitives on the run, some of whom allegedly fled the country with large amounts of illicit funds. Beijing is now taking concrete steps to obtain the recovery of assets as well.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry announced that Chen Wenhua, wanted on charges of embezzling US$3 million in public funds, had been returned to China from France, the first such case since an extradition treaty between the two countries came into effect last year.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry, in announcing the return of Mr Chen, said, “looking forward, we will intensify our efforts to hunt fugitives and pursue ill-gotten assets overseas.”
A step in that direction was taken last week when Premier Li Keqiang visited Canada. During his visit, the two countries signed an agreement on sharing and return of forfeited assets, China’s first such agreement on asset recovery, marking a step forward in China’s “Operation Sky Net” against corrupt individuals who have fled overseas.
Even before the premier’s visit, Canada and China had signed an accord to begin negotiations on an extradition agreement, something that the Chinese previously requested but which Canada until recently had rejected.
Most Chinese economic fugitives are hiding in western countries such as Canada and the US, and in Australia, none of which have extradition treaties with China, largely because of frequent Chinese imposition of the death penalty and widespread use of torture. China executes more people each year than the rest of the world combined.
Australia signed an extradition agreement with China in 2007 but so far has not ratified it because of human rights concerns. Under that accord, the Australian courts have to decide on each case of extradition.
In the absence of extradition agreements, China has been making use of extralegal – even illegal – means to put pressure on fugitives to return home, and quite a few have done so.
China is boasting of the success of its operation. This month, it announced that so far, 2,020 economic fugitives, including 342 former officials, have been returned to China from more than 70 countries and regions since 2014.
Many of the fugitives were not extradited, but returned to China “voluntarily” after “persuasion” by Chinese agents. The persuasion evidently takes the form of threats against relatives still in China. Time magazine earlier this year quoted a Shanghai police officer as saying to Xinmin Weekly, “My experience is that the effect of face-to-face persuasion and persuasion by telephone is totally different.”
That is undoubtedly true. A threatening phone call from someone a few thousand miles away may be easily ignored. But if someone is ringing the doorbell and issuing threats against your family members, that will most likely be taken much more seriously.
Chinese media has talked about teams of officials being dispatched to countries around the world.
Evidently, they simply travel on tourist or business visas and are not bothered by the fact that they are acting outside their jurisdiction, and doing so in contravention of laws and diplomatic usage. The Toronto Globe and Mail last week reported that Chinese citizens living in Canada have been threatened by agents from China acting covertly in the country.
This reflects a pattern of Chinese behavior in other countries as well.
Last year, a US State Department spokesman, without mentioning China by name, warned that it was a criminal offense for “an individual other than a diplomatic or consular officer or attaché to act in the United States as a law enforcement agent of a foreign power.”
China then complained that the US was going back on its word to cooperate in the repatriation of economic fugitives. These complaints ceased when Washington sent businessman Yang Jinjun, who was on China’s most wanted list, back in September 2015. Clearly, there was a message to China: US cooperation doesn’t mean American tolerance of Chinese unlawful behavior.
The Australian media reported last year that Chinese policemen were exercising powers outside their jurisdiction, seeking to persuade a wanted man to return to China. Australian officials summoned diplomats from the Chinese embassy to express their displeasure.
These incidents depict China as a country determined to get its way, regardless of international rules of behavior.
But if China wants other countries to be more accommodating to its requests for repatriation, it will have to develop a judicial system that can be taken seriously, one in which defendants are not forced to make confessions on television before there is a trial and lawyers are not arrested for representing certain defendants.