Secretive Chinese agency hunts suspects overseas

Former Chinese grain official Qiao Jianjun. AFP PHOTO

Former Chinese grain official Qiao Jianjun. AFP PHOTO

WASHINGTON, D.C.: Qiao Jianjun seemed a model bureaucrat: strict on expense accounts, a stickler for rules. But the director of a sprawling state enterprise that controlled grain stockpiles for a chunk of Henan province had a secret, Chinese officials say: He was embezzling millions.

In October 2011, he abandoned his government-issue black sedan at a local airport and disappeared — apparently headed for a favorite destination among China’s wayward party members: the U.S. As President Xi Jinping’s nationwide corruption hunt has punished more than 100,000 officials over three years, many of those who’ve found boltholes abroad have remained frustratingly out of reach.

Rounding them up, in an operation called “Sky Net,” falls to China’s much feared Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI). Despite a recent success — a U.S. indictment against Qiao, the grain official — such collaborations remain fraught with sensitivities, adding to tensions ahead of Xi’s U.S. trip this month.

Higher profile under Xi
CCDI traces its origins to 1927, when the young Chinese Communist Party established a commission to monitor its members’ behavior. The traditionally secretive Party disciplinary arm has embraced a more public profile under Xi. Its website debuted in 2013; this year, it released an app that makes it a cinch to snitch using a mobile phone.

The Xi-era drive to crack down on corruption has meant more work and growth for CCDI, including the expansion of its inspection offices to 12 from eight. The agency doesn’t publish staff numbers, but Chinese media reports estimate its size at up to 1,000. Job postings advertise for candidates with good computer skills, preferably with a degree from a top university. Party membership is mandatory.

US a favorite destination
China and the U.S. have no extradition treaty. Instead, China generally must demonstrate to the U.S. that fugitives have broken the law. The two sides communicate on such matters through a body called the Joint Liaison Group on Law Enforcement Cooperation. U.S. officials have been more helpful on fugitives in the last two years, Fu says, but it’s clear the U.S. — with its processes for protecting the rights of the accused — remains a headache.

“The United States is not a safe haven for fugitives from any country, and we reject any insinuation that we are hindering any other nation’s campaign against corruption,” the U.S. State Department said in an e-mailed comment. The Justice Department largely echoed those remarks.

Hunting Qiao
The case of Qiao, the grain official, is different; it’s one of two over the past decade in which the U.S. and China have acknowledged cooperating.

Qiao, 52, ran the Zhoukou city branch of Sinograin, a state-owned company that manages stockpiles of wheat, corn and rice.

Though divorced, he and his ex-wife, Zhao Shilan, applied to immigrate to the U.S. in 2008, falsely claiming they were still married, according to a U.S. indictment that was unsealed in March. Qiao remained director of Sinograin in Zhoukou. In January 2010, he told a Sinograin contractor he needed money, according to court documents. The contractor, Wang Bingshen, told authorities he responded by meeting with Qiao 44 times over the next several months, and handing over almost $10 million. Qiao also diverted payments for grain sales, Chinese officials say. Investigators tracked $4.9 million to accounts Qiao controlled in the U.S. and Canada, according to records of the Chinese probe.

After Qiao fled China in 2011, Chinese authorities arrested more than 100 people in Henan. When they realized Qiao might be in the U.S., Chinese officials sought help via the joint working group, offering evidence that Qiao and Zhao violated U.S. immigration law: their falsified marriage document, according to CCDI.

The U.S. indicted Qiao and Zhao on immigration-fraud and money-laundering charges in July 2014, but kept the indictment sealed until March, when they arrested Zhao. Free on bail, she has pleaded not guilty. Her lawyer, Kirk Davis, declined to comment.

Qiao hasn’t been arrested yet. A trail of clues about him ends in Europe, where a Li Feng (one of Qiao’s known aliases) with a Saint Kitts passport and a birthdate that matches CCDI’s records was listed in 2013 as vice president of the board of a Swiss hotel company. It’s not clear whether the U.S. or China has followed that trail. Regardless, CCDI’s Fu chalks up the Qiao case as a success.

“The reason the U.S. was able to indict him is because China provided information and evidence,” he says. “The indictment in itself is a support to China’s effort to hunt down fugitives overseas.”



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