21 August 2019
Xi Jinping, who has already brought down former security tsar Zhou Yongkang in a withering campaign against corruption, will find a way to bring dozens of economic fugitives to justice. Photo: Bloomberg
Xi Jinping, who has already brought down former security tsar Zhou Yongkang in a withering campaign against corruption, will find a way to bring dozens of economic fugitives to justice. Photo: Bloomberg

Economic fugitives hiding in US not out of Xi Jinping reach

More than 150 economic fugitives, most of whom are corrupt officials or suspected of graft in China, are at large in the United States, Chinese state media said on Monday, citing a senior official from the Ministry of Public Security.

“The US has become the top destination for Chinese fugitives fleeing the law,” said Liao Jinrong, director general of the International Cooperation Bureau under the Ministry of Public Security, according to a story in China Daily.

How they arrived at 150 is anyone’s guess, but the implication is that Chinese authorities may know exactly where these fugitives live, where they shop, what they eat and who their friends are.

That doesn’t necessarily mean the Ministry of Public Security has agents on the ground in America — it is a domestic security agency after all. But it does imply that the Ministry of State Security (MSS), thought to be China’s overseas intelligence gathering arm, might be in play.

It is generally believed that the MSS operates differently from other espionage organizations by primarily using academics and students to do its dirty work, rather than spending years cultivating a few high-level sources or double agents.

So if these corrupt officials have ended up in New York, Los Angeles or San Francisco, there could be plenty of amateur sleuths to follow these guys around. These three metropolitan areas have the largest Chinese American populations, and are host to the majority of the 235,000 students from China enrolled in US colleges and universities nationwide.

(Note: I’m not saying the MSS employs Chinese Americans or students from China to track down and spy on corrupt officials living in the US. The MSS can just as easily recruit Swedish Americans or students from Istanbul.)

Alternatively, if what they say about the ministry’s cyber spying skills are true, they can monitor the movements of disgraced party members digitally, as they are said to do with dissident supporters of the Tibetan independence movement and Falun Gong.

Beijing has long grappled with the issue of so-called “naked officials”—government workers whose husbands, wives or children are all overseas—who use foreign family connections to illegally shift assets out of China or to avoid investigation, said Reuters. Some estimates put the number of Chinese officials and family members moving assets offshore at more than one million in the past five years.

But bringing these fugitives back to China isn’t easy, Reuters reports. There is no extradition treaty between China and the United States, and foreign governments have expressed reluctance to hand over Chinese suspects as they could face the death penalty in China.

“We face practical difficulties in getting fugitives who fled to the United States back to face trial due to the lack of an extradition treaty and the complex and lengthy procedures,” Liao told China Daily.

But that doesn’t mean Beijing has given up on bringing the fugitives home, said The Diplomat. China wants to set up an annual high-level meeting with US authorities, including the Department of Homeland Security, that will deal specifically with the problem of trans-border crime.

The meeting would focus on “intelligence case assistance, repatriation and the recovery of transferred assets,” an official from the International Cooperation Bureau told China Daily.

A report by the Ministry of Commerce cited in China Daily showed 4,000 corrupt officials had fled the country with at least US$50 billion between 1978 and 2003.

In China, the public security ministry has set up special action teams and assigned local public security bureaus to collect evidence, conduct case-by-case studies and draw up plans to arrest suspects, said Liu Jinguo, vice minister of the Ministry of Public Security.

Last month, Liu launched a campaign targeting economic criminals who flee overseas.

According to state media reports, 730 criminals have been repatriated to China from 54 countries through bilateral exchanges since 2008. Between 2000 and 2011, 18,487 government officials were arrested after fleeing the mainland. Xinhua said last month that authorities repatriated more than 300 fugitives in the first half of 2014.

Crazy, inflated numbers meant to scare corrupt officials living the good life in America? Probably. But they should be nervous nonetheless.

If Xi Jinping — who has said repeatedly that corruption will not be tolerated — can take down an “untouchable” like former Politburo Standing Committee Member Zhou Yongkang, he’ll find a way to nail small fry now living in Manhattan, San Marino or Palo Alto.

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A strategist and marketing consultant on China business

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