One defense strategy adopted by some of the Chinese officials accused of corruption is to leave the country. More than 800 have bolted, according to the government, and around 300 have returned. Journalists say the number of international fugitives is a lot higher—at least 1,000 and probably more.
Why run? Simple. China imposes the death penalty in big corruption cases, so going just about anywhere else makes sense. And because of its wide use of capital punishment, few countries have extradition treaties with China, including the U.S. That means accused officials who make it out usually face little chance of being sent home.
The Chinese government seems unsure how to react to the phenomenon of its fleeing crooks. Earlier this month, two former managers of the Bank of China and their wives were sentenced by a federal jury in Las Vegas on charges of racketeering, money laundering, international transportation of stolen property and passport fraud. The DOJ’s release is here. After the sentencing, China’s government sounded pleased that the culprits were caught and punished, and relieved that the U.S. had handled everything.
“The corrupt officials must face the full force of law wherever they flee,” said Tong Jianming, spokesman for the Supreme People’s Procuratorate in a government release. He said Chinese authorities helped the Justice Department collect evidence in China. “The unprecedented case will serve as a great deterrent to corrupt officials,” he said. “It has sent a clear signal that the U.S. is no longer a safe haven for them.”
One of the officials in the Las Vegas case, Xu Chaofan aka Hui Yat Fai, was sentenced to 25 years in prison. The other, Xu Guojun aka Hui Kit Shun, received 22 years prison. Their wives were sentenced to 8 years in jail. All four were ordered to pay $482 million in restitution. And the U.S. government started denaturalization proceedings against the wives.
Newsweek reported last year that decisions by Chinese officials to run away aren’t always spontaneous. “In particular,” it said, “Chinese Netizens are buzzing about ‘naked officials’: apparatchiks who connive to earn permanent resident status overseas by gradually stashing relatives and assets abroad. Once the noose begins to tighten back home, the unencumbered (or ‘naked’) bureaucrats flee the country.”
One notorious “naked official,” Newseek said, is Yang Xianghong, a mid-level cadre from Zhejiang province who left for a 12-day European trip on September 19, 2008 and never returned. “Citing a bad back, Yang told colleagues he needed surgery in France — where his daughter lives — and refused to meet with party watchdogs who flew to see him. Yang was booted from the party on November 14 and charged by provincial authorities with ‘seriously damag[ing] the party’s image and the country’s reputation.'”
Last August, Canada repatriated to China Deng Xinzhi, suspected in a $2.94 million swindle back home. China says the U.S. has also sent back “a few corrupt officials.” Most of the “naked officials” are alleged to be in Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco.
The Singapore Straits Times reported last week that China is adopting a new “soft approach” to convince fugitives to return home. Prosecutors, it said, have been promising a lighter sentence instead of the death penalty. The Supreme People’s Procuratorate, according to the paper, said this “coaxing” method is working, with a dozen officials lured back for justice in the last three years.
The example cited was that of a former Yunnan provincial official, Hu Xing. He ran to Singapore in 2007 after accepting bribes worth about $5.86 million. But according to the Straits Times, he was “cajoled to return to China and received a life sentence instead of possible execution through lethal injection.”