Beijing credibility hinges on fair trial for fugitive
Across the mainland, the excitement was palpable for much of yesterday as chattering over telephones, internet chat rooms and dinner tables invariably focused on one person - Lai Changxing. The China Central Television footage on Saturday evening showing the diminutive 53-year-old former farmer, China's most wanted fugitive, handcuffed and with a burly Chinese policeman on either side of him, was a sight mainlanders have been awaiting for 12 long years. It brought closure to the biggest and most sensational smuggling and corruption case in the mainland's modern history.
And the excitement is set to intensify in the coming days and months leading to Lai's trial. What is going to happen to him? Is he going to get a fair trial? Will his arrest serve to quicken the repatriation of more corrupt mainland officials currently on the run in the West, and, more intriguingly, will his trial implicate more senior officials and complicate the mainland's already complex politics in the run-up to the leadership reshuffles scheduled next year?
Indeed Lai's repatriation is significant in many ways. In 1999, Lai and his family fled to Canada and claimed refugee status after the central government launched an unprecedented investigation into his sprawling business empire, accusing him of running smuggling operations valued at US$10 billion in Xiamen, Fujian, in the 1990s. The scale of his operations, which ran contraband ranging from cigarettes to crude oil into China, and his widespread government and military protection bought with money and women, shocked the nation when the details were made public.
Hundreds of officials were implicated and were put on trial with a number of senior provincial and law enforcement officials sentenced to death. Those include Li Jizhou, a former deputy minister of public security and top customs officials in Xiamen.
The mainland authorities welcomed Lai's repatriation, hailing it as a significant move for the promotion of Sino-Canadian law enforcement co-operation.
But it was not easy to get him back. The Chinese government has gone to extraordinary lengths, including a personal assurance reportedly from the then premier Zhu Rongji as early as 2006 that Lai would not be executed as well as formal diplomatic notes giving assurances that he would not be executed or tortured and that his trial would be public and access would be given to Canadian officials.
Despite those assurances, the fact Lai could still manage to hole up in Canada has deeply and acutely reflected how the credibility of China's judicial system was viewed in Canada and the rest of the West, by and large.
As a result, Chinese authorities must conduct a fair and public trial of Lai for the sake of the country's credibility and that of its justice system. Foreign governments and human rights groups will watch these events closely as they view it as a benchmark case.
There are estimates that from 4,000 to more than 10,000 corrupt officials are on the run, taking with them hundreds of billions of yuan of taxpayers' money. Most of them are believed to be in Western countries.
Some state media have already begun to speculate that Lai could face life imprisonment.
For those people interested in mainland politics, Lai's return served up more speculation over its impact on the already intense political manoeuvring going on. Indeed, while in Canada, Lai gave numerous interviews hinting that if he was returned to the mainland, many more officials would be in trouble as he still had evidence against them.
This is unlikely, as his political value has been diminished by the passage of time. Today's political situation is vastly differently from that of 12 years ago. For instance, back in the 1990s when Lai ran his massive smuggling operations, Jia Qinglin, now the chairman of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, was Fujian's party secretary.
Back then, there was speculation linking Jia's family and his aides to Lai, who made no secret to reporters that he knew Jia's aides very well. But Jia, ranked as the mainland's fourth most senior leader, is scheduled to retire next year.