Beijing says 600-odd suspects are on the run from the law overseas. Its chances of getting many of them back to face justice depend a lot on what happens to the one it most wanted, and fought hardest and longest to bring home. Lai Changxing has finally been deported by Canada to answer charges arising from an alleged US$6.4 billion smuggling operation in Xiamen during the 1990s that corrupted hundreds of officials. Lai had avoided deportation for more than a decade on the grounds that if he was returned to China he faced execution, despite assurances from Beijing to the contrary. It is understandable that there was reticence about deporting him after he escaped imminent arrest and sought political asylum in Canada in 1999. The mainland still executes more people than anywhere else and its judicial processes leave a lot to be desired. But Lai faces serious charges. It is reasonable to expect that he should have to answer them and there is no reason to believe that Beijing will go back on its word.
That said, the circumstances of his extradition are politically and legally noteworthy. Amid efforts to improve relations with China, Canada's foreign minister said on a recent visit that both the Canadian and Chinese people had little time for white-collar fraudsters. In extraditing Lai, a Canadian judge said China had given extraordinary assurances that he would not be tortured or executed that created a contractual obligation. He added: 'The life of [Lai] is in the hands of the Chinese government. The outcome remains to be seen.'
That does not convey a lot of conviction. It is not surprising that Lai's lawyers and human-rights activists still have concerns. One of his lawyers has pointed out that Canadian officials will not be allowed to attend closed hearings in the Lai case. New York-based Human Rights Watch says the acceptance of assurances on face value suggests a wilful ignorance of recent deterioration in China's human-rights record.
The real question, according to Jerome Cohen, an expert on Chinese law at New York University and a South China Morning Post columnist, is what detailed provisions Beijing has promised to make in order to assure Canada that there will be little risk of torture not only before Lai is convicted, but also during a long prison sentence.
China used the swoop on Lai's network of criminals and crooked officials as propaganda against corruption, identified by top leaders as a threat to the Communist Party's political legitimacy. State media quoted the premier at the time, Zhu Rongji , as saying that Lai 'should die three times, and even so that would not be enough'.
Hopefully China will put these questions and doubts to rest by seizing an opportunity to show the world it can give Lai a fair trial that meets international standards. Bringing other fugitives to justice may indeed depend on perceptions of the way he is treated.