Onus on Beijing to convince West that anti-graft fight is legitimate

China cannot simply demand repatriation of fugitives; it needs to present its cases properly with due regard for other countries’ processes

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 11 May, 2016, 10:27pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 11 May, 2016, 10:27pm

China’s anti-corruption fight has become an issue with the West. At stake is the moral high ground. China claims to have occupied it by virtue of an anti-graft campaign that has taken down senior government and military officials among thousands of others and improved its reputation on the world stage. But it has largely failed to win cooperation from the United States and other Western nations in hunting down graft suspects on the run who have found havens from justice abroad. Other nations have been reluctant to become involved in giving them up because of perceived abuse of suspects’ rights by the mainland authorities and the lack of an independent judiciary.

Now, President Xi Jinping (習近平) has unveiled a strategy for China to step up pressure for support from “the international high moral ground”. This is shaping up as a major agenda for China at the upcoming Group of 20 summit of major economies. In unusually blunt remarks to the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection that have only just been reported, Xi said China would exert pressure on the US and other Western nations to back the anti-corruption fight. “In the past [they] have used the issue to attack us . . . at the United Nations, the G20 and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum.” He is saying that the West has used fugitives from Chinese justice as a card against China that needs to be turned into a liability, since the US talks about justice while it remains the most popular destination for corrupt officials.

However, Beijing needs to realise that while the campaign enjoys a lot of public support, it needs to tread carefully in trying to repatriate suspects, given reports about anti-graft agents going overseas to question and pressure them to return home. Such reports risk damaging China’s case. If Beijing wants the cooperation of other countries, it needs to operate within the international legal framework.

That said, there is some substance in China’s claim to occupy the high moral ground on this issue. Corruption and money-laundering have wreaked economic and political damage, but the fugitive suspects are not to be compared with political refugees. If other countries really want to see social, economic and legal reforms in China, there is an argument for cooperation in hunting down fugitives because everyone has an interest in curbing corruption. But China needs to present its cases properly and patiently with due regard for other countries’ processes. Legal and human-rights issues will not be resolved overnight, but there is a need to start debate on addressing them.