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The United States has accused China’s Fox Hunt repatriation squads of operating in America without coordinating with the US government. Photo: Reuters

China-US animosity frustrates Beijing’s ‘Fox Hunt’ for overseas fugitives

  • Beijing’s attempts to bring suspects and fugitives home is complicated by its relationships with other countries as well as claims of human rights abuses
  • 35 people remaining on the country’s most wanted list are thought to be in the US, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and Britain
China’s Operation Fox Hunt, a state-sanctioned chase around the world for fugitive suspects, relies as much on goodwill between international law enforcement agencies as legalities.
As there is currently little love between Beijing and Washington, China is now having a frustrating time trying to get its hands on citizens that fled the country, often under clouds of corruption charges.

China and the United States had a standing Agreement on Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters, said Professor Wang Jiangyu, director of the Centre for Chinese and Comparative Law at City University in Hong Kong. But it largely depended on good relations between both sides to work, he said.

“When the Sino-US relations were normal, such cooperation had been carried out quite effectively before 2018,” he said. “But now, there is no such goodwill to carry out such soft international obligations, given the unprecedented tension.”

Wang said both China and the US lost out as a result.

According to China, the US is the favoured destination of high-profile fugitives, along with other countries in the “Five Eyes” security alliance – Canada, New Zealand, Australia and Britain.

Many of those fleeing criminal charges in China chose those countries because they had better protection of human rights, said associate professor Alfred Wu from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore.

How the elite 'fox hunt' police task force scours the world for fugitives who have fled overseas

“Many trials in the Chinese courts still remain opaque and its human rights protection record also needs improvement,” Wu said. “That made extradition from these countries to China more difficult as many will claim that they will not receive a fair and transparent trial in China.”

An example is a Swedish court that last year refused China’s request to extradite former government official Qiao Jianjun on charges of embezzling US$11 million. The court ruled he could face persecution because of his political activities.

Qiao was then extradited to the US in June this year to face charges there of money laundering and visa fraud.

Qiao Jianjun was on China’s wanted list but was extradited from Sweden to the US. Photo: Handout

It has become evident that some fugitives discover a political conscience when they arrive in the West, suggesting criminal suspects are using the human rights card to try to avoid prosecution.

While China’s deteriorating ties with Five Eyes nations may undermine present and future law enforcement cooperation, overall, Operation Fox Hunt has already arrested thousands of fugitives.

The country reported the repatriation of 2,041 suspects last year and the recovery of 5.4 billion yuan (US$820 million), both an increase of more than 50 per cent from 2018.

Why is the Five Eyes intelligence alliance in China’s cross hairs?

Fox Hunt was set up in 2014 under the Chinese Ministry of Public Security to chase down officials who fled the country amid allegations of wrongdoing. The operations are part of President Xi Jinping’s crackdown on corruption among bureaucrats and Communist Party officials that has resulted in the arrest and imprisonment of hundreds of thousands of people.

Xi’s critics have said the anti-corruption campaign was also a means to remove any political rivals as he cemented control on power. The US Federal Bureau of Investigation has also weighed in, saying Fox Hunt is as much a means to silence dissidents overseas as it is to capture criminals.

Law enforcement relations got more frosty on October 29 after comments by John Demers, assistant attorney general for national security at the US Department of Justice.

He said Fox Hunt repatriation squads operated in the country “without coordination with the US government” and targeted critics of the Communist Party. Fox Hunt employed illegal, unauthorised and often covert techniques outside the bounds of the law, he said.

The US comments were “nothing but slander,” according to a response from the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), the party’s top anti-corruption watchdog, on November 18.

The CCDI raised the case of Xu Jin, the former director of the Wuhan Development and Reform Commission, to make its argument.

The statement said Xu fled to the US in 2011 with his wife Liu Fang and there was “sufficient evidence” to prove that between 2006 and 2009, they embezzled 198 million yuan through a state-owned land transfer and accepted bribes.

In 2012, Interpol issued a “red notice” against the couple, a worldwide alert to police agencies that an individual was a criminal suspect.

The attempted repatriation of China’s top 100 fugitives with such red notices appears to have slowed. In 2016, 19 of those on the list were extradited, followed by 13 the next year, and dropping to four in 2018 and six last year.

The last reported case was on September 11 last year – the extradition of Huang Ping, former general manager of state-owned Guanghong Huaqiao Aluminium Processing Co.

However, the decline in high-profile extraditions might also be a sign of the success of Operation Fox Hunt, or that China has repatriated most of the fugitives in countries it has better relations with, such as Asean nations. Now it must go after those in the West.

According to the CCDI, of the 40 people remaining on the 100 most wanted list drawn up in 2015, 35 are suspected to be living in Five Eyes countries.

The US has the most at 19. Canada and New Zealand both ranked second, each with six suspects. Australia has three and one is in Britain.

If China wants extradition cooperation from those countries, the overall diplomatic language has not helped.

The countries in the Five Eyes alliance recently protested against a Beijing decision to oust opposition lawmakers in Hong Kong. Such countries risk “having their eyes poked out” was the response from Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian on November 19.

Meantime, Wang at City University in Hong Kong said identifying genuine dissidents and corruption suspects could be difficult and unscrupulous lawyers added to the problem through “asylum mills”.

US federal immigration officials have investigated immigration lawyers on charges of helping mostly Chinese immigrants to fraudulently obtain asylum, with one probe in 2012 called “Operation Fiction Writer” resulting in the arrest and conviction of lawyers.

Thirty-somethings leading China’s fox hunt fugitive chase

A New York lawyer who said he had helped prominent Chinese dissidents to obtain asylum in the US agreed this was a problem.

“There are so many people from China applying for asylum and many made negative comments about the Chinese Communist Party only after they came to the US,” said the lawyer, who declined to be named, citing the need to protect his clients.

“Although most of the dissidents I handled still managed to get asylum, I am still worried that the fake ones will crowd out the genuine ones.

“The people in the FBI will have to answer many questions from the Department of Justice in every extradition case, making sure the extradited will face a fair trial is always a top concern.”