Even in these times of epic uncertainty, you can bet your bottom dollar that the month we are now in will be remembered, above all else, as the month Donald John Trump – to paraphrase the late and great pugilist, Muhammad Ali – “shook up the world” by becoming president-elect of the United States. Even Trump, whose reputation for playing fast and loose with the facts precedes him, would have trouble altering that one.
But as the world ponders what a Trump presidency means for the future of the species, it is worth noting there wasn’t just one presidential election in November 2016. And that the other election could have a significant bearing on the ultimate success or failure of the centrepiece of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s ( 習近平 ) leadership – his protracted war against corruption and, in particular, Beijing’s octopus-like pursuit of fugitives from justice hiding out in foreign countries.
On November 10, at Interpol’s annual congress in Bali, Indonesia, the 190 member states of the international police organisation elected China’s vice-minister of public security, Meng Hongwei ( 孟宏偉 ), as their president. Meng is the first Chinese to hold the position and will next year welcome delegates from around the world to the first ever Interpol congress in Beijing. In his inaugural speech, Meng told delegates: “We currently face some of the most serious global public security challenges since world war two.”
No doubt his message referred to the very real cross-jurisdictional problems of terrorism, people-smuggling and drugs facing every nation, but his election as president of an international body of the standing and scope of Interpol is a key moment as China, bit by bit, manoeuvres itself on the complicated chessboard of international relations.
High on Beijing’s list of priorities is securing the return of its 100 most-wanted corruption suspects hiding out in foreign countries. That drive is called Operation Skynet and is the companion of Xi's internal anti-graft campaign, Operation Foxhunt, which according to some estimates has snared more than one million corrupt cadres – from the most lowly to the very top – since it was launched in 2013.
As if to buttress Meng's election – although it should be pointed out that under the organisation’s rules, Interpol refuses to make public which countries voted for who or even the percentage of the vote a successful presidential candidate received – six days later on November 16, in a success for Skynet, China’s most-wanted corruption suspect was repatriated from the US.
After 13 years on the run, 70-year-old Yang Xiuzhu made a dramatic televised surrender.
She is accused of siphoning off vast riches from China’s massive building boom, stealing US$39 million while working as deputy director of the construction bureau in the eastern city of Wenzhou( 温州 ) before becoming the city’s vice-mayor. “We are all Chinese. Our home is China,” she said, urging other corruption suspects to give themselves up.
Yang ranked at the top of a list of the 100 most-wanted corruption suspects China seeks to apprehend with Interpol’s help. The Communist Party’s anti-corruption wing, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, said Yang had surrendered to authorities, abandoning her “resistance” after she was promised “lenient treatment in accordance with the law”.
Yang is the 37th fugitive to return so far and while her capture and Meng’s Interpol position are undoubted successes, significant roadblocks remain in cementing China’s place in a global law enforcement community heavily influenced by Western ideas of criminal justice and suspicion of Beijing’s motives in its sweeping campaign against graft.
Professor Fu Hualing, associate professor and director of the Centre for Comparative and Public Law, at the University of Hong Kong, characterised the position of China and the countries wanting to deal with it as one of “mutual discomfort”.
“They want to work with China on the return of fugitives because they don’t want to be branded as havens for those on the run from justice, but their distrust and need of assurances over human rights makes it difficult,” he said.
“On the other hand, China understands that however much it feels it is within its rights to pursue and have returned those it considers criminals, as a nation it is going to have to work within the existing structures and bit-by-bit make the changes it thinks are correct from the inside,” said Fu, who specialises in criminal justice studies, human rights and constitutional law in China.
“China is now powerful enough on the world stage to exert considerable influence inside international bodies and organisations traditionally run by the West. I think the appointment of Meng as president of Interpol can be seen as a step along that road,” he added.
While the Lyon-based international police organisation’s charter officially bars it from undertaking “any intervention or activities of a political, military, religious or racial character”, critics say some governments, primarily Russia and Iran, have abused the system to harass and detain opponents of their regimes. Interpol says it has a special vetting process to prevent that from happening.
The post of Interpol president is largely symbolic but still influential and could give new momentum to Xi’s four-year-old campaign against corruption.
However, because that campaign is led by an internal Communist Party body, rather than the police, questions have lingered over its transparency and fairness. While authorities deny their targets are selected for political purposes, several of the highest-profile suspects have been associated with Xi’s predecessor Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) and other rivals.
The mainland’s police and judicial systems have been routinely criticised for abuses, including confessions under torture, arbitrary travel bans and the disappearance and detention without charges of political dissidents and their family members. That has prompted reluctance among many Western nations to sign extradition treaties with China or return suspects wanted for non-violent crimes.
Beijing also stands accused of abducting independent book sellers from Hong Kong and Thailand who published works on salacious and sensitive political topics. Meanwhile, US officials have complained that China has asked for the return of corruption suspects while providing little or no information about the allegations against them.
As Panama Papers scandal deepens, China targets offshore accounts in renewed Skynet crackdown on fugitive corrupt officials
Given those circumstances, Meng’s election was “alarming”, according to Maya Wang, a Hong Kong-based researcher with Human Rights Watch.
“While we think it’s important to fight corruption, the campaign has been politicised and undermines judicial independence,” Ms Wang said.
Those supportive of the crackdown insist that the regime is being maligned unfairly given its efforts to set the system right by going after crooks and making an example of them so others will be deterred.
Canada has been identified as a major sanctuary for the top Skynet 100 economic fugitives. According to a report last year in the International Business Times, Canada has 26, second only to the US, which has 40.
New Zealand, which is third with 11, is looking at signing up to an extradition agreement.
Last year, it agreed to extradite South Korean-born resident, Kyung Yup Kim, to China on murder charges. In July, however, its High Court ruled that Beijing’s assurances of fair treatment for the suspect were inadequate, a potential sign that Chinese rule of law may not meet its legal standards.
New Zealand’s Prime Minister John Key has signalled willingness to sign the treaty on the conditions it would only be used for serious cases and that those accused would not face torture or the death penalty.
France, which signed an extradition treaty last year, repatriated a corruption suspect last week, following in the footsteps of Italy and Spain.
Whether through fashioning new treaties or relying on old-fashioned guile, China has had notable success thus far in its repatriation efforts.
In the first half of 2016, China brought back more than 381 fugitives, recovering illicit money worth more than 1.24 billion yuan (HK$1.4 billion), according to mainland media. According to the periodical Caixin, more than 40 per cent of the 738 fugitives who returned to China in 2015 were “persuaded” to come back rather than forcibly repatriated.
“Family members sometimes played a role in these persuasion efforts,” a Shanghai police officer was quoted as saying.
“It’s very effective. A suspect is like a kite: Although he is in a foreign country, his line is in China and we can find him through his relatives.”
Even though the US expelled another of the top 100 suspects in 2015, it has shown resistance to the idea of a formal pact, citing the unreliability of China’s judicial system and mistreatment of prisoners. In the same year, the Obama administration accused the Chinese government of using agents to pressure expatriates wanted on charges of corruption to return home immediately.
However, Professor Fu of the University of Hong Kong believes this might change under President Trump: “Perhaps, just perhaps, deeper cooperation on the law enforcement and fugitive return side might ... help ease Trump’s worries over unfair trade.
“But the bottom line is: China knows the world is watching and if a suspect is sent back under an international treaty and is treated badly enough for it to become an issue, it’s game over,” he said. ■ Additional reporting by AP