Corrupt former Chinese officials hiding out in Western countries

Beijing (dpa) – A former vice minister tasked with steering China’s economy was reportedly holding a fake Australian passport, an airline ticket to Sydney and about 2 million dollars in cash when he was arrested last year.

Prosecutors have accused Liu Tienan of accepting 35.6 million yuan (5.8 million dollars) in bribes and kickbacks from numerous Chinese companies, and are seeking life imprisonment for Liu.

The Australian government has yet to disclose results from its investigation into whether Liu had a false passport, as reported by Chinese media.

The case highlights how Chinese officials often regard Western countries such as Australia as havens to retire with their ill-gotten loot.

China’s ongoing campaign to reduce corruption is now focusing on the thousands of officials who have fled overseas during the past two decades.

The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences estimates that 16,000 to 18,000 former officials have fled with 800 billion yuan (140 billion dollars) from the mid-1990s to 2008.

The Fox Hunt 2014 operation, launched in July, focuses specifically on suspects abroad and attempts to “block the last route of retreat for corrupt officials,” the official Xinhua news agency said.

But these efforts are hampered by the lack of extradition agreements between China and many Western countries.

The Foreign Ministry said last week that Western countries should discard their “prejudice” against China’s legal system.

Some governments are reluctant to sign extradition treaties due to a lack of understanding of China’s laws and judicial practice, said Xu Hong, director of the ministry’s department of treaties and law.

The most popular destinations for Chinese officials accused of absconding with dirty money – the US, Canada and Australia – have no extradition treaties in force with Beijing.

Observers say the Foreign Ministry is correct to attribute Western countries’ reluctance to sign extradition treaties to concerns about China’s legal system.

“China wants to strengthen judicial independence … but I don’t see how the courts in China could be allowed to be above the system,” said Kimmo Nuotio, dean of the Faculty of Law at Helsinki University.

The lack of rule of law has led foreign governments to question whether there are any political motivations behind China’s anti-corruption efforts, experts say.

“The last thing a government wants is to be dragged into a concerted attack on a Chinese official when it’s part of a political rivalry,” said Kerry Brown, professor of Chinese politics at the University of Sydney.

“They wonder why some people are being targeted by the Chinese government for corruption and some aren’t. Why did Zhou Yongkang and Bo Xilai fall but not other people?” Brown said.

China’s clampdown on corruption and proposals for legal reform are part of efforts to improve the Communist Party’s legitimacy among citizens and enhance its status abroad, observers say.

President Xi Jinping, who has led the anti-corruption drive since he became party leader in November 2012, vowed last month to expand the “socialist rule of law” and improve judicial independence.

Yao Zengke, vice-chief of China’s central commission for discipline inspection, said development of rule of law is “lagging behind” the establishment of a market economy.

“We need hard actions and an iron fist. If we allow further corruption, the people will rebel and topple the government,” Yao told dpa.

But China’s understanding of “rule of law,” where there are limits, is not the same as the international standard, according to Nuotio.

“The difficult part is how much of a compromise will China make? It is a gradual process to reform a political system,” said Liu Youfa, vice president at China Institute of International Studies.

“Extradition treaties haven’t been signed because the requirements from the Western countries exceed the level of change that China could allow,” Liu said.

China has so far signed 39 extradition treaties with various nations, with 29 in force. These include some Western countries such as France, Spain, Australia, Italy and Portugal.

But the Australian parliament has yet to ratify the treaty over legal concerns, the Xinhua news agency reported.

Image credit: EPA

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