Beijing's 'fox hunt' operation hits a snag

Beijing's 'fox hunt' operation hits a snag
Li Huabo was sentenced on 2 April 2013 to 15 months in jail for receiving $182,723 that was said to have been stolen from the Chinese government. He is wanted in China for allegedly siphoning off government funds totalling 94 million yuan over a period of five years, when he was a finance bureau officer in Poyang county in Jiangxi province.

China's law enforcement authorities have never looked so glamorous. From a skyscraper on Beijing's glitzy Financial Street, an elite crime-fighting unit has been hunting Chinese economic fugitives hiding around the world.

Termed "foxes", these fugitives are mostly corrupt government officials who fled abroad with ill-gotten gains amounting to an estimated US$1 trillion (S$1.3 trillion) in the last decade.

"The economic fugitives seem like the crafty foxes who have fled overseas to avoid punishment, but we - the wise hunters - will nail them," deputy director Liu Dong said in an interview with China Daily earlier this year.

Operating under the remit of the Public Security Bureau, the hunters are young - their average age is 30 - and highly educated, with many holding doctorates, state media reported.

Since July, they have fanned out to over 40 countries and brought back 428 foxes hiding in places such as Cambodia and Colombia, Xinhua reported earlier this month.

Of this number, 231 turned themselves in after they were promised a lenient sentence.

These successes had been glowingly detailed in media reports complete with TV clips of fugitives expressing their remorse.

But for all their verve and vigour, the hunters are now finding themselves up against an insurmountable roadblock: geopolitics.

While Beijing has not said how many in total are on its Operation Fox Hunt list, many top targets are hiding in countries that have no extradition treaty with China, but are averse to repatriating criminal suspects back to a country that applies a mandatory death penalty for economic crimes.

Analysts note that suspicions also remain among policymakers in developed Western countries that China's anti-graft campaign is partially politically motivated.

Hesitation on the part of countries such as the United States and Canada to open their borders to fox hunters or to assist in the operation has meant that top fugitives like former head of the state-owned Huachen automotive group Yang Rong, who reportedly pocketed some US$1 billion, remain out of reach.

"These countries have become safe havens for corrupt officials," said Beijing Normal University's College for Criminal Law Science expert Huang Feng. "Even if they are apprehended, they will appeal against repatriation with the 'persecution' or 'torture' trump card."

A US official told the Associated Press earlier this month that China has given the US authorities over 100 names of fugitives as part of Operation Fox Hunt, but little information about their identities or whereabouts in the US.

Last month, director-general of the Foreign Ministry's Department of Treaty and Law Xu Hong complained that countries should "discard their prejudices" and assist China.

Beijing has tried to persuade the US to sign an extradition treaty but Washington said it was "not ready", Mr Xu said.

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