“THE mountains are high; the emperor is far away,” goes a Chinese saying that has always given comfort to bureaucrats who play fast and loose with the law in remote parts of the country. But often, these days, distance is not enough. Those who hanker after the added protection of a foreign jurisdiction are often called “naked officials”. The term describes people who have moved families and assets abroad in readiness for escape themselves. Now, however, anti-graft officers are trying to extend their reach beyond China’s borders.
Since late last year, as part of the most intense and sustained anti-corruption drive in the history of Communist-ruled China, officials have been stepping up efforts to persuade foreign countries to send back those who have fled with their ill-gotten gains. On April 22nd they released a wanted list, together with mugshots, of 100 such people, as part of a new operation called Sky Net. The list was compiled by a Communist Party body, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), whose agents often hold suspects in secret detention and torture them. “We will apprehend them no matter where they flee to,” Fu Kui, a member of the CCDI, told state media. The operation involves other agencies such as the police, the central bank and the foreign ministry.
Among the wanted fugitives, for whom Interpol has issued arrest warrants, 48 were the most senior officials in their workplaces. One was the deputy head of a provincial construction bureau accused of fleeing to America with 250m yuan ($40m) in embezzled funds. Another was a county-level finance official who allegedly took 94m yuan to Singapore.
Officials say that Sky Net is a new phase of Operation Fox Hunt, a campaign launched by the police last year to secure the repatriation of criminals (not just the corrupt). Officials say the exercise has been a success, having secured the repatriation of 680 fugitives from 69 countries. On April 27th the state prosecutor’s office said a further 61 people suspected of “dereliction of duty” had been arrested after spending time on the run abroad. Many had turned themselves in.
But anti-corruption officials have a big problem: the 39 countries with which China has extradition treaties do not include America, Australia or Canada, which are among the favoured destinations of corrupt fugitives. China has been pressing these countries for more co-operation. After a visit to Beijing in April by Jeh Johnson, America’s secretary for homeland security, state media said America “actively” supported China’s efforts. The Americans say they have agreed to a more “streamlined” procedure for handing back Chinese nationals whom they decide to repatriate. But they insist that such cases be handled according to American law and “values”.
China says it has sent 61 agents abroad (it has not said where) to “persuade” accused fugitives to return and face justice. It has also been trying a new tactic: scaring them with horror stories. State media last month reported one fugitive in America who dared not even see a doctor, so worried was he that his identity might become known. He returned home of his own will, a broken man.