In 2008, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences estimated that up to 18,000 Communist Party cadres suspected of corruption had fled China since 1990. The US-based Global Financial Integrity group calculated in 2013 that US$1.08 trillion was illegally transferred out of China in the years 2002–11.
Since coming to power in November 2012, General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party Xi Jinping has instigated one of the most extensive anti-corruption campaigns in the Party’s history. A high-profile aspect of Xi’s corruption crackdown is the unprecedented extent to which China is trying to repatriate and prosecute corrupt officials who have left the country.
The Chinese state media describe Australia as a ‘haven for escaping sin’. Along with the US and Canada, Australia is one of the top three destinations for Chinese bureaucrats escaping abroad. Even ‘China’s biggest fugitive’ — former power grid boss Gao Yan, charged with awarding government contracts worth hundreds of millions of renminbi to family and friends — still calls Australia home, probably because of its high quality-of-life, robust economy and lack of an extradition treaty with China.
China is now pressuring Australia to repatriate ex-officials that it accuses of corruption. In July 2014, the Party launched Operation Fox Hunt to ‘pursue fugitives and pursue stolen money’ abroad. By the end of 2014, Operation Fox Hunt had led to the arrest of 680 cadres hiding in 69 countries and had recovered over 3 billion renminbi (US$480 million).
In October 2014, the Australian Federal Police confirmed that they were participating in Operation Fox Hunt by helping China freeze and seize the assets of corruption suspects on a jointly-agreed ‘priority list’. But the operation has yet to see a single person repatriated from Australia.
China is pressuring Australia to revive a bilateral extradition treaty that was signed by the Howard government in 2007 but never ratified by the Australian parliament. During Xi Jinping’s state visit in November 2014, a Chinese diplomat said that the Abbott government had promised to ‘speed up the ratification process’. In April 2015, China increased the pressure on Australia and other countries to extradite corruption suspects by publishing the details of 100 bureaucrats for whom China has issued Interpol arrest warrants. It claims that ten of them reside in Australia.
Both Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and the Attorney-General’s Department have confirmed that they are considering a bilateral extradition treaty that dovetails with Operation Fox Hunt. Yet the Australian authorities have made no comment on whether China has already made extradition requests under co-signed United Nations anti-corruption treaties.
Perhaps Australian officials are reticent because extraditions to China could be politically sensitive. Australia cannot guarantee that returnees will enjoy due legal process or have their rights respected. In China, corruption can be punished by death, confessions are often extracted under duress, judges are party functionaries and the conviction rate is an impressive 99 per cent. Moreover, Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption purge is overseen by the Central Committee for Discipline Inspection, itself an unaccountable party organ.
The extradition of corrupt cadres to China therefore contradicts Australia’s commitment to upholding human rights and the rule of law, both of which are ‘underlying principle[s] of Australia’s engagement with the international community’. Such extraditions would represent an Australian government endorsement of a Chinese justice system that has routinely denied basic legal protections to such Australian defendants as Stern Hu, Charlotte Chou and Matthew Ng.
This does not mean that Australia must remain a haven for corrupt communist cadres. The prosecution of Kai Cheung Li is a case in point.
As a state-employed property developer in Guangdong province, Li redirected AU$2.8 million (US$2.14 million) of public funds allocated for low-income housing to his wife in Brisbane. He was put under investigation in September 2003, and absconded to Australia shortly thereafter. In October 2005, China’s Supreme People’s Procuratorate authorised the Guangdong authorities to request that the Australian police scrutinise Li’s assets.
The Guangdong authorities supplied the Australians with voluminous evidence of Li’s malfeasance. The Australian and the Chinese authorities agreed to indict Li for money laundering and dealing in the proceeds of crime. In 2007, the Australian police seized the Li family’s assets and the Brisbane Supreme Court sentenced Li to 14 years’ jail in 2011.
While Australia should by all means cooperate with China to investigate corrupt Chinese officials, it must insist that they are prosecuted on Australian soil. This will guarantee the legal rights of defendants and ensure that the evidence collected by the Chinese authorities is evaluated by an independent judicial system.
The Communist Party’s Central Committee for Discipline Inspection has recently declared that ‘prosecution abroad’ is a legitimate way to pursue its aims. This is part of an expanded anti-corruption campaign called Operation Sky Net that was launched in March 2015. China is now willing to ‘provide evidential material’ so that charges can be laid ‘according to the laws of [another] country’.
China’s wily ‘foxes’ might be fair game, but — like the crooked Kai Cheung Li — they also deserve a fair go in court. Prosecuting corrupt Chinese cadres in Australia is how the Australian government can support China’s anti-corruption campaign without compromising its fundamental values.
Neil Thomas is a Morrison Scholar at the Australian Centre on China in the World (CIW), ANU. This article is based on his research for The Australia–China Story Archive, a CIW project on bilateral relations.