China and the US clash over tracking down corrupt Chinese officials

Not seeing eye to eye.
Not seeing eye to eye.
Image: Reuters/pool
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Chinese agents operating covertly in the US need to go home, American officials recently told Beijing, according to reports in The New York Times and Xinhua, China’s state-run news wire.

The US officials weren’t referring to the hackers who reportedly stole the personal data of millions of American military and intelligence officials. They were talking about another shadowy group—the agents tasked with tracking down hundreds of Chinese citizens who have left their home country in recent years, often fleeing accusations of fraud or corruption.

Two men, likely two such agents, approached a math tutor in Texas this June, looking for the brother of a former Chinese official charged with corruption: “The older man was plump and wore his hair in a comb-over. The younger one was stocky, had close-cropped hair and looked like he ‘knew how to fight,’ ” the math tutor, Tommy Yuan, told the Wall Street Journal. They told him that cooperation would “protect” his ex-wife, he told the Journal.

Chinese agents have crossed the globe to track down economic fugitives and corrupt officials—as well as their overseas assets—through official and unofficial channels, often buoyed by promises of help from foreign governments. In February, Italy became the first European country to extradite an economic fugitive back to China as part of what’s known as “Operation Fox Hunt.” Police in Bologna, Italy, worked closely with their Chinese counterparts to arrest the fugitive, Chinese media reported. Chinese officials hoped other western countries would follow suit.

But they have not. Cooperation from the US and Australia, for example, has been less forthcoming. This must be particularly frustrating for Beijing, given that those two countries are among the top destinations for China’s economic fugitives, as Quartz has reported:

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Australia signed an extradition treaty with China in 2007, but its legislature has not ratified it, and the issue remains ”subject to ongoing consideration,” as an Australian official told Quartz earlier this year.

The US has in recent years agreed to cooperate with China’s hunt for fugitives, and the recent demand apparently came as a surprise to Chinese officials.

“The US government’s decision to force China’s law enforcement stuff to leave the country obviously reveals that Washington lacks sincerity and has failed to translate its words into action,” an editorial in Xinhua said. The Chinese version of that editorial complained that the decision came after the US had “on many occasions” promised to help Beijing crack down on corruption.

The US should “by no means become a safe haven for Chinese criminal suspects,” Xinhua added.