Geopolitics

China Hunts Fugitives As Corruption Crackdown Goes Global

In its bid to root out financial corruption, China's government is hunting down fugitive suspects from Canada to Colombia, U.S. and Australia.

Alleged smuggling kingpin Lai Changxing signs a warrant issued for his arrest as he arrives at the Beijing Capital International Airport on July 23, 2011.
Alleged smuggling kingpin Lai Changxing signs a warrant issued for his arrest as he arrives at the Beijing Capital International Airport on July 23, 2011.
Daniel Canal Franco

BOGOTA Wu Ping is the first Chinese citizen facing charges of economic wrongdoing deported from Latin America. But despite his debt, he's considered a small actor whose misdeeds pale in comparison to many multimillionaires who have disappeared from China without leaving anything but a criminal dossier behind.

"I went to Colombia, as it seemed the most remote place on the planet," Wu told the Chinese daily Qianjiang Evening when he returned to China in police custody. "I wanted to return to China. I missed my family, but my family would not let me, for my debts. My creditors wanted to lynch me."

Wu had fled after buying about $650,000 worth of goods he couldn't afford. He did odd jobs in Colombia for two years as "you don't need work papers there," and says he lived in constant fear of a natural disaster or the drug dealers he could see on his street.

When the Zheijiang police department located him, they launched an operation with Colombian police that led to his Sept. 2 arrest in Bogota. Wu had already distributed his goods across Europe but had not yet been paid.

There are many more like Wu, but dealing in much bigger figures, who haven't been tracked. That's because, says Liao Ran of Transparency International, "Firstly, civil servants must make a detailed declaration of their assets and their origins. Secondly, the financial system facilitates capital flight, and lastly, money laundering controls are very weak."

Businessmen who prospered during China's economic boom and have since faced charges such as corruption, fraud, illegal funding or embezzlement of public funds have fled the country and are termed "economic fugitives." The Chinese government has launched an unprecedented global campaign to catch them, wherever they are. "When the immigration police arrived, I knew something was up," Wu says, recalling his arrest.

Xi's pet project

This is Chinese President Xi Jinping's "Fox Hunt" operation — to identify, find and bring back the fugitives with international help. The anti-corruption campaign has already netted one big fish, Zhou Yongkang, China's former public security minister and so-called "oil czar." Arresting him would be like the U.S. nailing someone who simultaneously heads the CIA and Halliburton.

The measures have made Xi popular amid China's problem of "generalized" corruption of businessmen paying bribes and officials receiving them, says historian James Palmer.

One of the "foxes" to disappear is Liao Rongna, the Zhengling Group magnate cited in the 2009 Hurun Report as one of the 100 richest Chinese. When police arrived at his corporate offices in Liuzhou, they found 1,500 contracts worth some $520 million, which Liao had not honored.

Liao, who founded 20 companies in different sectors, isn't the only one in his family suspected of being a scam artist. His younger son, Zhengling, was held in June, and his wife, Yi Zhiqun is on the run. In August, Interpol issued a Red Notice against Liao Rongna, and President Xi hopes to smoke him out of his lair with foreign help.

He may well be in the United States, Canada or Australia, these being "the favored destinations for economic fugitives," says Liao Ran. Their strong judicial systems make it hard for them to be deported. "Precisely for the solidity of their systems, whoever can afford a good lawyer can have a good defense," Liao Ran says. Also, none of these countries has an extradition treaty with China.

China has repatriated 730 suspected economic criminals since 2008 from 54 countries, and 150 are thought to be living in the United States right now.

In evading deportation, they often say that rights are not respected in China. Their lawyers say they could be executed if convicted of economic malfeasance and that, until recently, torture was deemed a legitimate interrogation tool there. Such arguments helped Lai Changxing, the best known fugitive of the past decade, remain safe in Canada for 12 years.

In 1999, Lai discovered he was to be arrested for allegedly bribing state officials and having led a trafficking ring for a decade. He immediately left Xiamen, where he had built his empire, for Hong Kong, from which he fled to Canada three days later. In Xiamen, he had built the Red Mansion motel, a copy of the Forbidden City where he entertained party officials. People began to call him the Emperor, and he helped create a new expression there — "rich as Lai."

He was finally deported to China in May 2012, where he was sentenced to life imprisonment, after having been convicted of trafficking and bribing 64 officials from 1996 to 1999.

Xi's anti-corruption campaign can be seen as a step toward a new era, wherein a more mature China views itself as a frontline, and first-class, global player.


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Geopolitics

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.


But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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