China's most-wanted corruption suspect returned to her homeland on Tuesday after giving herself up "voluntarily" to the authorities after 13 years on the run, officials said.
Yang Xiuzhu, 70, who fled abroad in 2003, eventually arriving the United States in May 2014, voluntarily surrendered herself to Chinese authorities following prolonged negotiations with U.S. officials, foreign affairs spokesman Geng Shuang told a regular news briefing in Beijing.
Her return was broadcast live on Chinese state television, which showed her dressed in somber clothing being escorted through immigration by two guards, after disembarking from an American Airlines passenger jet.
The former deputy director of Wenzhou's municipal construction bureau in the eastern province of Zhejiang was ranked No. 1 on a list of 100 most-wanted fugitives issued as part of an ongoing anti-corruption campaign that has deeply divided the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
She is the 37th fugitive on the list to return so far, the party's Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) said on its official website.
It said Yang had "taken the initiative to withdraw an application for asylum and made the decision to return to the country and give herself up".
Yang is accused of stealing U.S.$39 million while she was deputy mayor of Wenzhou, but has denounced the list of wanted suspects as a political hit list, protesting her innocence.
Meanwhile, the foreign ministry's Geng hailed Yang's return as "an important outcome" in bilateral relations with the U.S.
"The Chinese side expresses appreciation and gratitude to the U.S. side and to relevant countries for their assistance and coordination."
Targeted by Interpol
The move comes after a former vice minister of China's public security ministry was elected head of Interpol earlier this month, sparking concern that the ruling Chinese Communist Party will use international law enforcement mechanisms to pursue peaceful critics and political asylum-seekers overseas.
Each person on Beijing's list of 100-strong list of most-wanted subjects had been targeted with an Interpol red notice.
Geng said China hopes to collar many more overseas suspects in future with international cooperation.
"Corruption is the common enemy of the international community [and] anti-corruption law enforcement cooperation based on the principles of zero tolerance, zero loopholes, and zero barriers is more and more becoming the international consensus," he said.
"The Chinese government will continue to cooperate with relevant countries and make unremitting efforts to bring corrupt elements that fled abroad to justice."
Since taking power in 2012, Chinese president Xi Jinping has launched an ongoing anti-corruption campaign targeting high-ranking "tigers" along with low-ranking "flies."
However, the party's internal investigative arm, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), generally begins any probe into alleged wrongdoing by officials behind closed doors.
Rights lawyers have slammed the CCDI system as unaccountable and lacking in legal representation for those accused, as well as resorting to torture and other abuses to elicit forced confessions.
Political commentators said the anti-corruption campaign is highly selective, with members of factions other than Xi's most likely to be targeted.
"They want to send a warning to other corrupt officials who may be thinking of fleeing the country. That's the most important thing," Hebei-based veteran journalist Zhu Xinxin told RFA.
"They also want to make the general public believe that they are doing something to fight corruption, to show off their so-called achievements."
Beijing-based democracy activist Zha Jianguo said that while Yang's return is a direct result of Xi's anti-graft campaign, it said little about the success of Xi's campaign.
"Yes, it's one corrupt official they have managed to get back from the U.S. ... but it would be wrong to take this as proof of the validity of China's anti-corruption campaign," Zha said.
"If they really want a zero-tolerance approach to corruption, then the government alone isn't going to be able to achieve that," he said. "They need to rely on society as a whole and on public opinion."
"They would also need to have the separation of powers, and some form of collective checks and balances on political power."
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.