The Chinese authorities are finding it increasingly difficult to prevent the flight of the most corrupt Party and government officials to developed countries, a problem illustrated by a recent case at a highway development company in the central province of Henan, RFA's Mandarin service reports.

Tong Yanbai, board chairman and general manager of the state-owned Highway Development Co., absconded on Jan. 1 with a "huge sum of money" on New Year's Day, Henan's chief prosecutor Wang Shangyu told the provincial parliament. Tong's escape brought the number of officials who have fled abroad during corruption investigations to more than 190 in Henan alone.

Experts interviewed by RFA said China's attempts to bring such suspects back to face trial were hampered by a lack of extradition agreements, and legal grey areas within its own political and judicial system. Sometimes they flee before the authorities have even filed a case with the judiciary against them.

"There are international investigative bodies to which China belongs, so it can exchange information and cooperate with other members on criminal cases and so on, according to the agreement of the organization," Yu Haocheng, a legal scholar based in the United States, told RFA correspondent Shi Shan.

"But the lack of separation between Party and government that exists in China makes it hard to win recognition overseas [for these cases]. So there is some difficulty in dealing with this problem," Yu said.

In Tong's case and with many others like him, investigations were begun by the Party's Discipline Inspection unit, and only later passed to judicial bodies, which would have the international recognition needed to ask for cooperation.

The official Xinhua news agency said the number of Chinese corrupt officials who disappear overseas has increased since 2000, the year in which former Jiangxi provincial vice-governor Hu Changqing, was sentenced to death for corruption, fueling fears that many more would meet a similar fate.

Since then, a discernible pattern has emerged in the way that officials flee. First, they find a suitable developed country to settle in under the pretext of a business trip. Then, they establish connections there, usually by sending relatives ahead of them. Lastly, they leave legally, often through Hong Kong, before law enforcement bodies are even aware of their case. Of Beijing's 120 cases involving fugitive corrupt officials in 2001, 90 percent of the officials hold Party or government office, and 70 percent were top executives in state-owned enterprises.

Among the worst cases are those related to building construction projects. While it is not known precisely how much Tong made in bribes before his escape, the state-level Xuluo highway constructed under Tong's leadership has been repaired four times because of shoddy construction. He is also thought to have received large amounts in bribes during the public bidding process for the highway, Xinhua said.

The damage done to China's financial system, fiscal stability and economic restructuring by such practices is irreparable. "Nobody knows how many corrupt officials flee overseas every year," U.S.-based economist Chen Pokong told RFA. "The amount of capital flight is roughly U.S.$40-50 billion leaving China annually."

Chen said the proportion of officials who have been successfully brought back to China is very small. Part of the problem is that China has not reached extradition agreements with the majority of countries. According to Xinhua, the country's chief prosecutor Jia Chunwang has said that China brought back 596 fugitive corrupt officials from overseas in 2003.

In August 2003, the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress (NPC) formally ratified the United Nations Convention Against International Organized Crime, while at the end of 2003, China signed the United Nations Convention against Corruption, which seeks to enact minimum legal standards against corruption, protect whistleblowers and assist other countries in detecting the flow of illicit funds.

In early 2004, U.S. president George W. Bush ordered that public officials guilty of corruption be barred entry to the United States. #####


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