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China acts to stem the tide of officials fleeing with cash

As many as 10,000 corrupt government officials have fled China with $100 billion.

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Those who escape China with money tend to seek refuge in North America or Europe, say corruption experts here. Smaller fish head for Southeast Asia or South America.

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"The top destinations are the countries with independent judicial systems," says Liao Ran, senior program coordinator of the Asia and Pacific department at Transparency International, a Berlin-based international corruption watchdog.

"If you get help from a lawyer ... your appeals process can last for 10 years" in most Western countries, says Mr. Liao.

Lai Changxing, for example, is alleged to have headed a major smuggling ring and is often called China's most wanted man. He arrived in Canada in 1999 and has been fighting a legal battle to avoid deportation ever since.

"The more money the criminals have, the harder it is to repatriate them," says Li. "The economic costs are very high for China."

Mr. Lai has also benefited from a Canadian judge's ruling that he might be subjected to torture if he were returned to China. Other Chinese officials elsewhere have argued they should not be sent home for fear of political persecution.

China's paltry number of bilateral extradition treaties, says Liao, is also explained by the fact that Beijing still imposes the death penalty on people found guilty of serious corruption. "The law in many Western countries [where the death penalty has been abolished] says a person cannot be deported if he risks the death penalty," he says.

The Chinese government is moving towards abolishing capital punishment for economic crimes, says Liao, "which might make extradition easier in the future."

China has not been totally unsuccessful apprehending corruption suspects. In 2004, the US deported Yu Zhendong, accused of defrauding the Bank of China of $485 million. He was sentenced to 12 years in jail.

Chinese officials also convinced the Canadian authorities last August to return Deng Xinzhi, alleged to be a swindler, who had sought refuge in Toronto. His case has not yet come to trial here.

In the absence of extradition treaties with most countries where Chinese officials seek safe havens, Beijing can generally only await the outcome of immigration cases brought against the suspects. Beijing is hoping to forge closer international ties with some of these key nations following its accession to the United Nations convention against corruption, which has more than 150 signatories.

"This widens the basis for international cooperation and allows China to work more closely with foreign countries," says Chen Lei, a corruption expert at Beijing Normal University.

The government is also stepping up its long-running domestic efforts to combat fraud. The Chinese parliament is studying proposals obliging all government employees to report their property holdings, widening the scope of corruption probes to officials' relatives and increasing the penalties for corruption.

"Though the new laws look very good," says Liao. "The problem is whether or not they can be enforced. Still, the central government's political commitment to fight corruption is in place."

Despite these efforts, many corruption experts say that as the government tightens the screws on fraud, the exodus will likely grow larger.

"A lot of corrupt officials do not dare stay in China now," says Mao. "There will be more and more officials heading abroad, and they will be taking more and more money with them."