China asks Interpol to help find 100 graft suspects. Will it matter?

Chinese authorities are seeking to repatriate absconding officials and others accused of corruption. Interpol is putting out the word, but it's up to individual governments whether to detain suspects on their soil.

Dita Alangkara/AP
Chinese President Xi Jinping has increased efforts to arrest corrupt government officials and businessmen who have fled overseas.

China released a list of 100 wanted economic fugitives on Wednesday, the latest sign of its rulers' far-reaching crackdown on corruption. 

The Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) said in a statement that its most-wanted list reflects China’s desire to work with international law-enforcement agencies to bring the accused to justice. The CCDI is the secretive arm of the ruling Communist Party that investigates party cadres. 

Interpol, the global police-cooperation organization, has already issued worldwide directives seeking the arrest of the 100 suspects and listed them on its online database.

But unlike Interpol’s roster, China’s list includes the names of countries where the government believes the suspects have fled. The United States tops the list, with China suspecting that 37 of the alleged fugitives have at least transited through the country, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Some of the accused are accountants or company executives; many are mid-level party officials. Their alleged crimes range from embezzlement and smuggling to fraud and tax evasion. Fu Kui, the chief of CCDI’s international cooperation department, said that the list was published “to show our determination” to capture fugitives, the Journal reported. 

But locating and arresting suspected criminals who have gone on the lam, whether in China or any other jurisdiction, is easier said than done. And Interpol, far from being a global cop shop, is more like a referral agency that governments can chose to ignore.  

Interpol issued 8,857 red notices in 2013, according to the organization’s most recent annual report, up from 1,378 in 2003. Yet only 1,749 people were arrested that year based on its notices.

Stop signs for red notices

In some cases countries refuse to extradite wanted suspects for political reasons. Last year, a red notice was issued at the request of Ukraine for former President Victor Yanukovych on charges of embezzlement and misappropriation of public funds. Mr. Yanukovych fled to Russia following his ouster in February 2014. Russia has also given asylum to former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, the subject of another red notice.

Likewise, Ecuador granted political asylum to Wikileaks founder Julian Assange in 2012, two years after Interpol issued a red notice for his arrest in connection with a sex crime investigation in Sweden. Mr. Assange has lived in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London ever since.

Some Western governments are reluctant to extradite Chinese fugitives, given the opacity of China's justice system, where suspects often face life in prison or a possible death penalty in criminal courts that rarely acquit.

Interpol doesn’t have the authority to issue arrest warrants or to compel any nation to detain a suspect. Tim Dees, a criminal justice technology writer and consultant, writes on Quora that the organization “has no police power itself.”

Few countries will permit anyone but their own officers to exercise any police powers in their country. Foreigners can ask another country's police to arrest someone or interview a witness, but the host country can tell the requestor to pound sand, too. Interpol helps grease the skids, ensuring that the request won't ruffle any feathers and that proper protocol is followed. It's an association with no officers or powers of its own. There are no international cops. When a cop leaves his home country, he becomes a private citizen.

Moreover, Interpol does not automatically issue red notices when countries ask for them. It rejects those that do not comply with its standards, including a ban on any that are deemed political.

The CCDI published its list of 100 suspects as part of a new law enforcement initiative called “Sky Net,” which is designed to coordinate China's fight against suspected corrupt officials who have fled overseas, reports Reuters. One study estimated that as much as $1.08 trillion was illicitly moved out of China from 2002 to 2011. 

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