China Again Asked U.S. to Return Fugitives

Defector among most wanted expatriates

Chinese President Xi Jinping waves to the press as he walks with US President Donald Trump at the Mar-a-Lago estate in West Palm Beach, Florida

Chinese President Xi Jinping waves to the press as he walks with U.S. President Donald Trump at the Mar-a-Lago estate in West Palm Beach, Florida / Getty Images

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Chinese officials asked the Trump administration to return scores of Chinese fugitives in the United States during last week's presidential summit in Florida.

Beijing raised the issue of Chinese nationals believed to be in the United States that have been sought under a Chinese intelligence operation called Operation Fox Hunt, said a senior administration official.

"They are clearly still interested in tracking people down," said the official.

The topic was raised during breakout sessions between senior U.S. and Chinese officials at the two-day summit between President Donald Trump and Chinese leader Xi Jinping at the Mar-a-Lago resort, the official said.

"There are some things we can probably work out so long as it is in tune with the rule of law," the official added.

A Justice Department official acknowledged that the issue was raised during the summit.

Among the high-priority targets sought by the Chinese is Ling Wancheng, younger brother of Ling Jihua, an aide to former Chinese Communist Party leader Hu Jintao who was imprisoned last year.

Chinese authorities have sought the return of Ling Wancheng since at least January 2016 in discussions with Justice Department and Homeland Security officials.

Ling Jihua, the former Hu Jintao aide, was sentenced to life in prison last July on corruption charges. He was one of the highest-ranking party officials imprisoned under Xi's anti-corruption drive, which critics say is part of a political purge of potential rivals in a bid by Xi to consolidate power.

Ling Wancheng disappeared from his Northern California home in the summer of 2015 and according to U.S. officials is under U.S. government protection.

Ling has denied turning over Chinese documents to U.S. authorities and claimed through his lawyer he is writing a book about golf.

Ling's lawyer, Gregory Smith, declined to comment when asked about the most recent Chinese request for Ling's return.

U.S. officials said Ling was among the list of wanted Chinese nationals in the United States. Many of those on the list are prominent or wealthy Chinese nationals that Beijing has claimed are wanted for corruption, or for what China regards as political crimes. In China, unauthorized political activities such as criticizing leaders or the Communist Party are considered crimes.

Asked about discussions at the summit on the repatriation of Chinese nationals, Justice Department spokesman Mark Abueg said the United States "is not a safe haven for fugitives from any nation."

"We are an international leader in anticorruption and will continue to work with partners across the globe to advance the fight against corruption," Abueg said in a statement.

"For these cases to be successful, however, China must provide evidence to the Department of Justice," he added. "If that happens, the Department of Justice will take appropriate enforcement action."

Abueg said the Justice Department in the past has pursued Chinese money laundering charges and other criminal activity by fugitives sought by China.

Past cases include the prosecution in 2009 of two former managers of the Bank of China convicted in Las Vegas of money laundering and racketeering.

A second Chinese money laundering case in March 2015 involved the arrest of a former Chinese official's wife. The former official is being sought by U.S. authorities.

FBI documents made public during the 2003 case of Chinese double agent Katrina Leung revealed that Chinese security services operate secret teams of agents that can be dispatched on short notice to capture or kill fugitives and defectors.

In recent years, China has used special teams of intelligence operatives to track down fugitives and defectors and convince them to return or forcibly repatriate them. Other methods used by China to coerce overseas nationals into returning include threatening their families.

In 2015, the Obama administration issued a warning to China to call off security agents working in the United States as part of Operation Fox Hunt. The agents were pressuring expatriate Chinese, including some wanted on corruption charges.

According to the state-run Xinhua news agency, Operation Fox Hunt has nabbed 2,566 fugitives who fled overseas in 90 countries to avoid Chinese authorities.

A total of 1,283 were convinced to return or turned themselves in, including 410 Communist Party members or official staff.

A hunt for China's 100 most-wanted fugitives has resulted in the return of 39 people under a program called Sky Net.

The Ministry of Public Security, China's political police and intelligence service, stated March 25 that 951 people linked to white-collar crime were arrested as part of Fox Hunt.

In the spring of 2015, China produced a list of 40 people wanted for graft it says are living in the United States.

The list included He Yejun, a wealthy Florida businessman and former executive at a state-owned beer company wanted by China for misappropriating funds. The fugitive changed his name to Wei Chen.

According to the New York Times, He was linked to a 1996 scandal known as Chinagate involving Chinese payments to the Democratic Party. Investigators alleged that He asked another man to deliver a bag of cash to an American official in a bid to obtain visas for Chinese citizens.

Another alleged fugitive is Yang Xiuzhu, a former deputy mayor of the southeastern city of Wenzhou. According to the New York Times, Yang once owned a five-story building on West 29th Street in New York City. The U.S. government returned Yang to China in November 2016.

The public list is said to include few high-ranking former Chinese officials.

Ling, the brother of the former presidential chief of staff, was identified as a Fox Hunt target in January 2016 by Liu Jianchao, an official of the Communist Party’s internal watchdog.