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China’s No. 1 fugitive sent back after 12 years

BEIJING (AP) ― The fugitive at the center of a 12-year extradition court battle in Canada was returned Saturday to China, where he is accused of running a $10 billion smuggling ring that dealt in everything from cars to oil in a scandal touching the government’s highest levels.
Chinese businessman Lai Changxing is escorted by Chinese authorities after he landed in Beijing on Saturday. (AFP-Yonhap News)
Chinese businessman Lai Changxing is escorted by Chinese authorities after he landed in Beijing on Saturday. (AFP-Yonhap News)

Lai Changxing, 52, who was flown into Beijing from Vancouver, is expected to face charges for bribery, smuggling and tax evasion. He will not face the death penalty ― as other people connected with him have ― in an assurance China gave to Canada to convince courts to extradite him.

Lai, who fled China in 1999, had avoided deportation by arguing he could face the death penalty or be tortured and would not get a fair trial in his home country.

But that legal battle ended Thursday when a federal court in Vancouver ruled Lai should not be considered a refugee and upheld his deportation.

The official Xinhua News Agency reported that Lai was arrested by Chinese police at the Beijing International Airport on Saturday afternoon upon his arrival after he was transferred over by the Canadian side.

State-run CCTV television showed police officers holding Lai firmly by the arms and escorting him off an Air Canada plane. The balding and pudgy Lai remained quiet but alert as a police officer read him his rights, including a right to a lawyer.

Lai’s concerns about a fair trial and the death sentence are not unwarranted. China executes more people than any other country, including for economic crimes on a much smaller scale than what Lai is charged with.

But Lai’s alleged criminal operation out of Xiamen in the southern province of Fujian overshadowed any other such activity in China, where there are almost weekly reports of a bank manager or government official on the run with millions.

Corruption is rife among officials and employees of state-owned companies, posing what the ruling Communist Party describes as a major threat to its survival. Just this month, Xinhua reported that two former vice mayors in eastern China were executed after being convicted of abuse of power to gain millions.

Lai, described in Chinese news reports as the country’s No. 1 fugitive, dealt in much higher stakes. Before fleeing to Canada he lived a life of luxury in China complete with a mansion and a bulletproof Mercedes Benz.

Among other accusations, Lai is alleged to have run the famed “Red Mansion” in which he plied officials with liquor and prostitutes.

At least two officials, Yie Jizhan, chief of the Xiamen branch of the Commercial and Industrial Bank, and Wu Yubo, former section chief of Xiamen customs bureau, were executed. Eleven others, including Xiamen’s former deputy mayor Lan Fu and former Public Security Vice Minister Li Jizhou, were sentenced to life or given suspended death sentences.

In total, more than 600 people were investigated, including customs, police and government officials, and 300 people were punished for their involvement in Lai’s smuggling deals, according to the official Xinhua News Agency.

The state-run China Daily reported Saturday that Lai’s alleged smuggling operation was valued at $10 billion, “which would be China’s biggest economic criminal case after 1949 if Lai is convicted.”

China has not said what will happen to Lai now that he is back in China or when he will be put on trial. China promised Canada that Lai would not get the death penalty in 2001 when then President Jiang Zemin sent the Canadian prime minister at the time, Jean Chretien, a diplomatic note with assurances Lai would not be executed if returned.

“Lai will have to re-enter the judicial system and will be faced with evidence against him in a Chinese court upon his return,” said Chen Xingliang, a professor of criminal law at Peking University. “He won’t be facing the death penalty, but his sentence will depend on the severity of the charges according to Chinese law, including some laws that have changed since 1999.”

China’s Foreign Ministry said it welcomed the court’s decision to deport Lai from Canada.

In Saturday’s Global Times newspaper, an editorial called Lai’s deportation “a victory for justice” and said it hoped the case would foster more cooperation in the fight against corruption.

Xinhua cited a statement by the Ministry of Public Security that said Lai’s extradition would boost Sino-Canadian law enforcement cooperation.

The China Daily said that according to police statistics in 2010 there were nearly 600 Chinese suspects at large overseas wanted for economic crimes.