One of the oddities about Chinese politics is that most members of the ruling Communist Party who have lost a power struggle or stolen millions of dollars of public funds prefer to flee to the U.S. — enemy territory in the minds of top Chinese leaders. Odder still is that when such defections occur, the Chinese government has the chutzpa to ask the U.S. government to return these fugitives even though the two nations do not have an extradition treaty.
Beijing’s most recent request concerns Ling Wancheng, the youngest brother of Ling Jihua, the former director of the powerful General Office of the party’s Central Committee. Ling Jihua himself was arrested about a year ago, allegedly for corruption. Based on press reports, his family members have amassed a huge fortune, apparently relying on Ling’s influence. His sister-in-law and nephew built a thriving advertising and public relations business that won contracts for the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the Shanghai 2010 World Expo. Ling Wancheng ran a private equity fund that made well-timed investments in media and Internet companies, netting a profit of over 1.2 billion yuan (roughly $200 million).
After his brother’s fall from power, Ling Wancheng absconded to the U.S. and bought a $2.5 million house in California.
While it is unclear what specific crimes Ling Wancheng has committed, the Chinese government has demanded, through official channels but not yet publicly, that Washington send him back to China.
Beijing’s timing isn’t so great. Diplomatic ties between China and the U.S. in recent months have been strained over alleged Chinese cyberattacks against the U.S. government’s Office of Personnel Management, China’s island-building projects in the disputed waters in the South China Sea, and the overall deterioration of human rights in China. So it is highly unlikely that Washington will agree to Beijing’s demand and put Ling Wancheng on a flight back to China.
Since Ling Wancheng is privy to secrets American intelligence agencies would die for, he is simply too valuable to give up. More importantly, legally and procedurally, returning him to China is far more complicated than Beijing would like to acknowledge. Unlike China, where the Communist Party is the law and defendants have no meaningful rights once they are in the custody of the police, the U.S. government is not above the law. Since Ling is now on American soil, he is protected by the same rights granted to foreigners temporarily residing in the U.S. With his wealth, Ling presumably can afford the best lawyers to make a strong case for political asylum on the ground that the Chinese government’s case against him is politically motivated.
Ling Wancheng’s case could cloud the pending state visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping to Washington in September. Because Xi himself has given high priority to extraditing fugitives abroad as part of his anti-corruption campaign, the presence of Ling Wancheng in the U.S. will not only be an embarrassing reminder of the limits of his power, but also deprive him much-needed leverage in prosecuting Ling Jihua, who may choose to defy the party rather than plead guilty and beg for leniency, as most of his fallen comrades have done.
However, Beijing should not be disheartened by this likely setback. If there is one lesson to be drawn from the Ling Wancheng case, it is the urgent need to reform China’s legal system and respect the rule of law. If China’s criminal justice system had the same transparency and protection of the rights of defendants as in most developed countries, Western countries would be more cooperative in returning Chinese fugitives.
Unfortunately, this is not the case. When Chinese authorities demand repatriation of fugitives, they are often reluctant to provide sufficient evidence and present a persuasive case. Even worse, in recent weeks, the Chinese government has launched a ferocious crackdown on human rights lawyers. More than 200 have been detained and harassed. Several were even paraded on national television as repentant petty criminals. Besides damaging China’s image abroad, this blatant attack on the rule of law at home destroys any credibility the Chinese government may have in demanding Ling Wancheng’s return. The greatest irony in the Ling case is that it is China’s lack of rule of law that shields fugitives like him abroad.
To be sure, the U.S. does not want to become a haven for criminals, let alone corrupt plutocrats of a regime that rhetorically champions communism but in reality practices rapacious crony capitalism. When China has a legal system that meets international standards for respecting human rights, the U.S. will have little problem obliging its request for sending fugitives back to face justice.
But that day is not here yet.
Minxin Pei is the Tom and Margot Pritzker ’72 Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College and a non-resident senior fellow of the German Marshall Fund of the United States