China's Great Swindle: How Public Officials Stole $120 Billion and Fled the Country

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Photo-Illustration by Alexander Ho for TIME; Getty Images (2)

This post is in partnership with Worldcrunch, a new global-news site that translates stories of note in foreign languages into English. The article below was originally published in the Economic Observer.

Just how many corrupt Chinese government officials have fled overseas? How much money have they stashed away? And how did they manage to transfer abroad such colossal sums?

Last week, the People's Bank of China published a report that looked at corruption monitoring and how corrupt officials transfer assets overseas. The report quotes statistics based on research by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences: 18,000 Communist Party and government officials, public-security members, judicial cadres, agents of state institutions and senior-management individuals of state-owned enterprises have fled China since 1990. Also missing is about $120 billion.

The People's Bank of China report stresses that until now, nobody has been able to provide an authoritative figure of the exact sum pilfered, and the figure of $120 billion is still only an estimate. It is nonetheless an astronomical sum. It is equivalent to China's total financial allocation for education from 1978 to '98. Each escaped official stole, on average, $7 million. But the real numbers might be even higher. Some media have reported that the wife of the deputy chief engineer of the Ministry of Railways, Zhang Shuguang, who was recently caught for corruption, owns three luxury mansions in Los Angeles and has bank savings of as much as $2.8 billion in the U.S. and Switzerland. This example gives a glimpse into the broader picture.

The number of corrupt officials fleeing China reflects the government's serious attitude about the crackdown on corruption. But if corruption, dereliction of duty and abuse of power are the norm, then the system itself is corrupt. The number also highlights multiple failings in China's embarrassingly ineffective anticorruption campaign.

It takes considerable time for an official to gain a large sum of money by corrupt means and then organize to smuggle it out of the country. Not being able to catch someone during this long time period is the government's first failing.

Next, when a corrupt official prepares his flight, he usually first sends his wife and children overseas while staying behind in China as a so-called naked official. To have such "naked" yet unexposed officials makes for a second failing.

In a country where capital outflow is strictly controlled, how on earth do these people manage to transfer their money overseas successfully? This is the third failing.

And the fourth failing: how they manage to change their identity. These crooks usually hold multiple passports and use many identities. For instance, the former governor of Yunnan province, Li Jiating, had five passports, all real.

The way they escape punishment is the fifth failing. Extradition involves the political and judicial systems of two countries, each with its own concept of law enforcement. The judicial procedure is often complicated and tedious. Extradition is very often obstructed by the fact that a person condemned to death in absentia cannot be extradited for human-rights reasons. In addition, China has not signed extradition treaties with the U.S. or Canada, the two most used destinations, so once the official has run away, the chance of catching him and putting him on trial is close to zero.

Even if they do get caught, the stolen funds are rarely recovered. This is the sixth failing. The U.N. Convention Against Corruption sets out the principle of returning illegal assets, but the procedure is difficult in practice. Not only does China have to show that it owns the assets, but it also has to share some of the money with the countries participating in the joint action. After deductions here and there, there isn't much left.

And, finally, the seventh failing: the government officials who have managed to escape set an example for those still hiding at home. Some of them once held high positions with access to important state secrets and were likely bribed by hostile parties. This poses is a threat to China's political, military and economic stability.

It is for these reasons that it is more important to stop corruption at the source than to catch the culprits after it has happened.

Policies combating money laundering or obliging top government employees to report their personal wealth will not solve this problem. Nor will the close monitoring of naked officials. The effective solution would be to establish a clean system where nobody dares to be corrupt. Certain media have suggested the implementation of a property declaration system. This would be like using antiaircraft guns to fight mosquitoes. But at least it would be a weapon that knows its target.

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