Numerous Chinese citizens who became holders of the European Union’s ‘Golden visa’ and other foreign passports are being hunted down under China’s “Operation Skynet” – an anti-corruption scheme set up five years ago – aided by extradition treaties signed recently with more EU states.
Reports in the Chinese media this week have not named most of the ‘fugitives’ involved, but said 50 people have been extradited and brought back to the mainland in recent years.
Two examples were given. On November 2018, the National Supervisory Commission and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs extradited Yao Jinqi, the former executive deputy magistrate of Xinchang County in Zhejiang Province from Bulgaria in accordance with the China-Bulgaria Extradition Treaty.
This was the first time that a Chinese criminal suspect had been extradited from an EU member state.
And in July 2016, Huang Haiyong, the suspect in a major smuggling case involving tax evasion of 700 million yuan (US$104 million), who had been “absconding abroad” for 18 years, was extradited from Peru and returned to China. He was the first Chinese fugitive officially returned from a Latin American country.
China’s Discipline Inspection and Supervision News reported on Monday October 26 that the 22nd meeting of the Standing Committee of the 13th National People’s Congress, which closed a few days ago, voted and agreed to ratify an extradition treaty between the People’s Republic and the Republic of Cyprus (agreed in June 2018), plus a similar treaty between China and the Kingdom of Belgium (agreed in October 2019).
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Department of Treaties and Laws said later that China has concluded 59 extradition treaties with 25 countries.
The most recent extradition treaty was signed with Greece in November 2019, when President Xi visited Piraeus, the port near Athens, with his wife and signed a whole swag of agreements.
Many Chinese Named in ‘Cyprus Papers’
In August, Al Jazeera revealed that hundreds of wealthy Chinese business people and officials had purchased Cypriot passports “to escape restrictive regimes in their home countries”.
More than 500 Chinese, 350 Arabs, plus hundreds of Russians were among 1,400 wealthy people who bought citizenship in Cyprus after investing $2.5 million in the small EU state. This gave them an EU passport and the ability to travel, work and open bank accounts in the Europe.
The Cyprus Papers revealed that Chinese were the second largest group, after Russians, to have bought passports in a two-year period from late 2017 until late 2019.
Al Jazeera said that wealthy Chinese began looking outside their own country after President Xi Jinping’s 2012 crackdown on “tigers and flies” – an anti-corruption campaign that “led to tougher scrutiny of how China’s business elite make their money and where they keep it”.
It alleged that Chinese citizens named in The Cyprus Papers included Yang Huiyan and her husband – often described as Asia’s richest woman, worth an estimated $27 billion made through Country Garden Holdings, a real estate company that builds upmarket property enclaves.
Many of Chinese wealthy elite are suspected to have citizenship in other countries, but investments of that nature are likely to be illegal because ordinary citizens are usually only allowed to take $50,000 out of the country.
Illegal Activities, Politically Exposed
Overall, at least 30 of the 1,400 wealthy individuals were later accused of illegal activities, while another 40 were classed as “politically exposed”.
Transparency International, the global civil society organisation that aims to counter corruption, called on the European Commission to take decisive action against member states “scandal-ridden golden visa schemes”, saying that a new leak of documents showed they remained vulnerable to corruption and money laundering.
Bulgaria and Malta were also criticised by the European Commission for their Golden Visa schemes, which other states said should be abolished.
The President of Cyprus admitted in 2019 that errors may have been made in the granting of “Golden passports” and in February stricter criteria were imposed that called for thorough background checks on applicants.
Extradition involves a country transferring a person accused of a crime or sentenced by another country within its territory to the requesting country to face trial or punishment at the request of the country concerned.
These can be highly controversial affairs, as seen with the Meng Wanzhou case in Vancouver and many other cases.
Officials in China have said from 2014 to June this year, supervision agencies, procuratorial agencies, and public security agencies of various provinces, regions and municipalities extradited 50 people in accordance with the law through cooperation with foreign law enforcement agencies in the “Skynet Operation”.
Authorities said “fleeing and corrupt elements will be pursued to the end” and will never be allowed to go unpunished.
• Chris Gill and Jim Pollard
This report was updated on Jan 14, 2022 for style purposes.