FORT LAUDERDALE/NEW YORK/SEATTLE/VANCOUVER(Reuters) - U.S. and Canadian officials have pledged to work with China to track down and repatriate Chinese fugitives living abroad. But that cooperation is proving to have clear limits.
So far, only one person on China's Operation Sky Net list of 100 most wanted fugitives - 46 of whom were believed to be in the United States and Canada - has been returned to China from either country.
Another woman on the list chose to return to China from the U.S. herself, and at least one more is in a U.S. immigration detention center awaiting deportation.
Reuters found that many of the remaining North American suspects on the list, like Florida businessman Wei Chen and British Columbia mushroom farmer Wang Qingwei, are living openly as legal immigrants and have heard nothing from the U.S. or Canadian governments since the Sky Net list was published in April.
"The list has ruined my life, but I'm not hiding," said Chen, a U.S. citizen since 2005, in an interview with Reuters. "I don't know about the other 99 people, but I didn't do what they said."
Liu Jianchao, China's minister in charge of repatriating corruption suspects, told Reuters that 17 of 100 Sky Net fugitives have been returned so far, mostly from countries with close ties to China, including Singapore, Malaysia, Cambodia and Uganda.
Neither the United States nor Canada has an extradition treaty with China, partly because they question the integrity of its judicial system and treatment of prisoners. That has meant that the only people on China's list who have so far faced deportation in North America are those found to have committed crimes or immigration violations since arriving.
One of them, Yang Xiuzhu, 69, told Reuters she entered the U.S. on a fake passport. She is in custody awaiting deportation proceedings and has filed for asylum.
The one corruption suspect on the wanted list returned to China from North America so far was Yang's brother, who was deported for U.S. immigration violations in September.
The United States has carefully calibrated its public statements on the assistance it will offer China. A spokesman for the Department of Justice said the U.S. will "vigorously pursue prosecutions" against fugitives sought by China "where there is alleged money laundering or other criminal activity in this country."
However, U.S. officials have also made clear that they would need to see China's evidence of crimes before offering full cooperation. A former U.S. security official, who asked not to be named, said China has provided virtually no evidence so far against the alleged fugitives.
Canada, which elected a new federal government in October, has said it will continue to work on a deal with China to return corrupt officials in exchange for a share of the assets seized, which would be considered proceeds of the individual's crimes
While Canada does not have an extradition treaty with China, if an individual is found to have lied on a visa application – as in falsely stating that money brought into the country was obtained legally when it was not– residency can be revoked.
At least one corruption suspect in Canada and one in the U.S. have been awarded citizenship, and many more have been granted permanent residency. Those located by Reuters questioned why they were on the list.
Miami businessman Chen is accused by China of misappropriating public funds while working at the state-owned Haomen Group. Chinese authorities declined requests from Reuters to elaborate on the charges.
Speaking publicly for the first time, Chen denied the allegations to a Reuters reporter. Chen said he suspects that officials blame him for the overall decline of Haomen's business after it entered into a poorly-fated joint venture with French company Danone group.
He said he expected to hear from U.S. officials after finding himself on the list but has not. He received a call last month from a Chinese anti-corruption officer only after Reuters made inquiries about his case there. Chen said the official would not elaborate on why he is on the list.
Huang Hong, Chen's ex-wife, is also on the Sky Net list. Chen confirmed that Hong is in the U.S. and said she had not been contacted by either Chinese or U.S. officials. He said she never worked at Haomen but declined to talk more about her. Hong did not reply to messages left by Reuters.
Evaluating Chen's assertion of innocence or China's accusations is difficult, since the events took place more than 20 years ago.
Another of the corruption suspects, Wang, wanted by China for alleged accounting fraud, operates a small mushroom farm in the Canadian town of Chilliwack. He was out making deliveries when Reuters visited, but his brother confirmed that Wang is the man on the Sky Net list and said he was unaware of Wang having been contacted by authorities.
When asked about the allegations against Wang, the brother declined to comment, but gestured toward a sagging 1920s farmhouse, its back porch littered with inexpensive children's shoes and muddy work boots.
"He's a farmer," he said.
Another man on the list, wanted for alleged corruption and bribery, lives in a modest townhouse outside Seattle. He asked not to be identified because he didn't want to attract additional attention to his situation.
His wife, who answered the door to two Reuters reporters recently, said he has not been contacted by Chinese or U.S. authorities.
She declined to comment on the charges except to say, "If you offend the leadership, the leadership will retaliate."
To be sure, some individuals on the list have been pursued more aggressively. Canadian authorities for years denied Vancouver property developer Michael Ching Mo Yeung citizenship, which he claimed in a lawsuit was because of corruption charges leveled against him by China. He has since applied for refugee status.
Yang Xiuzhu, the woman arrested and held since last year on immigration violation charges, spoke to Reuters recently at a New York detention facility. Wearing an orange prison jumpsuit, Yang said she was arrested at her sister's New York apartment just a month after she arrived in the United States on a false passport last year.
Yang, accused of stealing $39 million while deputy mayor of Wenzhou, in Eastern China, denied the charges against her. She called the list a political document targeting enemies of the current regime rather than a roster of true criminals.
"I suspect I am a pawn between U.S. and Chinese negotiators," she said.
When her brother was returned to China, state-owned media showed him handcuffed, flanked by policemen, being led off a private jet at Fuzhou airport in southeastern China. He has not been seen in public since.
Reporting By Elizabeth Dilts and Julie Gordon; additional reporting by Jim Finkle in Boston, Liu Xiao in New York, Mark Hosenball in Washington and Ben Blanchard in Beijing.