On Thursday, barely 24 hours after Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird ended his fence-mending visit to Beijing and Shanghai, a Canadian judge refused to stay the deportation order of China’s most wanted fugitive, calling him a “common criminal.”
Lai Changxing, accused of masterminding a multibillion-dollar smuggling operation that imported consumer goods without paying custom duties, has been a major topic of conversation among my friends and neighbours here in Kunming, in southwestern China. They put a highly political spin on it, seeing the Federal Court’s rejection of his refugee claim as a significant gesture on the part of the Harper government to demonstrate goodwill to Beijing. My emphatic assertions that Canada’s judiciary is not amenable to political pressure from the government and that the timing of Mr. Baird’s trip was just a coincidence are flatly dismissed with knowing Chinese smiles.
Nevertheless, I was somewhat relieved to hear of the decision to send back Mr. Lai. If, as soon as Mr. Baird left the country, it emerged that Mr. Lai would never face trial in China, outrage against Canada would have been marked, to say the least. Allegations that Mr. Lai had been supporting himself in Canada with an illegal gambling operation and reports of extensive associations with loan sharking and a Chinese triad called the Big Circle Boys have been extensively detailed in the Chinese media.
I first learned about Lai Changxing in 1999, when I was a political officer at the Canadian embassy in Beijing. Chinese authorities informed us that corrupt police had tipped off Mr. Lai that he was about to be arrested on charges of smuggling, tax evasion and bribery. Using fraudulently obtained Hong Kong documents, he entered Canada as a tourist. So the Chinese government asked the embassy to arrange for Mr. Lai to be repatriated back to China right away, on the next plane home if possible. Oh, that it could have been so easy!
The Lai case cast a shadow over Canada-China relations for the next several years. Beijing authorities seemed convinced that, if they exerted enough pressure on their friends in Jean Chrétien’s government, then Mr. Lai would be sent back without further ado. Unsubstantiated rumours that Mr. Lai was withholding evidence that he had bribed close associates of senior Communist leaders evidently intensified the desire of Chinese ambassadors and government officials for Mr. Lai’s return, so much so that, sometimes, there were menacing diplomatic undertones of “or else.” Clearly, Ottawa was under a lot of pressure from Beijing.
In 2001, I was asked to serve as a witness for the Canadian government’s side at Mr. Lai’s refugee hearing. In preparation, I was sent boxes containing thousands of pages of Chinese government documents detailing their case against Mr. Lai. Much of the criminal schemes, according to the documents, seemed brilliantly simple: Bring a shipping container of tax-free cigarettes into the port of Xiamen. Break the seal on the container, remove contraband cigarettes, replace with rope. Bribe the customs to reseal the container. Pay minuscule duty on the “rope imports.” Repeat the next day with the same rope.
Mr. Lai’s application for Canadian refugee status was eventually rejected, but it was hard not to be impressed by the process. Arguments made by Mr. Lai’s lawyer, David Matas, and the ruling by members of the International Refugee Board and later by Mr. Justice Yves de Montigny of the Federal Court showed a degree of erudition that was humbling to me.
Over subsequent years, Mr. Lai’s legal team mounted a series of appeals and delaying motions. The Canadian government spent millions to match the similar amounts Mr. Lai was paying for his defence. To my knowledge, none of his lawyers worked for free, and the money he was paying them may have come from the proceeds of crime. The fact that Mr. Lai may have used allegedly “dirty money” to stave off his repatriation to China is highly troubling.
I do worry about what fate will meet Mr. Lai in China. Will he be tortured in the course of interrogation? Could he die under murky circumstances in prison, as his brother and his accountant already have?
But I also have complete faith in the legal judgment of Mr. Justice Michel Shore, who approved Mr. Lai’s deportation. Whatever my friends and neighbours in Kunming may think, I’m convinced that Canada’s justice system is second to none and that Mr. Lai has received his due process of Canadian law. As someone who has spent a lot of my life living as an expatriate under an authoritarian regime, I very much appreciate that Canada’s independent and incorruptible judiciary is one of the things that makes Canada a truly great country.
Returning Mr. Lai to China sends a clear signal: Canada is not a country where international criminals can seek refuge. But the facts of Mr. Lai’s case are troubling all the same.
Charles Burton is associate professor of political science at Brock University and a former counsellor at the Canadian embassy in Beijing.