A former finance official in rural China is missing and said to be in Canada with as much as $14-million in public funds, potentially adding to the list of high-profile and allegedly corrupt Chinese bureaucrats seeking refuge in Canada.
But the story may be more complicated than that, with at least one Communist Party official suggesting that the missing man and the stolen money may never have left the country.
Several Chinese newspapers reported Monday that Li Huabo arrived in Canada with his wife and two daughters earlier this month, shortly before the beginning of the two-week holiday that is China's Lunar New Year. It was unclear where in Canada Mr. Li is believed to be.
Mr. Li, who worked as a section director in the finance bureau of Poyang county in the southeastern province of Jiangxi, is accused of embezzling the $14-million - an amount roughly equal to a quarter of the annual budget of the local government - over the course of four years. Several reports described Mr. Li as a gambling addict who took multiple trips to Macao, a "special administrative region" that is the only place in China where casinos are legal and plentiful.
But the People's Daily newspaper cast doubt on how low-level officials like Mr. Li and his alleged accomplices could have stolen so much money without drawing the attention of their superiors.
The missing funds went unreported until Feb. 11, when Mr. Li is said to have called from Canada to confess to his crimes. Cheng Sixi, the former deputy Communist Party chief of the Poyang finance bureau, said Mr. Li phoned him and said: "I have run away to Canada. In past years, I have embezzled a lot from public funds."
Mr. Li is said to have also sent a letter outlining how he stole the money, leading police to arrest several alleged accomplices.
As the story spread in the Chinese media, some of the outrage among China's large and feisty community of Internet users was directed at Canada, which is already famous as a place of refuge for white-collar criminals wanted by Beijing. It's known in particular as the home-in-exile of Lai Changxing, who is often described as China's most-wanted fugitive for allegedly heading a multibillion-dollar smuggling ring in the port city of Xiamen.
For more than a decade, Mr. Lai has successfully fought extradition to China on the grounds that he likely would be executed if he returned. Last week, fugitive businessman Zeng Hanlin was deported to China after a seven-year legal battle, despite warnings from his lawyer that he was likely to be executed.
"Why do all the corrupt officials like to flee to Canada? It seems Canada is really a good place to award the corrupt and punish [those with]clean hands," one resident of Guizhou province wrote on the Phoenix TV website.
A spokesman for the local Communist Party committee in Poyang told the China Daily newspaper that an investigation had been launched into the missing funds, but added it had not yet been confirmed whether Mr. Li and his family had left China.
The unnamed spokesman said that far less than $14-million was actually missing, and that some had already been recovered. He hinted that the remainder of the missing cash may be far closer to home than Canada. "The transfers show the money is not going anywhere overseas," he was quoted as saying.
The office headed by Mr. Li manages funds for public works and government organizations. Police say Mr. Li and the head of a local bank fabricated a government seal, as well as false invoices and bank statements, allowing them to withdraw money at will from the accounts of the finance department.
"To plug the holes, authorities will conduct a comprehensive examination of the bank accounts and funds of all organizations and agencies in the county," read a statement from the Poyang government.
"The county's Party discipline committee will thoroughly investigate all officials who are running private enterprises, or whose spouses or children are."