BEIJING — China’s most-wanted corruption suspect was repatriated from the United States on Wednesday, making a dramatic televised surrender after 13 years on the run.
Yang Xiuzhu is accused of siphoning off vast riches from China’s massive building boom, stealing $39 million while working as deputy director of the construction bureau in the eastern city of Wenzhou before becoming the city’s vice mayor.
She had applied for political asylum in France, the Netherlands and, finally, the United States, but in the end, she appeared to recognize there was nowhere left to run.
On Wednesday, two guards led her off an American Airlines plane and escorted her through immigration, as state-run China Central Television broadcast the scene. Bespectacled and wearing a gray puffy jacket, she was taken into a room where a prosecutor read out the charges against her and she signed a charge sheet.
“We are all Chinese. Our home is China,” she said, urging other corruption suspects also to give themselves up. “Please come back soon.”
Yang ranked at the top of a list of the 100 most-wanted corruption suspects whom China had sought to apprehend with Interpol’s help. Many are living in the United States, Canada and Australia.
The ruling Communist Party’s anti-corruption wing, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, said Yang had surrendered to authorities, abandoning her “resistance” after she was promised “lenient treatment in accordance with the law.”
The CCDI said Yang had decided herself to withdraw her application for asylum in the United States.
In July, her attorney was quoted as saying that the 70-year-old’s health had started to deteriorate and that she wanted to return to China for medical treatment.
She was the 37th fugitive to return so far under what China initially dubbed Operation Fox Hunt, which expanded into Operation Skynet. The search for corrupt officials and business people who have fled abroad is part of President Xi Jinping’s signature campaign against corruption.
Yang’s brother, regional official Yang Jinjun, was the first suspect on the list to be sent home from the United States, repatriated in September 2015 for U.S. immigration violations.
After Chinese authorities began investigations against her, Yang fled first to Hong Kong in 2003, before heading to Singapore, France, the Netherlands and Italy, the CCDI said in a statement.
News reports say she jumped bail in the Netherlands and flew to Canada just before Dutch officials were due to repatriate her in 2014.
Last year, she told Reuters that the most-wanted fugitives list was a political document targeting enemies of the Xi administration rather than a roster of true criminals.
She claimed to have been arrested when she tried to enter the United States using a false passport, although China said she was placed in custody when Chinese officials gave U.S. law enforcement officials evidence of her crimes.
Concern about the Chinese legal system, where torture is thought to be widespread and where trials directed by the Communist Party are lacking in due process, is partly why China does not have an extradition treaty with the United States.
But U.S. officials, under considerable pressure from China, have said they would consider Chinese requests to repatriate suspects if they received credible evidence against them.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Yang’s surrender had been secured under the U.S.-China Joint Liaison Group on Law Enforcement Cooperation.
“Her return is an important achievement of China-U.S. law enforcement cooperation on fighting corruption,” he said at a regular news conference. “China appreciates and thanks the assistance and cooperation offered by the United States and other countries.”
A Chinese police official was elected president of Interpol last week, alarming rights advocates who worry that the global police organization could be used to attack Xi’s political opponents.