China says using young, educated anti-graft officials as 'fox hunters'

SHANGHAI (REUTERS) - China's team charged with hunting down officials suspected of corruption who have fled overseas is aged 30 on average, speaks foreign languages and is well educated, a Chinese official said, giving rare details of a secretive operation.

The government launched Operation Fox Hunt last year to go after suspects who have left China to try and seek refuge abroad, often taking large sums with them, though little information about the project has been made public.

President Xi Jinping has vowed to hunt down powerful"tigers" as well as lowly "flies" in his campaign to stamp out corruption, which he has warned is so bad it could threaten the ruling Communist Party's grip on power.

Liu Dong, deputy director of the Ministry of Public Security's economic crimes division, told the official Xinhua news agency this week that his team was highly intelligent, tough and nimble, with backgrounds in economics, law, foreign languages and business management.

Liu said team members were selected in part for their"emotional quotient" for dealing with overseas law enforcement, and for their ability to handle adversity, the report said. "We have no enforcement rights overseas, so we have to understand and respect local laws," he was quoted as saying.

The report described team members as travelling constantly, with some making 10 overseas trips in less than 6 months. In one case, it said, a team member was pursuing a "fox" in an Ebola-contaminated region and caught a fever, then hid out in a room for two days during which the pursuer drank 40 bottles of water.

The party's corruption watchdog says 500 suspects were repatriated to China last year, along with more than 3 billion yuan (S$650 million).

China has given the United States a "priority" list of Chinese officials suspected of corruption and who are believed to have fled there.

Chinese officials say more than 150 "economic fugitives", many of them described as corrupt government officials, are in the United States.

The two countries have no extradition treaty and Western governments have long been reluctant to hand over suspects because of a lack of transparency and due process in China's judicial system.

While Liu emphasised the need to cooperate with local authorities, in some cases it appears Chinese police have not done so.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported this week that Chinese police had entered Australia undercover to try to coax a fraud suspect to return to China to face charges, and quoted a government representative as saying Canberra had protested to Beijing.