By Sui-Lee Wee
BEIJING (Reuters) - The United States is cooperating with China to repatriate Chinese fugitives facing corruption charges, a senior U.S. official said on Thursday, a move that could pave the way for the return of hundreds of government officials wanted for graft.
U.S. Department of Commerce General Counsel Cameron Kerry, in Beijing on a five-day visit focused on anti-corruption and commercial rule of law issues, said that "there's good cooperation" between Chinese and U.S. prosecutors "in finding ways to repatriate corrupt officials or ill-gotten assets."
"Our prosecutors on both sides yesterday discussed a number of specific cases and they look forward to increasing cooperation on those cases," Kerry told reporters at a briefing.
Some of these cases include U.S. investigations into alleged bribes paid to Chinese officials by companies from the United States or registered in the United States, under the Federal Corrupt Practices Act, he added.
He declined to be more specific and said he was not in a position to comment on whether the United States was close to extraditing anyone.
"The United States currently does not have an extradition treaty with China, but there are other mechanisms available to pursue fugitives," Kerry said.
"Most fugitives from justice immigrated to the United States illegally, many of them have been repatriated through our immigration laws, and deportation, under those laws."
Beijing's lack of extradition treaties and other countries' misgivings about its widespread use of the death penalty have allowed corrupt officials to escape Chinese dragnets, creating a problem of capital flight for the world's second-largest economy.
Last weekend, China arrested its most wanted fugitive, Lai Changxing, in Beijing after Canada deported him to end a decades-long saga that had plagued Sino-Canadian relations, but concerns remained among activists about whether he would receive a fair trial.
The cooperation between Chinese and U.S. prosecutors started in 2007, Kerry said, adding that there's been an "increased energy on the Chinese side" over the past two years that he's been involved in the discussions.
Police statistics in 2010 showed that there were nearly 600 Chinese suspects at large overseas, who are wanted for economic crimes, mostly corruption, according to the official Xinhua news agency.
Most of the fugitives had fled to North America or Southeast Asia, the China Daily reported last December, citing Meng Qingfeng, head of the economic crime investigation department under the ministry of public security.
In 2006, Yu Zhendong, a former Bank of China manager convicted in the United States before being deported on corruption charges at home, was sentenced to 12 years in prison. China had promised he would not be tortured or executed.
(Additional reporting by Sally Huang, editing by Miral Fahmy)