CBC News has learned that Chinese fugitive Lai Changxing has boarded a flight bound for China.

The 52-year-old lost his last legal attempt to stay in Canada on Thursday when Federal Court Justice Michel Shore ruled that Lai should be returned to China to face accusations he operated a multibillion-dollar smuggling operation.

The judge based his decision on "extraordinary assurances" from Chinese government officials that Lai would receive a legal defence and would not be tortured or executed.

Paul Evans, the director of the Institute of Asian Research at UBC, said Lai's departure is good news for Foreign Affairs officials.

"From a governmental perspective, this had bedevilled Canada-China relations for over a decade now," Evans said.

Lai fled to Canada in the late 1990s when China began a crackdown on commercial crime.

Evans said Lai managed to stay in Canada so long because of claims he would be tortured or executed if returned.

"There's a real structural problem here in that we do not have an extradition arrangement with China, and we don't have a kind of protocol for managing white-collar crime," Evans said.

Canada needs to firm up the way it deals with fugitives like Lai, Evans said, because there are dozens more similar cases on the horizon.

David Matas, Lai's lawyer, said it's a shame his client's legal saga ends with a judgment that defers to government instead of the law.

Matas was highly critical of the federal justice's decision to send Lai back to China, calling it inconsistent, unpersuasive and wrongly decided.

With files from The Canadian Press