A man who escaped from a jail in China by tunnelling his way out with bare hands has been nabbed after nearly 15 years, police said.

Li Junlin, 41, was arrested after his location was traced by tapping the phone of a relative in Hebei province. He had escaped from jail in 1997 by tunnelling 13 metres, police said.

He was residing with his wife and four children in the northwestern city of Yan'an, reported Xinhua.

He had been arrested in December 1996 as part a 13-member gang that police say had committed 22 armed robberies, one murder and over ten burglaries and rapes.

Four of the gang members were later convicted and executed.

In January 1997, Li was being held in a detention cell in handcuffs and shackles awaiting trial with 10 other inmates, one of whom used to be a miner.

Police said the 11, using only their bare hands, dug a 13-metre tunnel from the corner of the cell to outside of the prison walls in just one night.

While 10 fugitives were held within three months, Li managed to elude police for nearly 15 years.

Li said he changed his name and worked at a quarry. Eventually, he made his way to Yan'an where he married a local woman and started a family.