Five people, including three Chinese nationals, were arrested in the United States on Wednesday for their alleged involvement in an illegal scheme to force a US resident to return to China to face prosecution.
Three other individuals also face charges in the case, but remain at large. US law enforcement officials believe they have returned to China.
Department of Justice officials said they believed those arrested were part of China’s “Operation Fox Hunt”, ostensibly an anti-corruption effort to track down fugitives overseas. US officials have said Beijing has used the programme to target dissidents and critics of Chinese President Xi Jinping.
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“With today’s charges, we have turned the PRC’s Operation Fox Hunt on its head – the hunters became the hunted, the pursuers the pursued,” John Demers, the assistant attorney general for national security, said in a virtual news briefing. He was accompanied by FBI director Christopher Wray.
“For those charged in China and others engaged in this type of conduct, our message is clear: stay out, this behaviour is not welcome here,” Demers said.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said cracking down on cross-border crimes should be supported, and that China’s operation was done in accordance with the law.
“The United States has ulterior motives for smearing China,” Wang said in a daily press briefing on Thursday. “China resolutely opposes that. We call on the US to correct its mistakes immediately and to uphold … [its] international responsibility, and not turn itself into a safe haven for criminals.”
The eight were charged with conspiracy to act in the US as “illegal agents of the People’s Republic of China”, and, if found guilty, could face up to five years in prison. Six of the suspects are also accused of conspiring to commit interstate and international stalking, a charge that carries a maximum five-year prison sentence.
The charges relate to a foiled plot beginning in 2016 to coerce the US resident – a Chinese citizen identified only as John Doe – to return to China with his family by threatening his wife and daughter in the US and other relatives still in China, officials said.
Citing privacy concerns, officials declined to elaborate on the identity of the targeted individual on Wednesday, but he is described in a criminal complaint as a former Chinese city government official who fled to the US several years ago and now lives in New Jersey.
The former official is wanted by the Chinese government for “embezzlement, abuse of power [and] acceptance of bribes”, according to the criminal complaint, which cited a 2012 Interpol notice filed by the Chinese government. His spouse is also sought by the Chinese government for “accepting bribes”.
According to the complaint, the former official faced the prospect of the death penalty if convicted in China for his alleged crimes, though those seeking his return said he could serve a prison sentence in exchange for the safety of his family.
“If you are willing to go back to mainland and spend 10 years in prison, your wife and children will be all right,” a note fixed to his door in September 2018 allegedly said.
Alongside those charged in the case, the criminal complaint said three unnamed Chinese officials had also conspired in the scheme, either by directing the operation from China or travelling to the US to oversee the execution of the scheme.
The operation included bringing the target’s father – against his will – from China to the US in 2017 to surprise the target and coerce him to return to China, justice department officials said.
One of the two US citizens arrested on Wednesday, Michael McMahon, is a private investigator licensed in New Jersey who is alleged to have conducted surveillance of the father while he was in the United States.
A page for McMahon on the website of the New Jersey Licensed Private Investigators Association describes him as having served in the New York Police Department, where, according to his LinkedIn page, he worked as a sergeant.
The other defendants arrested included one naturalised US citizen, Hongru Jin, and three Chinese nationals, Zhu Yong, Rong Jing and Zheng Congying, all of whom are permanent US residents.
One of the three defendants who remain at large, 45-year-old Hu Ji, was identified in the criminal complaint as a police officer working in the Wuhan Public Security Bureau. Another, a 64-year-old doctor named Li Minjun, allegedly travelled with the victim’s elderly father to the US in April 2017.
The case was the “first of its kind”, said Seth DuCharme, the acting US lawyer for the Eastern District of New York, suggesting that it marked the first time charges have been brought relating to Beijing’s “Operation Fox Hunt”.
Yet the targeting of the individual in this case was “far from an isolated incident”, Wray said.
“The Chinese government’s brazen attempts to surveil, threaten, and harass our own citizens and lawful permanent residents, while on American soil, are part of China’s diverse campaign of theft and malign influence in our country and around the world,” he said.
The Chinese embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The arrests came as the US government expanded its efforts to counter China’s influence in the US, designating the National Association for China’s Peaceful Unification (NACPU), a non-profit organisation focused on promoting the “one China principle” abroad, as a “foreign mission” of the Chinese government.
The designation means that any US-based employee of the NACPU, which has ties to China’s United Front Work Department, must register as a foreign actor. The move follows similar recent designations for the Confucius Institutes and more than a dozen Chinese state media outlets operating in the US.
Additional reporting by Catherine Wong
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