The Chinese government enlisted Americans and U.S. permanent residents for a "large-scale and wide-ranging conspiracy" to strongarm a Chinese fugitive to return to his homeland, according to the Department of Justice.
The FBI arrested five individuals—all U.S. citizens or permanent residents—for stalking and harassing a New Jersey-based victim over the course of years to compel the victim to return to China, authorities announced on a Wednesday-morning press call. The three other defendants reside in China. With the help of these individuals, the Chinese government allegedly imprisoned the victim's sister in China, left threatening notes at the victim's residence, harassed the victim's daughter, and used other thuggish tactics to intimidate the victim.
"One of the notes read, for example, 'if you are willing to go back to the mainland and stay 10 years in prison, your wife and children will be safe and alright. That is the end of the matter,'" said Seth DuCharme, the acting U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York. "[This is] certainly not conduct that we tolerate when conducted unilaterally by a foreign government with no notice or permission of the United States government."
U.S. authorities alleged that the charged defendants were part of Operation Fox Hunt, a Chinese government operation launched in 2014 that ostensibly aims to repatriate Chinese fugitives from justice back to the homeland. The FBI, however, suspects that the aim of the program has shifted to principally target Chinese dissidents and political exiles. The Wednesday morning arrests marked the first time the U.S. government decided to charge the Fox Hunt operatives for their unscrupulous activities, according to DuCharme.
The FBI arrests constitute the latest step taken by the U.S. government to crack down on Chinese covert operations on U.S. soil. The FBI has arrested numerous U.S. researchers for concealing their affiliation with the Chinese government, including a high-profile arrest of a Harvard chemistry professor in January. Federal officials have also arrested several members of the Chinese military for lying about their identity to steal U.S. technology, which led to a tense standoff at a Chinese consulate when a defendant temporarily sought refuge there before her arrest. Federal authorities also arrested an NYPD officer in September for spying on the city's Tibetan communities on behalf of the Chinese government.
Authorities declined to provide identifying details about the victim but said Operation Fox Hunt has for years used illegal tactics to compel those facing charges in China to return home. While some of those targeted were bona fide criminals, many others were targeted for political reasons, according to John Demers, the assistant attorney general for national security.
"Some of these individuals may well be wanted on traditional criminal charges, and some of them may even be guilty," Demers said. "But in many instances, the hunted are opponents of Communist Party chairman Xi, political rivals, dissidents, critics. And in either event, the operation is a clear violation of the rule of law and international norms."
The defendants were charged with illegal stalking, as well as acting as an unauthorized agent of a foreign government without notifying and seeking approval from the attorney general, according to DuCharme. Of the five defendants arrested today, two were Americans and three were U.S. permanent residents with Chinese citizenship.
FBI director Christopher Wray said there are likely many more victims of Operation Fox Hunt and urged them to reach out to the FBI.
"The sad fact is that this was hardly an isolated incident," Wray said. "Fox Hunt is a sweeping bid by General Secretary Xi and the Chinese Communist Party to target Chinese nationals here in the United States and across the world who are viewed as threats to the regime."