Feds charge 8 in alleged secret Chinese repatriation plot hunting fugitives in U.S.

Kevin Johnson, USA TODAY
·3 min read
Assistant Attorney General for National Security John C. Demers, speaks during a news conference to announce a criminal law enforcement action involving China, at the Department of Justice in Washington, Thursday, Nov. 1, 2018.
Assistant Attorney General for National Security John C. Demers, speaks during a news conference to announce a criminal law enforcement action involving China, at the Department of Justice in Washington, Thursday, Nov. 1, 2018.

Federal authorities unveiled criminal charges Wednesday against eight people accused of serving as part of a covert Chinese repatriation squad that sought to forcibly return fugitives to the Beijing government.

The suspects, whose mission was allegedly sanctioned by the People's Republic of China, worked for more than three years as part of a campaign known as "Operation Fox Hunt" to coerce Chinese nationals living in the United States to return to China, where they were wanted for various government offenses, said John Demers, chief of the Justice Department's National Security Division.

In many instances, Demers said, the "hunted are opponents of Communist Party Chairman Xi (Jinping), political rivals, dissidents and critics." Demers said the suspects operated far outside the normal diplomatic channels.

Five of the suspects, including a New Jersey private investigator who allegedly assisted with surveillance, were arrested earlier Wednesday and charged as illegal agents of the PRC. The three others are believed to be living in China.

"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," FBI Director Christopher Wray said.

In the case announced Wednesday, authorities focused on the group's suspected effort to "intimidate" a New Jersey man and his family to return to China. The identities of the victims were not disclosed.

Beginning in April 2017, the suspects arranged to bring the New Jersey man's elderly father from China to the United States, against the father's will, to participate in the pressure campaign.

Before the father's arrival, the group sought the assistance of private investigator Michael McMahon to locate the family, federal officials said.

Between May 2017 and July 2018, the group allegedly focused their pressure on the New Jersey man's adult daughter and her friends, using social media to send intimidating messages and communicating the PRC's interest in the repatriation effort.

The harassment continued in September 2018, when two of the suspects allegedly posted a threatening note to the door of victim family's New Jersey home.

“If you are willing to go back to mainland and spend 10 years in prison, your wife and children will be all right," the note stated. "That’s the end of this matter!”

During a three-month period in 2019, the suspects allegedly sent packages to the family's home containing letters and videos urging them to comply with the Chinese government's demands.

"Without coordination with our government, China’s repatriation squads enter the United States, surveil and locate the alleged fugitives, and deploy intimidation and other tactics to force them back into China where they would face certain imprisonment or worse following illegitimate trials," Demers said. "There are many established ways that rule of law abiding nations conduct international law enforcement activity. This certainly isn’t one of them."

Wray described the activities as "beyond the pale" and not confined to the United States. He said the Chinese government was involved in similar operations in other countries.

The FBI director called the operation and others like it an "affront to America's ideals of freedom, human rights and the rule of law.”

McMahon, Zhu Yong and Hongru Jin were set to be arraigned Wednesday in Brooklyn, New York. Rong Jing and Zheng Congying were arrested in California and are scheduled to make their first appearance in a Los Angeles federal court. Zhu Feng, Hu Ji and Li Minjun remained at large.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Feds say secret Chinese repatriation squad in U.S., charge 8