The US Justice Department has charged eight people with conspiring to work on behalf of China to engage in an ‘international campaign to threaten, harass, surveil, and intimidate’ Chinese citizens to return to their home country.
Five of the individuals charged were arrested on Wednesday, while the rest are believed to be in China, said Assistant Attorney General for National Security John Demers announced at a press conference on Wednesday.
Defendants Zhu Yong, Hongru Jin, and Michael McMahon were arrested in New York and New Jersey; Rong Jing and Zheng Congying were arrested in Los Angeles. Zhu Feng, Hu Ji, and Li Minjun remain at large.
The alleged plot dubbed ‘Operation Fox Hunt’ aimed to target Chinese nationals living in the US and other countries and intimidate them into returning to China to face charges.
The DOJ said the defendants were acting at the direction of Chinese President Xi Jinping when they ‘conducted surveillance of and engaged in a campaign to harass, stalk, and coerce’ their targets beginning in 2014.
Assistant Attorney General for National Security John Demers announces federal charges against eight people accused of conspiring to work on behalf of China to engage in an ‘international campaign to threaten, harass, surveil, and intimidate’ Chinese citizens to return to their home country
Five of the individuals charged were arrested on Wednesday, while the rest are believed to be in China. Defendant Zheng Congying is seen in a photo released by investigators
‘China describes Fox Hunt as an international anti-corruption campaign in which it seeks to locate legitimate fugitives around the world and bring them to China to face genuine criminal charges,’ Demers said.
‘But in many instances the hunted are opponents of Communist Party Chairman Xi [Jinping] – political rivals, dissidents, and critics.
‘In either event, the operation is a clear violation of the rule of law and international norms.’
All eight defendants are facing charges for ‘conspiring to act in the United States as illegal agents of the People’s Republic of China’, punishable by up to five years in prison.
Six of them also face related charges for ‘conspiring to commit interstate and international stalking’, which carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison.
The five defendants already arrested will appear before a judge for an arraignment later on Wednesday.
‘Today’s charges reflect yet another example of China’s ongoing and widespread lawless behavior, and our unwillingness to tolerate it,’ FBI Director Christopher Wray said at the briefing.
‘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.’
‘Today’s charges reflect yet another example of China’s ongoing and widespread lawless behavior, and our unwillingness to tolerate it,’ FBI Director Christopher Wray said at the briefing
The complaint unsealed on Wednesday describes how the defendants began targeting a former Chinese government employee living in New Jersey, who had been accused by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) of breaking laws there, in April 2017.
Prosecutors did not specify what crimes the ‘John Doe-1’ was accused of in an effort to protect his identity and his family.
Defendants Zhu Feng, Hu Ji, Li Minjun, Hongru Jin, Zhu Yong and Michael McMahon allegedly worked with PRC officials to hatch a scheme to bring John Doe-1’s elderly father over to the US from China against his will. They planned to use the elderly father’s surprise arrival to threaten and coerce John Doe-1 into returning to China.
In September 2018, Zheng Congying and another unidentified co-conspirator allegedly affixed a note (pictured) to the door of the John Doe-1’s home that read: ‘If you are willing to go back to mainland and spend 10 years in prison, your wife and children will be all right. That’s the end of this matter!’
Feng, Ji and Yong allegedly worked with McMahon, a private investigator, to gather information about John Doe-1 and his wife – including their whereabouts in the US.
PRC officials then coerced the target’s father into coming to New Jersey with Minjun, a doctor.
‘During this phase of the scheme, McMahon, whose task was to surveil John Doe-1’s father in order to locate John Doe-1 and his wife, suggested to Feng that they could “harass [John Doe-1]. Park outside his home and let him know we are there,”‘ prosecutors alleged.
‘Later, Feng told McMahon: “[t]hey definitely grant u a nice trip if they can get [John Doe-1] back to China haha.”‘
The conspirators directed John Doe-1’s father to make false statements to US immigration authorities about the purpose of his travel, the complaint states.
They also attempted to destroy evidence and delete their electronic communications to avoid detection by US authorities, prosecutors said.
The campaign against John Doe-1 also involved targeting his adult daughter with surveillance and online harassment between May 2017 and July 2018, according to the complaint.
Defendant Rong Jing allegedly attempted to hire a private investigator to locate the daughter in order to photograph and film her while another unidentified co-conspirator sent harassing messages to her and her friends on social media.
Prosecutors described several physical threats the defendants sent to John Doe-1.
In September 2018, Zheng Congying and another unidentified co-conspirator allegedly affixed a note to the door of the John Doe-1’s home that read: ‘If you are willing to go back to mainland and spend 10 years in prison, your wife and children will be all right. That’s the end of this matter!’
Between February 2019 and April 2019, other co-conspirators directed unsolicited packages to the home, which contained threatening letters and video messages.
Surveillance equipment found in defendant Zhu Feng’s luggage
The US had previously issued warnings about Operation Fox Hunt, which they described as a ‘rogue law enforcement’ effort to suppress dissidents and critics of the PRC.
Officials said the PRC has used the operation to target hundreds of Chinese nationals living in the US rather going through legitimate law enforcement channels.
Wednesday’s announcement marked the latest effort by the US to attack what it perceives as China’s wanton disregard of laws regarding computer hacking, surreptitious influence operations and intellectual property theft.
Earlier this month the US charged at least five Chinese scientists with visa fraud for allegedly lying to US immigration officials to gain access to working at notable US medical research universities all the while secretly working for the People’s Liberation Army.
Chine hit back by warning that it would take Americans hostage if the DOJ didn’t release the scientists, sources told the Wall Street Journal.
In September the DOJ charged five charged five Chinese nationals in separate global hacking schemes targeting more than 100 video game firms, universities and other victims.
At the time, US officials accused Beijing of tolerating such crimes because the defendants were working for the country’s spy service as well.