U.S. Charges 8 People Over Illegal Efforts to Target Dissidents

The Department of Justice announced on Wednesday that it had arrested eight people for aiding the Chinese government in harassing and intimidating dissidents living in the . According to the , the efforts were part of a coordinated, global, extralegal repatriation program known as “Operation Fox Hunt.” The Wall Street Journal’s Aruna Viswanatha reported on details of the suspects’ efforts to coerce and pressure fugitives into returning to China:

The arrests, in the New York area and in California in the past 24 hours, are the first specifically targeting what China describes as an anticorruption effort to return to that country people wanted for economic and other crimes—but which critics, including the U.S. government, in some cases consider a campaign directed at Beijing’s political rivals. 

[…] Between 2016 and 2019, the defendants allegedly tried multiple tactics to pressure a Chinese citizen living in New Jersey described as a fugitive by the Chinese government to return to China, including by bringing his elderly father to the U.S. in an effort to coerce him; targeting his daughter for and online harassment; and leaving a note taped to his house that said: “If you are willing to go back to the mainland and spend 10 years in prison, your wife and children will be all right. That’s the end of this matter!”

The defendants face charges of conspiring to act as unregistered Chinese agents and stalk and harass a victim couple, who isn’t named but is identifiable as Xu Jin and his wife, Liu Fang. The couple was the subject of a Wall Street Journal Page One article in July that described the alleged harassment they had faced from Chinese operatives, including accusations that the operatives had kidnapped Mr. Xu’s father living in China and that they had posed as Federal Bureau of Investigation agents to stalk an immediate relative of Mr. Xu’s living in the U.S. An attorney for the couple declined immediate comment. [Source]

U.S. officials described the suspects as engaged in a coordinated campaign launched by Beijing with the ostensible goal of bringing home fugitives in China’s anti-corruption drive. But NPR’s Ryan Lucas reported that DOJ officials disputed that characterization of the repatriations: 

“Some of the individuals may well be wanted on traditional criminal charges and they may even be guilty of what they are charged with,” [Assistant attorney general John] Demers said. “But in many instances the hunted are opponents of Communist Party Chairman Xi — political rivals, dissidents, and critics. And in either event, the operation is a clear violation of the rule of law and international norms.”

There are established ways to request U.S. assistance in criminal cases, Demers said, but with , the Chinese government is employing illegal, unauthorized and often covert techniques outside the bounds of the law.

“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,” he added. “This certainly isn’t one of them.” [Source]

CDT has written extensively about Operation Fox Hunt, including efforts by previous administrations and foreign governments to condemn Beijing’s harassment and intimidation efforts in their countries. 

The Chinese government has employed a variety of strategies over the years to coerce targets into returning to China. In July, the Wall Street Journal published an extensive story about Beijing’s efforts to harass and intimidate two of the targets named this week into returning to China. Aruna Viswanatha and Kate O’Keeffe reported that one strategy involved pursuing the suspects in American courts: 

Chinese officials had laid the groundwork for the lawsuit effort by November 2014, when a top legal-affairs official announced a new plan to sue fugitives in American courts. Explaining the strategy, Xu Hong, director general of the ministry’s Department of Treaty and Law, said: “All major countries are fully aware that pursuing corruption and hunting those fugitives overseas and recovering assets are beneficial and conducive to the interests of all nations.”

[…] Xu Jin and his wife, Liu Fang, appeared on China’s 2015 most-wanted list, accused of bribe-taking. Mr. Xu was a government official overseeing commercial development in a district of Wuhan and later the director of Wuhan’s most powerful planning body, according to a suit that privately owned Xinba Construction Group Co. filed against the couple in New Jersey state court in April 2018.

[…] The couple in court filings deny Mr. Xu extorted or looted any company, calling the litigation a sham to coerce the couple “to return to China and, if not, to harass and attempt to bankrupt” them. The couple countersued, alleging an extensive harassment campaign by Chinese operatives, including accusations that they had kidnapped Mr. Xu’s father living in China and that they had posed as FBI agents to stalk an immediate relative of Mr. Xu’s living in the U.S.

The judge in September 2019 rejected their claims, saying they didn’t provide sufficient evidence that Xinba was working with the Chinese government. A previous judge overseeing the case noted its unusual nature: “It’s not your ordinary case you see in the Superior Court in Essex County, but we’re open for all business I guess…No herniated discs. No slip and falls in this case.” [Source]

The arrests this week are the latest effort by the FBI to go after Chinese individuals allegedly engaged in spying and surveillance in the U.S. That effort has at times proven to be controversial, alongside other initiatives by the Trump administration to counter China on national security grounds. 

Related to that effort, the Department of Justice has continued to press its case to have WeChat removed from U.S. app stores. Researchers at The Citizen Lab have found that the app has been used to surveil international users, whose data was used to build up ’s Chinese political censorship system. But opponents of the ban say that the app is critical to families, journalists, and scholars who rely on the app to communicate with contacts and loved ones in China. Last week, a judge blocked the DOJ’s attempts to ban the app for a second time.

While the Trump administration has placed particular emphasis on going after China for its alleged surveillance work in the U.S., efforts to counter the harassment of Chinese dissidents precede the current administration. As Michael Schmidt reported for the New York Times, efforts to counter the harassment of Chinese dissidents date back to the previous administration: 

The Justice Department has been investigating the Chinese campaign since at least the final years of the Obama administration.

For decades, American intelligence analysts concluded Chinese agents in the United States were primarily assigned to steal trade and government secrets, and gather public information about American life. But the discovery of Operation Fox Hunt” marked a wrinkle in the spy games between the United States and China, creating a new espionage challenge for the F.B.I., which investigates foreign spying and influence campaigns.

In 2015, top Obama officials privately warned Chinese officials to stop using their agents in the United States to harass expatriates. But the documents unsealed on Wednesday show those warnings failed. China appears to have increased its efforts — which are popular among a Chinese public focused on rooting out corruption — in recent years. [Source]

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