WASHINGTON - The FBI arrested five people Wednesday in connection with a scheme to force a former Chinese municipal official and his family residing in the United States to return to China, as part of China's "Operation Fox Hunt" anti-corruption campaign.
The five men, including a naturalized U.S. citizen, were arrested in New Jersey, New York and California early Wednesday morning, officials said. Three others, also charged in connection with the scheme, remain at large in China.
The defendants face charges of serving as illegal agents of China for allegedly participating in a campaign to "harass, stalk and coerce" U.S. residents to return to China as part of Operation Fox Hunt, the Justice Department said.
Operation Fox Hunt was launched in 2014 as part of Chinese President Xi Jinping's sweeping anti-graft campaign. The program's purported aim was the arrest of thousands of corrupt Chinese officials and businessmen who had fled abroad.
US says dissidents real targets
U.S. officials say Operation Fox Hunt is an "extralegal repatriation effort" designed to target Chinese dissidents around the world.
"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," Assistant Attorney General for National Security John C. Demers said at a news conference. "The five defendants the FBI arrested this morning on these charges of illegally doing the bidding of the Chinese government here in the United States now face the prospect of prison."
A criminal complaint unsealed in court Wednesday alleges the defendants surveilled, threatened and harassed the unidentified resident of New Jersey, as well as an unidentified woman, as part of an international campaign to force him to return to China. The complaint describes the first victim as a former official in a Chinese city government who has resided in the United States since 2010.
In April 2017, they forced the first victim's elderly father to travel to the U.S and sought to use his unexpected arrival to coerce the victim to return to China. In September 2018, two conspirators affixed a threatening note to the door of the victim's residence.
"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 note read.
Messages on social media
The criminal complaint says the defendants later conducted surveillance of the victim's adult daughter and sent her and her friends threatening messages on social media as part of the campaign to force her father to return to 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.
The five arrested defendants were identified as Zhu Yong, Hongru Jin, Michael McMahon, Rong Jing and Zheng Congying.
McMahon, a private investigator, is accused of gathering intelligence about the victim and his wife and locating their whereabouts.
Operation Fox Hunt is run by China's Ministry of Public Security. Since its launch, hundreds of Chinese "fugitives" have been brought back to China to stand trial, some of them voluntarily, and others after being arrested in foreign countries.