Flashpoints | Security

8 Accused by the US of Participating in China’s Operation Fox Hunt

The case demonstrates the United States’ growing interest in aggressively pursuing illegal Chinese agents in the country.

Abhijnan Rej
8 Accused by the US of Participating in China’s Operation Fox Hunt
Credit: Flickr/BXGD

The United States Department of Justice announced on October 28 that eight individuals have been charged with conspiring to act as illegal agents of China, with six of them additionally also charged with conspiracy to commit interstate and international stalking. According to the statement, “The defendants, allegedly acting at the direction and under the control of PRC government officials, conducted surveillance of and engaged in a campaign to harass, stalk, and coerce certain residents of the United States to return to the PRC as part of a global, concerted, and extralegal repatriation effort known as ‘Operation Fox Hunt’.”

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has arrested five of the accused while three remain at large. Out of the five, two of them were arrested in the Central District of California.

Announcing the charges, U.S. Assistant Attorney General for National Security John Demers described Operation Fox Hunt as “extralegal means and unauthorized, often covert, law enforcement activity” through which China, since 2014, has sought to bring fugitives back to the country under the garb of a global anti-corruption drive. Demers noted that that “[s]ome of the individuals may well be wanted on traditional criminal charges and they may even be guilty of what they are charged with.  But in many instances the hunted are opponents of Communist Party Chairman Xi — political rivals, dissidents, and critics.”

Launched in 2014, Operation Fox Hunt was supposed to repatriate corrupt Chinese officials so they could be prosecuted for their crimes. By 2015, Chinese media reported the successful repatriation of over 800 allegedly corrupt officials. The Chinese government has used a variety of means to bring those officials back, including offering lighter sentences to encourage voluntary repatriation and working with foreign governments (including the United States) to extradite suspects. But Beijing has also resorted to pressuring its targets by threatening their family members in China, or even allegedly kidnapping wanted fugitives, including political dissidents.

As the Trump administration has zeroed in on China’s increasingly bold attempts to coerce and intimidate ethnic Chinese living abroad, Operation Fox Hunt has been on its radar. Speaking at the Hudson Institute in July this year, FBI Director Christopher Wray had flagged it as an example of how the Chinese Communist Party seeks to undermine the rule of law. Notably, Wray, in his speech, exhorted potential Fox Hunt victims to contact the FBI.

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In the present case, the United States accuses the eight individuals of participating in a “large-scale and wide-ranging conspiracy” to intimidate and harass an unnamed New Jersey-based victim in order to force him to return to China. Demers notes that “several representatives from the Chinese government traveled with the elderly father of the New Jersey-based victim” from China to the New York area in an effort to coerce him, going on to add that “[t]he same scheme also included leaving menacing notes on the victim’s door, imprisoning the victim’s sister in China, and harassing the victim’s daughter online.”

Demers emphasized the use of a Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) statue in pursuing the case, noting that the Justice Department “is committed to the aggressive use of the statute, an important tool in our fight against illegal foreign activity here,” along with other national security laws, to combat illegal Chinese activity in the United States.

Last month, on September 21, the U.S. government charged a New York Police Department officer of Tibetan origin of acting as an illegal agent of China, along with other crimes. 33-year old Baimadajie Angwang was accused of spying on Chinese citizens in the New York area, developing potential intelligence sources within the Tibetan community in the area, and facilitating access of Chinese government officials to senior NYPD officers.

“Today’s announcement of these charges further highlights the FBI’s ongoing and aggressive commitment to investigate China’s efforts to illegally impose its will in the United States,” the Special Agent in Charge George M. Crouch Jr. of the FBI Newark Field Office was quoted as saying in the Justice Department announcement of the latest arrests.