(CN) — Two American citizens are among the five people arrested Wednesday morning, on the east and west coasts, charged with conspiring to help the Chinese government stalk, threaten and extradite a New Jersey resident.
The group is accused of acting on behalf of what the People’s Republic of China calls “Operation Fox Hunt,” an effort to force certain expatriates back to China and make them stand trial for purported crimes. Officials here say the operation skirted around U.S. laws to harass and intimidate a former PRC government official and his family members.
To extract the former official, who is not named publicly, Fox Hunt agents stalked and surveilled him and his family, including photographing his daughter and bringing his elderly father from China to the U.S. against his will, according to the 43-page complaint. The former official and his wife are charged with embezzlement and accepting bribes while working for the Chinese government.
Two years ago, prosecutors here say, men with Fox Hunts banged on the former official’s front door and taped a threatening message to it, which translates to: “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!”
A copy of the message, along with other evidence, is included in the complaint unsealed Tuesday night in New York’s Eastern District.
In April 2019, a relative of the official’s wife received a package containing a CD. Some of the files on it included slideshow of the of the couple’s family members set to music, along with text commanding the official to “come home” as his parents were becoming sick and fragile and “kept hoping that you would suddenly appear.”
U.S. border officials also discovered night-vision goggles in the luggage of the lead defendant, Zhu Feng aka Johnny Zhu, while he was traveling between the U.S. and China.
FBI Director Christopher Wray told reporters in a press conference that Operation Fox Hunt lines up with other efforts like intellectual espionage and China targeting U.S. trade secrets, which are “all to their benefit, and all very much to our detriment.”
“China is determined to leapfrog the United States and become the dominant global superpower by any means necessary,” Wray said, referring to the PRC government.
Wray called the behavior “more like something we would expect from an organized criminal syndicate,” rather than a government body.
“It’s outrageous that China thinks it can come to our shores, conduct illegal operations, and bend people in the United States to their will,” Wray said.
Zhu Yong, Hongru Jin and Michael McMahon were arrested in New York and New Jersey, and appeared this afternoon in front of U.S. Magistrate Judge Peggy Kuo in Brooklyn. Those arrested on the west coast, Rong Jing and Zheng Congying, appeared in California’s Central District.
McMahon is a 53-year-old private detective in New Jersey, accused of helping to find the target’s address and performing surveillance on his family. Jin is a Queens resident and tour guide accused of setting up travel and logistics. Both are U.S. citizens.
Zhu Feng and the final two co-defendants, Hu Ji and Li Minjun, are still at large. U.S. officials believe they are in China.
Chinese General Secretary Xi Jinping spearheaded Operation Fox Hunt, also called “Operation Skynet,” which began in 2014, according to the FBI. PRC officials claim to have captured 680 fugitives that year over a six-month period.
Prosecutors say the operation is frequently used to hunt down political rivals, dissidents and critics, violating both laws and international norms.
Operation Fox Hunt is not an outlier, but part of the Chinese government’s pattern of disregarding law, said Assistant Attorney General John Demers. He cited re-education camps, detaining people unlawfully before trial, housing “massive, global hacking campaigns,” and retaliating against its own citizens by taking hostages.
With the new arrests, Demers said, the U.S. is pushing back: “The hungers became the hunted, the pursuers the pursued.”