US authorities have charged eight people with allegedly conducting an illegal Chinese operation on American soil intended to target, intimidate and kidnap people whom Beijing viewed as dissident threats.
“China’s repatriation squads enter the sovereign territory of 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,” John Demers, assistant attorney-general for national security, said on Wednesday.
He said that China’s “Operation Foxhunt” started in 2014 at the direction of Chinese president Xi Jinping. China has described the operation as an international anti-corruption campaign, but it regularly functioned as an extra-legal effort to target dissidents and critics, Mr Demers said.
The FBI arrested five US and Chinese nationals earlier on Wednesday, following a multiyear investigation. US officials believe the remaining three defendants are in China.
“Operation Foxhunt is just one of many ways in which China disregards the rule of law,” Mr Demers said.
Seth DuCharme, US attorney for the eastern district of New York, described the defendants’ alleged tactics as “shocking”, including using night-vision goggles, putting threatening notes on a target’s door and threatening the wellbeing of a target’s wife and daughter.
The arrests, made in New York, New Jersey and California, mark the latest efforts by the US to push back against Chinese activities on American soil as the two countries clash over espionage, trade, Hong Kong and coronavirus. The FBI said earlier in the year that it opened a China-related counter-intelligence case every 10 hours.
Recent actions by the Trump administration have included closing down China’s consulate in Houston over accusations that it was a spy hub, and re-categorising Chinese media workers as agents of the state and limiting how many can work at each outlet.
“China is determined to leapfrog the United States and become the dominant global superpower by any means necessary,” said Christopher Wray, FBI director, on Wednesday.
“This is becoming all too common,” he added, referring to China’s alleged harassment of individuals overseas, saying that such conduct needed to be stopped.
The Chinese embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request to comment. Beijing has denied espionage accusations in the past.