By Sebastian Rotella and Kirsten Berg
On the hunt again, the cop from Wuhan rolled into New Jersey on a secret reconnaissance mission.
Hu Ji watched the suburban landscape glide past the highway. He was in his early 40s, about 6-foot-1, smooth and confident-looking. His cases had led from Fiji to France to Mexico, making headlines back home. The work was riskier here; in fact, it was illegal. But he knew the turf. He’d identified himself as a Chinese police officer on his tourist visa, and the Americans hadn’t given him any trouble. Sometimes, it was best to hide in plain sight.
Hu’s driver took an exit into a wooded subdivision, cruising by big homes set back from the two-lane road that wound through one of the country’s wealthiest enclaves. The driver was a new recruit, a boyish-looking Chinese immigrant in his late 20s who lived in Queens and called himself Johnny. Johnny’s uncle in Houston had been a target of Hu’s covert team. Two months earlier, they had “persuaded” the uncle, a former chief accountant for a provincial aviation agency, to return to China to stand trial for alleged crimes. Hu had essentially offered a brutal deal to Johnny and his relatives: If you want to help your family, help us destroy someone else’s.
So in September 2016, Johnny became an indentured spy. He’d already done surveillance to prepare for this visit. Stopping the car, Johnny pointed out the location. The cop surveyed the large lawn, the trees flanking a brick path, the two-story house behind bushes.
Don’t tell anyone you brought me here, he said.
Locked onto his new target, Hu mobilized his team. It grew to at least 19 American and Chinese operatives: hired muscle, private detectives (including a former New York Police Department sergeant), and undercover repatriation specialists who slipped in and out of U.S. airports with ease. The team did stakeouts while the unsuspecting neighborhood slept. They employed aliases and cover stories to relay money, intelligence and threats. When the stage was set, they brought their target’s frail and elderly father from China to New Jersey as human bait — a high-stakes gambit known as an “emotional bomb.”
This time, it blew up in their faces. Last October, Hu hit the headlines again, this time in the United States, when federal prosecutors in New York charged him and seven others with conspiracy to act as illegal agents for China. Six of them, including the former NYPD detective, were also charged with conspiracy to engage in interstate stalking.
The three-year investigation revealed for the first time the inner workings of Operation Fox Hunt, a shadowy fugitive-apprehension program that is a pillar of President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign.
But it underscored something more troubling: the extent to which China is brazenly persecuting Chinese people around the world, defying other nations’ laws and borders with impunity. And it illuminated a little-known cloak-and-dagger battle between Chinese operatives and American agents on U.S. soil amid growing tensions between the two countries.
Launched in 2014, Operation Fox Hunt and a program called Operation Sky Net claim to have caught more than 8,000 international fugitives. The targets are not murderers or drug lords, but Chinese public officials and businesspeople accused — justifiably and not — of financial crimes. Some of them have set up high-rolling lives overseas with lush mansions and millions in offshore accounts. But others are dissidents, whistleblowers or relatively minor figures swept up in provincial conflicts.
In 2019, an immigration judge in New York granted political asylum to a former social security clerk from Beijing. The young clerk had landed on Fox Hunt’s most-wanted list, but he argued in U.S. court that his former bosses in China had framed him for embezzling about $100,000 after he denounced their corruption. Despite the judge’s ruling, he remains under federal protection because of ongoing harassment by Chinese government operatives.
Former Assistant Attorney General John Demers, who led the National Security Division of the Justice Department until last month, said China sets a dangerous precedent when it pursues expatriates here, violating U.S. laws and abusing human rights in both countries. (Demers declined to discuss the prosecution in New York.)
“If proceeds of corruption are laundered here, from China or any other country, we will investigate and, if we can, prosecute,” Demers said. “But some of these people didn’t do what they are charged with having done. And we also know that the Chinese government has used the anti-corruption campaign more broadly within the country with a political purpose.”
The global Fox Hunt campaign, he said, reflects “the authoritarian nature of the Chinese government and their use of government power to enforce conformity and repress dissent.”
China and the United States don’t have an extradition treaty, in part because of well-documented problems in China’s justice system. But U.S. authorities have tried to work with Chinese authorities to bring fugitives to justice. Some who were in the country illegally have been deported to their homeland. In other cases, China has supplied evidence to help American authorities convict legal immigrants for crimes, such as money laundering, committed in the U.S.
Nonetheless, over the past seven years Chinese fugitive hunters have stalked hundreds of people, including U.S. citizens and permanent residents, according to U.S. national security officials. Undercover repatriation teams enter the country under false pretenses, enlist U.S.-based accomplices and relentlessly hound their targets. To force them into returning, authorities subject their relatives in China to harassment, jail, torture and other mistreatment, sometimes recording hostage-like videos to send to the United States. In countries like Vietnam and Australia, Chinese agents have simply abducted their prey, whether the targets were dissidents or people accused of corruption. But in the United States, where such kidnappings are more difficult, Fox Hunt teams have relied mainly on coercion.
“They use pressure, leverage, threats against family, they use proxies,” said FBI Deputy Assistant Director Bradley Benavides, chief of the China branch of the bureau’s counterintelligence division. “Certainly, they are good at getting what they want.”
Fox Hunt, experts say, is part of a calculated offensive to send a message that no one is beyond the reach of Beijing. As the Chinese Communist Party builds the largest police state in history, it is exporting repression. A report by Freedom House, a nonprofit human rights group, concluded that China conducts “the most sophisticated, global, and comprehensive campaign of transnational repression in the world.” With the West preoccupied by other threats such as terrorism, Chinese spies have saturated diaspora communities with conscripted agents.
“This is the one thing that Chinese dissidents most fear,” said Teng Biao, a human rights lawyer and visiting professor at the University of Chicago. “Almost every Chinese overseas has at least one family member living in mainland China. Our fear is that our family will be targeted, they will have trouble. We have to worry about the personal safety of family members in China. That’s why we have to practice self-censorship.”
Transnational repression is just one front in a wide-ranging offensive. In April, FBI Director Christopher Wray told the Senate Intelligence Committee that the FBI has over 2,000 active China-related investigations, with a 1,300% increase in economic espionage cases alone. The FBI opens a new investigation into China every 10 hours, Wray testified.
The Justice Department’s China Initiative against spying has resulted in charges against former CIA officers, a U.S.-born professor, Chinese military officials and a China-based executive at Zoom charged with disrupting online commemorations of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.
“We have seen an acceleration of efforts across the range of malign Chinese government behavior,” Demers said. “There is a real change, I think, in the assertiveness and even the brazenness of some of this activity.”
In addition to tracking down those accused of economic crimes, Chinese security forces also travel the world in pursuit of others in the regime’s crosshairs, including Tibetans, Hong Kongers, followers of the Falun Gong religious movement and, perhaps most visibly, the Uyghurs, a predominantly Muslim ethnic group. The United States and others have accused China of committing genocide in the Xinjiang region against the Uyghurs.
Chinese leaders defend their efforts to retrieve fugitives. The lack of an extradition treaty with the United States, they say, makes the country a refuge for runaway criminals. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson dismissed the allegations in the New York case as a “smear.”
“When conducting law enforcement cooperation with other countries, the Chinese law enforcement authorities strictly observe international law, fully respect foreign laws and judicial sovereignty, and guarantee the legitimate rights and interests of criminal suspects,” said the spokesperson, Wang Wenbin. “Their operations are beyond reproach. Driven by ulterior motives, the United States turns a blind eye to basic facts and smears Chinese efforts to repatriate corrupt fugitives and recover illegal proceeds.” (The Chinese embassy did not respond to a request for further comment.)
ProPublica’s examination of the New Jersey case, the first prosecution involving a Fox Hunt operation, and of other clandestine Chinese missions in the United States, contradicts the official’s statement. For years, covert repatriation squads from China have tracked their targets in all manner of quintessentially American settings, from quiet housing tracts to suburban chain restaurants to immigrant business districts. Hu’s trail reveals the ambition of the effort. He is just one officer in one team from Wuhan, part of a swarm of teams from other provinces and Beijing that have been active in the United States.
To reconstruct Hu’s trajectory and other Fox Hunt activities, ProPublica interviewed leaders of the FBI and Justice Department, current and former national security officials with expertise on China-related cases, and Chinese dissidents and expatriates. ProPublica also reviewed the federal criminal complaint and other court documents; reports by governments, academic entities and human rights groups; and social media and press archives.
The reporting uncovered evidence that went beyond the New Jersey case, indicating that the Wuhan Fox Hunt team had roamed coast to coast for several years, often without the knowledge of U.S. law enforcement, taking advantage of fear and silence in immigrant communities.
“You have to understand the Chinese intelligence services,” said an Asian American former counterintelligence official. “They will tap literally anyone with access in the community where the fugitive may be hiding and working. China has the largest security apparatus in the world.”
See more of this report from ProPublica, complete with visuals, on its website here.
- ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power.