The Unites States has charged eight people, including six Chinese citizens, over a three-year plot to intimidate a US resident into returning to China to face criminal charges.
The case is believed to be part of the ruling Communist Party's Operation Fox Hunt, an international anti-corruption campaign targeting Chinese fugitives -- often former officials or rich individuals suspected of economic crimes.
The US Department of Justice said Wednesday the charges included "conspiring to act in the US as illegal agents of the People's Republic of China." Five people have been arrested, while three are believed to be at large in China.
In 2016, the group -- which includes an American-licensed private investigator -- is alleged to have embarked on an illegal campaign targeting a former Chinese government official, who has lived in the US since 2010. They are accused of recording and harassing his daughter, taping a threatening note to his front door and flying his elderly father from China -- allegedly against his will -- in 2017 to pressure his son to return to China.
The note on the target's New Jersey home said in Chinese: "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!"
Speaking at a press conference Wednesday, US Assistant Attorney General John C. Demers said the arrests sent a message that the US "will not tolerate this type of flagrant conduct on our shores."
"Without coordination with our government, China's repatriation squads enter 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," he said.
Speaking at a press conference Thursday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said that Chinese law enforcement agencies "conduct foreign cooperation in strict accordance with international law, fully respect foreign laws and judicial sovereignty."
"The United States ignores the basic facts and uses ulterior motives to smear China's work in pursuit of escaped and stolen goods. China firmly opposes this. We urge the US to immediately correct its mistakes," he said.
Operation Fox Hunt
The Chinese government launched Operation Fox Hunt in 2014 to target wealthy citizens who were accused of corruption and had fled the country with large amounts of money.
Beijing authorities said at least 150 corrupt officials had fled to the US, and provided American counterparts with a list of "priority cases."
Demers said such operations -- regardless of whether the targets were guilty or not -- were "a clear violation of the rule of law and international norms."
"Rather than work with US authorities for assistance with recognized criminal cases as responsible nations do, China resorts to extralegal means and unauthorized, often covert, law enforcement activity," he said.
FBI Director Christopher Wray said at a news conference Wednesday that in a different Operation Fox Hunt case, the Chinese government had sent an "emissary" to the target's US-based family warning that the person should "return to China promptly or commit suicide."
Wray said that when Operation Fox Hunt targets refuse to return to China, family members in their home country "have even been arrested for leverage."
"These are not the actions we would expect from a responsible nation state. Instead they're more like something we would expect from an organized criminal syndicate," Wray said.