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9 Chinese agents hunted ex-pats in US, tried to force them back to China, DOJ charges

Chinese and American flags. (
July 22, 2021

On Thursday, the Department of Justice announced it has now charged nine individuals with acting as illegal agents of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), surveilling U.S. residents and attempting to coerce those U.S. residents to return to China through an extralegal repatriation scheme.

Tu Lan, 50, and Zhai Yongqiang, 46, both of China, are the latest two of nine alleged Chinese agents charged in the repatriation scheme. The DOJ previously charged co-defendants Hu Ji, 46 and Li Minjun, 65, both of China; Zhu Feng, 34, a Chinese national residing in Queens, New York; Michael McMahon, 53, of Mahwah, New Jersey; Zheng Congying, 24, of Brooklyn, New York; and Zhu Yong, aka Jason Zhu, 64, of Norwich, Connecticut, in related criminal complaints in October 2020 and May 2021. The DOJ said the name of the ninth defendant remains under seal.

China’s effort to repatriate Chinese individuals living abroad is known as Operation Fox Hunt. According to Pro Publica, Operation Fox Hunt began in 2014 and has caught more than 8,000 people living abroad who are wanted by China. Those targeted by the ongoing Chinese repatriation initiative are typically individuals accused of financial crimes, sometimes justifiably and other times not. The program has also gone after Chinese dissidents and whistleblowers.

The extent of the coercive efforts taken under Operation Fox Hunt, has included conveying threats to Chinese expatriates that their family members still living in China could be harmed if they did not cooperate and return to China themselves.

On Thursday, the DOJ described an effort by those charged in the repatriation scheme, to transport the father of one of their targets referred to as John Doe #1, to the U.S. “to convey a threat to John Doe #1 that his family in the PRC would be harmed if he did not return to the PRC.”

“At the direction of Tu Lan, Hu Ji and others, several defendants worked to investigate, surveil and locate John Doe #1 and his wife,” the DOJ announced. “Tu Lan then traveled to the United States along with John Doe #1’s father and a medical doctor, Li Minjun. While in the United States, Tu Lan directed several conspirators to surveil John Doe #1 and his family so the defendants would know where to bring John Doe #1’s father to deliver the demand that John Doe #1 return to the PRC. Afterwards, Tu Lan returned to the PRC, where she continued to supervise the operation with Hu Ji and other PRC officials, directed other U.S.-based conspirators to continue stalking John Doe #1 and then ordered the return of John Doe #1’s father to the PRC after their attempts to render John Doe #1 and Jane Doe #1 were unsuccessful.”

In another threatening episode on Sept. 4, 2018, two of the defendants are alleged to have driven to John Doe #1’s New Jersey home, where they pounded on the front door, attempted to force it open and then left a note at the residence that stated, “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!”

All nine defendants are charged with acting as and conspiring to act as agents of the PRC, which carry maximum penalties of ten years and five years in prison respectively, the DOJ said. The defendants are also charged with interstate stalking and conspiring to engage in interstate stalking, which carry a maximum penalty of five years in prison for each charge. Defendants Tu and Zhu are separately charged with obstruction of justice and conspiracy to obstruct justice, which carry a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison for each charge.

“If proceeds of corruption are laundered here, from China or any other country, we will investigate and, if we can, prosecute,” Former Assistant Attorney General John Demers told Pro Publica. “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.”

Demers, who led the National Security Division of the Justice Department until last month, said China’s efforts to pursue expatriates in the U.S. violates U.S. laws and sets a dangerous precedent.