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Fox Hunt: How China is nabbing fugitives through a massive covert operation

The art of spying and surveillance (Photo: IANS)

One of the pillars of President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign, called Operation Fox Hunt is a shadowy fugitive-apprehension program through which China sends covert teams abroad to bring back people accused of financial crimes.

Propublica, a non-profit journal reported that in a recently concluded investigation by the federal prosecutors, it was revealed that Hu Ji, a cop from Wuhan police on tourist visa recruited at least 19 American and Chinese operatives to act as agents and has been charged with conspiracy to engage in interstate stalking.

These agents included thugs, private investigators (including a former New York Police Department sergeant), and covert extradition specialists who slipped in and out of U.S. airports with ease.

The team employed aliases and cover stories to relay money, intelligence and threats and did stakeouts while the unsuspecting neighbourhood slept. Through a sophisticated system of coercion and blackmail, Hu Ji was able to recruit indentured spies among the Chinese immigrants. He "persuaded" their families to help out in his covert operation or be forced to return to China and face trial for their alleged crimes, as reported by the US Department of Justice.

But it signifies something more concerning: the degree to which China is attempting to persecute Chinese people around the globe, flouting other nations’ laws and borders with impunity. And it has brought to light an unfamiliar clandestine war between Chinese operatives and American agents on U.S. soil amid increasing tensions between the two countries.

More than 8,000 international fugitives have apprently be caught by Operation Fox Hunt and a parallel program called Operation Sky Net , which was first launched in 2014, as reported by CNBC.

The targets are Chinese public officials and business people accused of financial crimes. Some of them have set up high-rolling lives overseas with lush mansions and millions in offshore accounts while others are dissidents, whistle blowers or relatively minor figures swept up in provincial conflicts.

In 2015, China released this list of its 100 most wanted fugitives sought for economic crimes and their photos were spread through the Chinese Communist Party’s English-language newspaper, China Daily. The Propublica report further states that a former social security clerk from Beijing was granted political asylum by an immigration judge in New York in 2019.

The young clerk had ended up on Fox Hunt’s most-wanted list, although he argued in a U.S. court that his former bosses in China had framed him for embezzling about $100,000 after he denounced their corruption. The clerk remains under federal protection because Chinese government operatives continue to harass and stalk him.

The dictatorial nature of the Chinese Communist Party and their use of government-sanctioned power to impose conformity and quell dissent is represented by the Global Fox Hunt Program.

China and the United States lack an extradition treaty, mostly because of well-reported problems in China’s justice system. But U.S. authorities have tried to cooperate with Chinese authorities in bringing these fugitives to justice. Illegal immigrants have been deported to their homeland. Other legal immigrants have been convicted of crimes such as money laundering committed in the U.S. through supply of evidence by China to American authorities. According to U.S. national security officials, over the past six years Chinese operatives have pursued hundreds of people, including U.S. citizens and permanent residents. The targets are relentlessly hounded by undercover repatriation teams, who enter the country under false pretences and enlist U.S.-based accomplices.

To coerce them into coming home, Chinese officials put their relatives in China through torture, jail, harassment and other mistreatment and sometimes recording hostage-like videos to send to the United States. Be it targets who were dissidents or people accused of corruption, Chinese agents in other countries like Vietnam and Australia simply abduct their prey. Fox Hunt teams have relied mainly on coercion in the United States, where such kidnappings are more difficult.

No one is beyond the reach of Beijing, is the message China wants dissidents to understand, experts say. As the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) forms the most sophisticated authoritarian state in history, it is also simultaneously exporting repression. A report by Freedom House, a non-profit human rights group, inferred that China leads "the most refined, worldwide, and far-reaching effort of transnational oppression on the planet."

With the West distracted by different dangers like escalating fears over terrorism, Chinese government operatives have immersed the immigrant communities with recruited agents. As well as finding those blamed for financial violations, Chinese security powers additionally venture to the far corners of the planet in quest for others who've been judged as 'enemies', including Tibetans, Hong-Kongers, devotees of the Falun Gong spiritual development and, maybe most noticeably, the Uyghurs, a predominant Muslim ethnic community.

The United States and others have blamed China for committing massacre in the Xinjiang province against the Uyghurs. Chinese leaders defend their endeavours to retrieve outlaws. The absence of an extradition treaty with the United States, they say, makes the country an asylum for criminals trying to escape the law. A Chinese Foreign Ministry representative called the claims in the New York case as a smear campaign. The Foreign Ministry claims Chinese law enforcement authorities fully respect foreign laws and judicial sovereignty and observe international law when conducting law enforcement cooperation with other countries.

But there is little truth to these claims. In the meantime, China's program of extrajudicial repatriation continues.

Also Read: Tackling ‘rogue state’ China, the FBI way