How China exports repression using a network of spies hidden in plain sight
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."
In the summer of 2016, Johnny got grim news from Wuhan.
The Chinese police had somehow brought his uncle, the former accountant, back from Houston. Newspapers published photos celebrating the success of the secret manhunt. In them, a short, bespectacled, morose-looking man stood on an airport runway flanked by uniformed officers.
The cop who caught your uncle is named Hu Ji, Johnny's relatives told him. He will contact you about another case. Do what he says.
Johnny, whose given name is Zhu Feng, had studied in Guam before moving to Flushing, home to one of America's largest enclaves of Chinese immigrants. His extended family became legal U.S. residents and embraced their new home. His older brother served in the U.S. military and then worked for the Social Security Administration and Customs and Border Protection, according to court documents and public records. (A CBP spokesperson declined to comment, citing the open FBI investigation.)
Johnny, who is now 34, seemed a malleable recruit. He did odd jobs: tour guide, selling used cars. On social media, he sported a Yankees cap and a boyish smile and called himself “Endless Johnny."
Now, he put that life on hold and became a secret agent for the Chinese government, prosecutors said. From Wuhan, Hu laid out the mission. His new target, Xu Jin, had directed Wuhan's development commission before he left for the United States in 2010 with his wife, Liu Fang, a former insurance company executive. Prosecutors had charged them with taking millions of dollars in bribes — crimes for which the maximum punishment is death.
The couple, now both 56, had gotten U.S. green cards through a program that grants residency to foreigners who invest more than $500,000 in the United States. The California consultant who helped them apply later pleaded guilty to immigration fraud, and investigators in that case alleged that the wife's petition for residency contained false information. But they remain legal residents. (The couple declined to be interviewed.)
In 2015, the Chinese government put the couple on its list of 100 most wanted fugitives in Operation Fox Hunt. Chinese authorities have said they made three formal requests for U.S. assistance about the wanted couple, providing evidence about alleged money laundering and immigration crimes that could be prosecuted here. A spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Justice declined to comment on that assertion.
Meanwhile, Hu's team began a slow dance of coercion and harassment. They locked up the former official's sister in Wuhan to pressure him to return to China, court documents said. And they discovered other relatives of the couple living in the upscale New Jersey suburb of Short Hills. Hu's team suspected the targets had supplied illicit funds to buy the relatives' $1.3 million home, and that the couple was living nearby. The house was their best lead.
Scope out the house and take photos, Hu told Johnny.
The cop from Wuhan represents the two faces of Fox Hunt: swashbuckling crime fighter at home, stealthy criminal in the United States.
As a veteran of the police foreign affairs unit in China's ninth-largest city, Hu, who is now 46, was roughly the equivalent of a mid-level detective in Dallas. But his career soared after he joined a Fox Hunt task force. In early 2016, Wuhan media had published glowing profiles about him, describing his imposing height, his travels to 29 countries, his arrests of eight fugitives. In one photo, Hu beamed in a green suit outside the cavernous headquarters of Interpol in Lyon, France.
“Out of the country does not mean out of the legal system," he told the Hubei Daily. “Show your sword and punish even those in faraway lands."
Beijing led the crusade, but many of the traveling apprehension teams came from the provinces. Chinese embassies and consulates overseas helped them while maintaining deniability. If hunters like Hu succeeded, it enhanced their careers and helped spread Xi's message that there were no safe havens. If they failed, the central government was insulated.
In September 2016, Hu flew to New York to meet Johnny and launch the operation. Johnny drove him to New Jersey to check out the house in Short Hills and other locations. Hu soon pressed another relative into service: Johnny's father, Zhu Yong, who also goes by Jason Zhu. Jason, who is now 64, was divorced and suffered from diabetes and high blood pressure. He didn't have a steady job, dividing his time between a home in Connecticut and his older son's place in Queens, and he traveled frequently to China. But he, too, became a covert operative, prosecutors said. (Jason's lawyer and relatives declined to comment.)
This conscription of the families of captured targets is a ruthlessly effective tactic. It ensures loyalty and obedience. It's also tradecraft, using local intermediaries to shield Chinese officers. The teams are often organized in silos so the foot soldiers don't know other players or all the details.
At Hu's direction, the neophyte spies started building a network. First, they needed a local private investigator, preferably an ex-cop with contacts and the skills to track people down.
The Zhus' choice didn't seem like someone who would become entangled in foreign espionage. Michael McMahon, now 53, came from an Irish American family of police officers and firefighters. During his 14 years at the NYPD, he'd worked in narcotics and an elite street crime unit, rising to detective sergeant. He'd won the Police Combat Cross, the department's second-highest honor, for his role in a gunfight in the Bronx. In 2003, he retired on partial disability related to ailments caused by his time at Ground Zero after the Sept. 11 attacks. His wife, an actress, had had a long-running part on “As the World Turns," a daytime soap opera.
To contact McMahon, the Fox Hunt team enlisted a woman who presented herself as the New York-based employee of a translation company, according to his lawyer, Lawrence Lustberg. The woman told the detective that she'd found him through a Google search and introduced him to Johnny and Jason Zhu, describing them as representatives of a private Chinese company that was trying to recover assets from a former employee who had stolen money, Lustberg said.
In late October, during a second U.S. trip, Hu sat down with McMahon at a Panera Bread restaurant in Paramus, New Jersey, a suburb about 20 miles from New York City. The Chinese cop posed as Eric Yan, an executive of the company, during that meeting and other interactions, the lawyer said. Jason and Johnny Zhu also participated in meetings with McMahon and were involved in paying him.
Johnny identified himself as the nephew of the owner of the Chinese firm, which he described as a construction company, Lustberg said.
McMahon “believed he was meeting company personnel" and never learned the team's true mission, Lustberg said. “Nothing seemed suspicious at meetings. They never mentioned the Chinese government or that anybody worked in law enforcement in China. They talked about asset recovery. And they came across as employees with a vested interest in locating the money."
Prosecutors would later dispute the idea that McMahon was an innocent pawn.
McMahon gathered information about the targets' property records, bank accounts and travel. He brought in two more investigators to help stake out the house in New Jersey, even alerting local police to the surveillance to prevent any trouble. But the team was unable to find the wanted couple's home.
On Nov. 12, Hu sent the private detective an email, using the Yan alias, to say he had “reported all we found" to his superiors in China.
In December, Hu visited New York again. This time, he brought his boss. Authorities have identified Hu's superior only as PRC (People's Republic of China) Official-1, the director of the Wuhan prosecution office's anti-corruption bureau and a leader of a Wuhan Fox Hunt task force that includes prosecutors and investigators in the Communist Party's anti-corruption unit. Hu and his boss were part of a group from Wuhan that entered the country with ease as they carried out their illegal mission. Once again, Johnny served as their driver.
Days after that trip, Hu summoned Johnny to Wuhan for a meeting. Next time, Hu told him, they didn't plan to come back from America empty-handed.
China does not have a monopoly on cross-border repression.
Saudi spies have secretly repatriated Saudi college students whom they accused of dissidence or Islamic extremism in the United States. A U.S. rendition program that captured dozens of suspected terrorists worldwide caused backlash in the years after the Sept. 11 attacks. In 2009, an Italian courtconvicted 23 Americans, most of them CIA officers, ofsnatching an extremist cleric off a street in Milan and flying him to his native Egypt, where interrogators tortured him. And this month, federal prosecutors charged Iranian intelligence officers with plotting the rendition of an Iranian American journalist, describing an audacious scheme that could have involved kidnapping her in New York, taking her by boat to Venezuela and flying her to Iran.
But Chinese law requires citizens to assist China's all-powerful intelligence agencies, a mentality that extends abroad. Systematic spying in the diaspora dates back decades. During the running of the Olympic torch in San Francisco in 2008, FBI agents watched Chinese spies with walkie-talkies direct platoons of dutiful students — about 7,000 bused in from around the country — disrupting pro-Tibet protests. More recently, the FBI has investigatedincidents in which cars painted and equipped like Chinese police vehicles cruised through immigrant communities in California. The rogue patrols are messages from the Chinese government that immigrants should obey the regime in Beijing and watch what they say and do, according to Demers, the former Justice Department official.
“There are so many organizations working for the Chinese government," said Teng, the legal scholar. “In most cases, student and neighborhood associations are actually controlled. The foreign governments and the universities have not realized this urgent and important issue. They don't deeply understand how the Chinese government uses these associations to achieve its own political purposes. The response by Western governments and universities has been far from sufficient."
When Xi became president in 2013, he declared war on graft. He capitalized on resentment of an elite enriching themselves in a rapacious economy. Many of them had sent children to foreign schools, purchased foreign homes and prepared exit strategies. Xi took aim at an exodus of public servants and businesspeople with dubious fortunes who were decamping to countries such as Australia, Canada and the United States.
“That is the genius of the Chinese political system," said Mareike Ohlberg, a senior fellow at the Asia Program of the German Marshall Fund of the United States. “If you're in any position of power, it's highly unlikely you've never engaged in corruption. So that means anyone can be pursued through Fox Hunt."
The moralistic rhetoric highlighted scandalous details, such as the $4.4 million that a former finance director of Jiangxi province allegedly lost in Macau casinos before his deportation from Singapore. China secured Interpol red notices, which are alerts that a country has requested arrest and extradition, for expatriates around the world.
After Operation Fox Hunt started in 2014, U.S. authorities began detecting illegal incursions by fugitive hunters who threatened U.S. targets, showing up at their homes and trying to enlist the help of local police and prosecutors, especially Chinese Americans. In August 2015, as President Xi prepared to visit, Washington warned Beijing to rein in Fox Hunt. FBI agents still found themselves skirmishing with Chinese spies deployed to intimidate dissidents in American cities during the presidential visit.
Weeks after the presidential visit, Beijing seemingly retaliated against a dissident who had criticized Xi's regime during protests in Seattle, obtaining an Interpol red notice on charges of bid-rigging. A U.S. court later granted the dissident political asylum, and Interpol lifted the notice.
The Obama administration spent several years negotiating with China about the Fox Hunt fugitives. During the customary lighthearted exchange of gifts at a meeting, one senior U.S. official gave Chinese counterparts a toy stuffed fox. U.S. prosecutors charged some fugitives and repatriated others, including convicts who had done federal prison time for embezzling $485 million from the Bank of China.
But there was acrimony over Beijing's bargaining chip: about 39,000 illegal immigrants from China, including convicted criminals, in U.S. custody. They had spent years stranded in the United States after deportation proceedings because China refused to take them. Now Chinese diplomats offered to relent — if the U.S. threw in names from the Fox Hunt list. The Americans wanted Beijing to accept the deportees first. And the targets on the list, many of whom had legal status in the U.S., could not simply be shipped back to China.
“We resisted," said a former senior U.S. official. “We said it's apples and oranges. We can't do that. There's no due process. If you have a case, you have to present it."
By 2016, federal agents were infuriated to discover that China had used the talks as cover for additional covert operations on U.S. soil. Chinese police officers in the delegations that had come to Washington to discuss Fox Hunt had secretly peeled off to pressure Fox Hunt targets, three former U.S. officials told ProPublica.
“They used delegations to send officers to go out and try to threaten these people, either their assets or their relatives," the former senior official said.
Most of the stalled deportees remain here today. And not all the Fox Hunt targets turned out to be fat cats.
Liu Xu, a former clerk, was the youngest person on a list of the Fox Hunt 100 most wanted, and the one accused of stealing the smallest amount of money. He was 29 when he fled to Sugar Land, a Houston suburb, in 2013. He told a U.S. immigration judge that he was a whistleblower. Working as a contractor at a social security administration office, he caught his bosses creating fictitious aid recipients and pocketing payments, according to his New York lawyer, Li Jinjin, who also goes by Jim Li. The bosses promptly framed the clerk for stealing about $100,000, Li said.
“He was accused of things that a lower-level official could not do," Li said. “The prosecutors were trying to protect the bosses."
In 2019, the judge granted political asylum to the clerk, who has moved and remains under federal protection because of harassment that has included photos of him and his home, complete with his address, being published in Chinese-language media, Li said.
Li, a tough 65-year-old, once served as a police officer in Wuhan. While studying for a Ph.D. in Beijing, he went to jail for participating in the Tiananmen Square protests. The lawyer said Fox Hunt prosecutions often grow out of regional feuds, snaring relatively minor figures.
“These are products of local political conflicts," Li said. “They pursue them as fugitives because the central government sets a goal. And the provincial government wants to achieve the goal for political needs."
In the spring of 2017, the plan was ready.
Hu stayed in Wuhan, a remote puppet master running the show. But he sent in a closer: a specialist who had the risky task of bringing back the target. U.S. prosecutors identify her as Tu Lan, 50, a prosecutor for the Hanyang District of Wuhan. She would lead the repatriation team, but because she didn't speak English, Johnny would stick close and be her intermediary with Mike, as the team called the American private detective.
The other specialist on the team was Li Minjun, now 65, a doctor who had worked for the Ministry of Public Security, U.S. officials said. Her assignment: to escort an elderly man across the world against his will in order to ambush his son.
The father's age has not been disclosed, but Hu felt he was frail enough to put a physician at his side for the more than 15-hour flight. The plan was to bring the father unannounced to the house in New Jersey — human bait to lure his son out of hiding, Hu told McMahon in an email in March.
“We just want to recomm[e]nd you trace him to find [his son's] address," Hu wrote to the detective.
Later, the family would accuse Chinese officials of kidnapping the father. Prosecutors say the team forced him to make the trip.
The father had orders to tell his son how much the family would suffer if the son didn't obey. Hu hoped the shock would cause the wanted man, Xu Jin, to surrender on the spot, investigators say.
Cases around the world show that such strong-arm methods are typical. Often, victims accompany captors without a struggle because they fear retaliation against relatives. One businessman on Fox Hunt's list who lived in Canada flew back to surrender in Shandong province in 2016 after police there arrested his ex-wife, according to a Human Rights Watch report.
First, Hu's team had to get the father into the United States. Departing passengers at U.S. airports rarely encounter border enforcement other than TSA personnel. But it's harder to enter the country with a captive in tow. Johnny helped coach the elderly man on responses to standard questions asked by border inspectors at Newark Liberty International Airport, a vulnerable moment of the plan.
“Have you all decided how to beat this questions[?]" Johnny asked his bosses in a text on April 1.
Text messages show Johnny was in Wuhan getting the hang of his newest cloak-and-dagger role: overseeing operatives he had hired in the Chinese community in New York. Johnny deployed an accomplice to beef up the stakeout team with instructions to “conduct surveillance there for 5 days. 12 hours on the first day, 10 hours on the second day, and 8 hours on the last three days. … The compensation is 1800USD."
Johnny ordered a recruit in Queens, a driver and logistics man, to keep his mouth shut around the visiting big shots.
“Do not ask them what they come here for," he wrote. “This thing is carried out secretly. … Just follow instructions when working for the Chinese government."
On April 3, Johnny and Tu, the head of the repatriation team, landed in Newark and checked into a hotel. Johnny met McMahon at the Panera the next day and gave him a $5,000 cash retainer. Hu emailed the detective photos of the father and the wanted couple.
The moment of truth came on April 5. That evening, Johnny drove back to the airport to pick up the father and the police doctor, who made it through customs without a hitch. Meanwhile, McMahon sat outside the Short Hills house, exchanging texts with Johnny as the plan kicked into action. Less than an hour later, Johnny dropped the human bait at the relatives' front door.
The relatives called the son. The next day, the wanted man did exactly as Hu had envisioned: He picked up his father. The surveillance team followed them back to the wanted man's home about half an hour away. They'd found their target.
But Hu's hopes for a lightning-bolt triumph evaporated. Instead of submitting, the family contacted law enforcement and the FBI got involved, a move the Fox Hunt team quickly detected. On April 7, Johnny sent a text to the prosecutor saying Hu wanted her “and the doctor to come back as soon as possible" to “evade actions by U.S. law enforcement," the criminal complaint says. Both women hurriedly caught flights back to China.
The team didn't give up just because FBI agents were onto them. With the specialists safe, Hu continued the stakeout with his U.S. operatives. Joining Hu at the command post back in Wuhan, Tu gave orders to stay ready.
“The key is the status of [the father]," she texted Johnny on April 9. “The main purpose is to let him persuade [his son] to surrender."
But two days later, Johnny sent McMahon a text saying he'd been told to return to Wuhan.
“Let me know if I need to go to China lol," McMahon responded.
“They definitely grant u a nice trip if they can get [the target] back to China haha," Johnny replied.
The gambit had failed. The father was allowed to go home. On April 12, Johnny went to Newark Airport separately from the elderly man and checked in on the same flight to Shanghai. His handlers in Wuhan told him to ensure the father met the doctor when he landed, and to treat him “with good intention" because of his age.
Before boarding, though, Johnny had a scare. CBP officers intercepted and questioned him. They showed him photos of Tu, his traveling companion a week earlier, and asked about her. He claimed she was a friend of his uncle and he had been her tour guide. The inspectors photographed the night vision goggles they found in his luggage, then let him go.
Johnny sent a frantic message to the accomplice who lived in Queens.
“Delete all of our chat record after reading this," he wrote. “There are some problems. Someone in the U.S. will be looking for you. … Be careful of everything. If there is anything, use other phones to call. Your cell phone may be tracked."
McMahon received no such warning, his lawyer said. The detective has kept his emails and texts from the case, a sign that he had no knowledge of the attempted repatriation, Lustberg said. McMahon also didn't know that the family had contacted the FBI, according to his lawyer, who said the texts about China were just “banter."
U.S. officials are skeptical. They noted that McMahon emailed himself a newspaper article on April 6, the day before the team leader fled back to China, with the headline “Interpol Launches Global Dragnet for 100 Chinese Fugitives." The story had photos of the wanted couple and information about the Chinese government's fugitive-apprehension programs.
“Accordingly, I believe that McMahon was aware that" the couple “were Operation Fox Hunt targets," an FBI agent wrote in the criminal complaint.
On April 23, Hu sent McMahon an email thanking him for finding the address of a woman in northern California, Lustberg said. She was the adult daughter of the couple in New Jersey. Instead of giving up, Hu's team was already attacking on a new front.
The federal charges against the cop from Wuhan focus on the operation in New Jersey. But ProPublica has learned that Hu roamed the country for several years, his activities alternately covert and overt, unmolested by law enforcement as he pursued at least two additional targets.
“Xi Jinping has brought a sense of urgency to the process," said Frank Montoya Jr., a former FBI counterintelligence chief. “There is a boldness, a brazenness, in the way they are treating us. They don't think there will be a consequence."
Hu has visited this country at least eight times. In addition to three trips in 2016 described in court papers, he was here in 2015 — nominally to attend a training program at the University of New Haven.
In a photo in Chinese media, Hu holds a certificate next to Henry C. Lee, a Chinese American forensic scientist known for his participation in cases such as the O.J. Simpson murder trial. Until recently, Lee directed an eponymous institute at the university that offers programs for visiting Chinese law enforcement officials and researchers.
The caption did not mention a date or place, but a university spokesperson confirmed that the photo was taken on campus. An organization called the U.S.-China Business Training Center arranged Hu's visit and issued the certificate, said the spokesperson, Doug Whiting, in an email. Whiting had no other information on Hu's visit.
“Rosters are not kept or maintained, nor are any kind of formal or informal records of the programs offered," Whiting wrote. “All visitors presumably had been approved for visas by U.S. Customs and therefore no additional background checks were necessary. ... It's impossible to know specifically what program, or when, Mr. Hu Ji attended."
That is surprising because of the widespread infiltration of U.S. universities by Chinese spies. Officials at the U.S.-China Business Training Center, which lists offices in California and China, did not respond to requests for comment.
U.S. officials told ProPublica that they subsequently determined Hu was in New Haven in 2015. The timing coincides with his Fox Hunt activity.
In a case still cloaked in intrigue, Hu engineered the repatriation of a U.S. legal resident while she was traveling in Mexico in 2015. Chinese press and government accounts withheld the woman's full name and obscured her face in a published photo, describing her as a manager of a Wuhan investment company wanted for fraud.
Hu told Chinese newspapers that he learned she was in the United States, requested an Interpol red notice in 2013, and “started to track her" — activity that was illegal if done on U.S. soil.
“Fugitives who fled to the United States are the most difficult to catch, and it is even more difficult to catch fugitives who hold a U.S. green card," an article in the Chutian Metropolis Daily said.
Chinese accounts claim Hu “miraculously" got a break in September 2015 when he found out the woman had flown to Cancun and Mexican authorities detained her. She requested that Mexican officials deport her to the United States, so Hu and Chinese embassy officials in Mexico “raced against time," fearing U.S. diplomats could intervene, the accounts say. Hu organized a ruse with Mexican officers: They tricked the prisoner onto a plane to Shanghai by telling her it was bound for Houston, the articles say. A published photo shows Hu at an airport with two Mexican immigration officers who transported the prisoner.
Mexico kept the affair unusually quiet. There was no Mexican press coverage, no standard announcement about international cooperation in action.
Asked about the matter, FBI officials said they had not identified the woman and were investigating. But ProPublica has identified her based on information from knowledgeable officials, detailed summaries of Chinese court documents, and other sources.
She is 50-year-old Suying Wang. In 2012, she came to the United States, where she married a U.S. citizen. Records show he is the president of a small business in Houston that has an affiliate in Mexico City. They lived in a condominium complex in Houston. Her former husband, who has since divorced her, declined to comment when reached by telephone.
As for Wang's arrest in 2015, ProPublica confirmed elements of the Chinese accounts, but discovered other details that change the story. In reality, Chinese operatives did surveillance of three fugitives in Merida, Mexico, a city about 190 miles from Cancun on the Yucatan peninsula, according to U.S. and Mexican officials. At the Chinese embassy's request, Mexican immigration officers then arrested Wang and two others wanted for unrelated economic crimes, the officials said. Because Mexico does not have the death penalty, Chinese diplomats signed a pledge stating that Wang did not face execution in China, according to the officials, who requested anonymity.
Mexico deported Wang on Sept. 23, 2015. Photos obtained by ProPublica confirm Hu's involvement. They show the prisoner in transit in the custody of Chinese officers. Those officers also appear in a published photo of Hu and Mexican officers at an airport, and in another in which Wang's face is obscured.
Despite the Interpol notice and her Chinese citizenship, the deportation — and the reported deception used to get her on the plane — raise questions. International refugee law bars governments from returning foreigners to countries where they face a well-founded fear of persecution. China is a notorious violator of human rights. And Mexican authorities had a clear alternative: They could have sent the U.S. resident to the United States, a close ally.
The other two targets were also sent back to China, but it is unclear if they were U.S. residents as well. The episode reflects China's growing clout south of the border. One of Hu's superiors, a Wuhan deputy police chief named Xia Jianzhong, later visited Mexico to thank immigration chiefs for their help.
A spokesperson at the Mexican embassy in Washington declined to comment on the case.
In Wuhan, a court sentenced Wang to five years in prison, a sentence reduced to three years on appeal. The rather light punishment, combined with the scope and expense of the operation, underscores that one of the main goals of Operation Fox Hunt is instilling fear in the diaspora.
Hunters from Wuhan have worked other cases in Houston. While pursuing one man between 2016 and 2018, they caused his brother-in-law in Wuhan to lose his job and forced him to visit a prosecutor's office for months; they made his business partner's wife go to the United States and hire private detectives to investigate him; they tortured and jailed his brother and harassed their elderly mother, according to the wanted man's lawyer, Gao Guang Jun. Parts of the ordeal were also documented in the report by Human Rights Watch in 2017.
“It was a huge attack on the family," Gao said. “The whole family is broken."
Hu's name did not surface in that case, though his team may have been involved. But starting in 2015, he led the attack on the family of the former accountant in Houston. ProPublica has identified him as Zhu Haiping — the uncle and brother, respectively, of Johnny and Jason Zhu in New York.
Zhu Haiping, now 58, spent 18 years on the run, accused of stealing almost $2 million while he was deputy finance director of an aviation agency in Wuhan. Hu's task force located him in Houston, where he was a legal resident, and hounded him. Urged by his family to surrender, he “said he would return many times, but he never finalized a date," according to an article in the magazine of the Communist Party's anti-corruption unit.
Finally, Hu's team unleashed an “emotional bomb," the article says. They sent the wanted man a video of his friends, his former home and Wuhan delicacies set to music.
“He started to tear up, and the mere remaining suspicion at the bottom of his heart had gone," the article says.
In July 2016, Zhu “was returned" to China, according to U.S. court papers. The details of the repatriation are unknown, but it is hard to believe he surrendered because of an appeal to sentiment.
Hu's ability to cross U.S. borders repeatedly during his hunts is startling. Although he kept his mission secret, he identified himself as a police officer for the Wuhan Public Security Bureau on his application for a U.S. tourist visa in the New Jersey case. In March 2016, a Chinese newspaper article even mentioned his investigation of the former Wuhan development official in New Jersey, calling the wanted man one of Fox Hunt's top targets. But Hu had no known problems at U.S. airports when he traveled back and forth.
Asked if that was a breakdown in border security, federal officials said visa screening consists mainly of checking U.S. databases, which in this case apparently did not include information from the Chinese press. The chances of detection were low because of the large number of visa applicants reviewed by U.S. consulates in China, they said, and consular officials and border officers were not as aware of Fox Hunt then as they are today.
Hu's point man in California was Rong Jing.
Rong, a married businessman, lived in Rancho Cucamonga, an arid city south of the San Gabriel Mountains and about 35 miles east of Los Angeles. Like the operatives in New York, he was an immigrant with permanent resident status. But Rong, now 39, described himself as a bounty hunter for the Chinese government, court documents said. He apparently liked the work and liked to talk about it. His bragging would give investigators a primer on the reach and relentlessness of Fox Hunt networks.
Just weeks after aborting the scheme involving the father in New Jersey, Hu turned up the heat on the wanted couple. He zeroed in on their daughter in northern California. She had arrived in the United States as a child, studying at a private boarding school years before her parents fled China. She had earned an advanced degree at Stanford, gotten married and made a life for herself far from her parents and their problems with the Chinese courts.
None of that mattered to the hunters from Wuhan. The daughter became their new weapon.
In May 2017, Rong hired a private investigator to stalk her. Unfortunately for him, the investigator was a confidential informant for the FBI. U.S. officials did not disclose if or how they maneuvered the informant into place. Since starting the investigation in New Jersey in early April, agents had been mapping the travel and contacts of the Fox Hunt team, and Hu had spent time in California, according to interviews and court records.
More generally, the FBI had been watching private investigators — especially in areas with large Asian communities — because of the role they had increasingly played in Fox Hunt. Rong does not speak English, so it is likely that the investigator he hired speaks Mandarin.
The bottom line: The FBI now had a man inside Hu's operation.
On May 22, Rong met for four hours with the investigator-informant at a restaurant in Los Angeles. In a recorded conversation, Rong offered the detective $4,000 to investigate and videotape the daughter. If the team succeeded with the repatriation, he and the detective could split any reward money, Rong said.
Rong said the bosses in Wuhan hadn't told him “what to do with" the daughter. It was possible they could ask him “to catch" her, he said. Rong and the detective might have to act as proxies for Chinese officers who “wouldn't feel comfortable to arrest her" in the United States, he said.
If there are “things they wouldn't feel comfortable to do," Rong said, “we need to be there on their behalf."
Rong asked whether the detective had a problem with removing someone from the country. “Say, if he wants us to bring him/her over, can you bring him/her over? Would this bring about any legal issues?"
Once the detective had shot video of the daughter, his next job would be to contact her parents and persuade them to return to China, Rong said. For the next few weeks, the private investigator went through the motions of shadowing the daughter, supervised by the FBI.
Reporting to Rong on July 14, the detective discussed photos he had provided of the daughter and her home. Then he asked: “You don't think they'll do any harm to her, do you?"
Rong's reply wasn't entirely reassuring. If the detective got in trouble, they would both be in trouble, he said.
“If there was an accident," he said, “in truth you [could claim that you] were just … investigating her."
At other moments, Rong sounded less menacing. She was “simply a daughter," he said, emphasizing that the parents were the main targets.
Unlike the New York operatives, Rong wasn't wary of the detective. His recorded conversations painted an inside picture of Operation Fox Hunt.
The Communist Party footed the bill. Rong did freelance missions exclusively for Wuhan, receiving a fee for each repatriation. He talked about teams of visiting “lobbyists." They were salaried “civil servants" of the Chinese government who traveled on work visas under multiple identities. Their job was “persuading people" to return to China, he said.
The account fits with information uncovered in other cases. The clandestine hunts follow a pattern: Investigators like Hu create networks and swoop into the country at key moments, insulated by layers of forced recruits, hired civilians, private detectives, even street criminals. The pursuits last for years, sometimes even after U.S. law enforcement intervenes.
Rong and the private detective met again, but the project in California fizzled out. The case went quiet until November, when the FBI had another breakthrough.
Although Hu had warned Johnny to stay in China after he flew back with the elderly father, the young man returned to the United States on Nov. 9. FBI agents interviewed Johnny and he confessed, giving up details of the operation during two interviews, court papers say. The agents let him go and he returned to China the next year. FBI officials did not explain their decision, but agents often delay arrests while they build cases.
The pressure on the family in New Jersey continued. In April 2018, Xinba Construction Group, a company based in Wuhan, sued the couple in New Jersey state court. The lawsuit accused the former official of extorting bribes while in powerful posts in Wuhan, delaying projects and causing the company to lose $10 million. In a countersuit denying the allegations, the defendants alleged that the company had teamed up with Chinese authorities to retaliate for the former official's opposition to a contentious toll-collection contract.
Chinese companies and security forces often coordinate criminal and civil actions against Fox Hunt targets, experts said. The Wall Street Journal wrote about the practice, including the Xinba lawsuit against the couple, last year.
Lawyers for both sides did not respond to requests for comment. The lawsuit is still in the discovery phase. In February, federal prosecutors involved in the Fox Hunt criminal case in New York filed a motion to intervene and request a stay in the Xinba suit.
The next salvo from Hu's team was more primitive. Between April and July of 2018, an unknown conspirator harassed the daughter in California, sending derogatory messages about her family to her Facebook friends.
In New Jersey that September, two young men showed up at the wanted couple's house. The intruders banged on one door, tried to open another, peered through windows, and left threatening notes.
“If you are willing to go back to the mainland and spend 10 years in prison, your wife and children will be all right," one note said. “That's the end of this matter!"
Surveillance video and fingerprints led investigators to Zheng Congying, now 25, of Brooklyn. Investigators believe he was hired muscle. He has pleaded not guilty. His attorney declined to comment.
Seven months after the threats, someone sent the wanted couple a package containing a compact disc. It recalled Hu's “emotional bomb" in Houston. Over a song in Mandarin, a video showed images of their relatives in China, including the elderly father whom Hu's team had brought to New Jersey. The father sat next to a desk where a book by President Xi, “The Governance of China," was prominently displayed.
“I believe that this shot was deliberately staged to make [the son] aware that the PRC government played a role in taking this picture and creating this video," an FBI agent wrote in the complaint. He described the photo as a form of implicit coercion demonstrating “the government's control over [the son's] aged parents."
In the video, the wanted man's sister implored him to come back. She said their parents were sick, isolated and distraught.
“When parents are alive, you can still call someplace a home," she said in the video. “When parents are gone, you can only prepare for your own tomb."
The lengthy investigation gave insight into a secret world at a crucial time.
“The timing of the investigation ties nicely with our understanding of when Fox Hunt came to be more broadly understood outside of China," said Benavides, the chief of the FBI's China counterintelligence branch. “This investigation absolutely helped the FBI understand how Fox Hunt operatives work, what the plans and intentions are and how aggressive they would be in this arena."
That aggressiveness has only escalated worldwide. In 2017, an abduction squad descended on a Chinese Canadian billionaire in Hong Kong's Four Seasons Hotel. They allegedly drugged him, rolled him out in a wheelchair, and spirited him to the mainland. When another billionaire living in New York, Guo Wengui, made allegations of high-level corruption, Chinese security chiefs traveled to confront him at his penthouse overlooking Central Park. FBI agents ordered them to back off, saying they had violated the terms of their visas.
And Beijing crossed another line in France. After “two years of unremitting efforts," Chinese authorities announced in March 2017, investigators from the Ningxia region and embassy personnel in Paris had “successfully persuaded" a fugitive to come home. Zheng Ning, a cashmere industry executive, had lived in France for three years before his mysterious disappearance.
Unlike the United States, France has an extradition treaty with China. Yet French officials say they knew nothing about the repatriation. French intelligence chiefs complained to their Chinese counterparts afterward.
“It's shocking," said Paul Charon, a China expert at the French defense ministry's Institute for Strategic Research. “It also shows a bigger phenomenon: the hardening stance of the regime in Beijing, which dares to carry out these operations overseas and mock the sovereignty of other countries."
U.S. officials acknowledge that the government was slow to respond to the threat.
“It did take us a while to catch up and realize what was happening," said Demers, who returned to the Justice Department from private practice in 2018 and was chosen to lead the new China Initiative. “With things like Fox Hunt, we realized it was not going to be enough to change behavior simply through having meetings with the Chinese. We were going to have to be more aggressive."
The FBI has tried to break through a wall of silence in immigrant communities to reach potential and known targets.
Qiu Gengmin, 59, is one of the latter. His name appeared on the Fox Hunt list six years ago as the result of an ill-fated shipbuilding deal and, he says, a vendetta by a security chief in Zhejiang province. Dogged Chinese agents have spied on him even at a Buddhist temple in Queens, he said. He has lost his money, home and wife. Authorities have harassed and jailed his relatives and friends in China.
“As long as I don't go back, they do not have personal freedom," Qiu said, hunched over a table in his lawyer's office. “They will continue to surveil them and there will be no so-called freedom. They are not allowed to take the train, they are not allowed to fly, they are not allowed to go out. They are afraid."
His story has ambiguities, however. U.S. prosecutors felt the evidence was strong enough to charge him with money laundering and conspiracy to transfer stolen property. He spent more than 20 months behind bars, pleading guilty to a federal charge of contempt. He has applied for political asylum.
About a year ago, three FBI agents interviewed Qiu as a victim, not a suspect.
“They say we need to follow up with your safety concerns," he said. “We want to protect you. … They said if there's anything, I should call them."
And last October, federal prosecutors charged eight people, including Hu, in the first U.S. case targeting Fox Hunt.
Rong Jing, the California freelancer, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to act as an illegal foreign agent and to conduct interstate stalking. His lawyer says he went down a hazardous path of agreeing to increasingly ominous requests from the Chinese government.
“You have a number of individuals who have made a new life in America but wind up in this type of situation by doing a benign favor for an old friend from the old country," said the lawyer, Todd Spodek. “Yet over time their participation in the unlawful repatriation effort increases. As it increases, it crosses the line into criminal acts, which was not their original intention."
Another defendant pleaded guilty to the foreign agent and stalking charges. McMahon, Jason Zhu and Zheng await trial on both charges.
Six FBI agents and two police officers arrested McMahon at his home in northern New Jersey at 6 a.m. on Oct. 28. His lawyer said that the Fox Hunt team duped the detective and that there is no evidence he knew he was working for the Chinese government. His total profit for a case that has destroyed him was $5,017.98, the lawyer said.
“He never spoke to someone whom he understood, whom he knew, to be a Chinese official," Lustberg said. “Mike McMahon is a victim in this case."
Johnny Zhu, Dr. Li Minjun and Tu Lan, the prosecutor charged with leading the repatriation team, are thought to be in China. So are PRC Official-1 and another implicated official. Prosecutors did not charge or identify them, as often happens in counterintelligence cases for strategic and diplomatic reasons.
As for Hu, the fugitive hunter has become a fugitive. At last word, though, he was still a star. In 2018, his name appeared on the website of the Communist Party's anti-corruption agency. Because of his long experience on the front lines, the organizers of a national training conference had invited him to Beijing as an instructor.
The cop from Wuhan taught a session about international law enforcement cooperation.