US charges 8 in plot to harass Chinese dissidents

US charges 8 in plot to harass Chinese dissidents

Five of the suspects were arrested in the US and the rest are believed to be in China

 FBI Director Christopher Wray speaks during a virtual news conference at the Department of Justice, Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2020 in Washington, as Assistant Attorney General for National Security John Demers looks on. Credit: AP Photo

The Justice Department announced charges Wednesday against eight people accused of conspiring to conduct an aggressive harassment campaign on behalf of China to pressure political dissidents and fugitives in the United States to return home to face trial.

The announcement is the latest blow to deteriorating relations between the Trump administration and Chinese officials, who have engaged in a series of retaliatory moves that have intensified in recent months in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak.

The suspects are accused of hiring American private investigators to locate the expatriates who had taken refuge in the United States and then stalking, surveilling and threatening them. China has said the effort, which it calls Operation Fox Hunt and was ordered by President Xi Jinping, is aimed at rooting out corrupt officials who have fled the country. But American officials said that was dubious because the Chinese refused to work through legal channels to resolve the cases.

Five of the suspects were arrested Wednesday in the United States, the Justice Department said. Three others, who are believed to be in China, were also charged.

“With today’s charges, we have turned the PRC’s Operation Fox Hunt on its head — the hunters became the hunted, the pursuers the pursued,” the assistant attorney general for national security, John C. Demers, said at a news conference at the Justice Department, referring to the People’s Republic of China.

He added: “For those charged in China and others engaged in this type of conduct, our message is clear: Stay out. This behavior is not welcome here.”

The Justice Department has been investigating the Chinese campaign since at least the final years of Barack Obama's administration. In 2015, top Obama officials privately warned Chinese officials to stop using their agents in the United States to harass expatriates.

The relationship between China and the United States has further frayed as President Donald Trump has accused the Chinese government of spreading the coronavirus and his administration has imposed sanctions on Chinese officials over the government’s policies on Hong Kong.

This summer, the Trump administration ordered China to close its consulate in Houston. American officials alleged that the Chinese were using the consulate to wage economic espionage. In response, China had the U.S. consulate in Chengdu closed.