China is targeting hundreds of Chinese dissidents in the United States under the cover of a global anti-corruption effort, using coercive tactics to force critics to return to China, FBI Director Christopher Wray said on Tuesday.
The campaign, dubbed Operation Fox Hunt, was launched in 2014 as part of Chinese President Xi Jinping's sweeping drive against graft. The program's purported aim was the arrest of thousands of corrupt officials and businessmen who had fled abroad.
But Wray said in reality, Fox Hunt is not an anti-corruption campaign.
"Instead, Fox Hunt is a sweeping bid by General Secretary Xi to target Chinese nationals whom he sees as threats and who live outside China across the world," the FBI director said. "We're talking about political rivals, dissidents, and critics seeking to expose China's extensive human rights violations."
Wray made the remarks in a speech at the Hudson Institute in Washington, where he also highlighted Beijing's use of intermediaries in its "malign influence" campaign to shape U.S. policy.
The coronavirus pandemic has not stopped China from carrying out covert influence operations in the United States, Wray said.
"The punchline is this: All these seemingly inconsequential pressures add up to a policymaking environment in which Americans find themselves held over a barrel by the Chinese Communist Party," Wray said.
The Chinese embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.
Operation Fox Hunt is run by China's Ministry of Public Security. Since its launch, hundreds of Chinese "fugitives" have been brought back to China to stand trial, some of them voluntarily, and others after being arrested in foreign countries.
The U.S. and China do not have an extradition treaty. Wray said that while the Chinese government could pursue wanted individuals through formal law enforcement channels, it instead uses covert operatives to threaten and cajole the victims into returning to China.
"These people are essentially engaged in rogue law enforcement, unsanctioned, uncoordinated with U.S. law enforcement here in the United States," Wray said.
By Wray's count, there are hundreds of "Fox Hunt victims" in the United States, many of them U.S. citizens or permanent residents.
"The Chinese government wants to force them to return to China, and China's tactics to accomplish that are shocking," he said.
Chinese operatives use a variety of coercive tactics against victims.
In one instance, the Chinese government sent an "emissary" to visit the family of a target in the United States after the target could not be located to relay an ominous warning, according to the FBI chief.
"The target had two options: return to China promptly, or commit suicide," Wray said.
Dissidents who refuse to return to China have had their family members in the United States and China threatened, Wray said.
Making a threat is a criminal offense in the United States. Wray did not say whether any Chinese operatives have been arrested in connection with Fox Hunt.