A pregnant U.S. citizen was held in China for eight months and threatened that she couldn't leave unless she convinced her mother to return to China, authorities revealed Wednesday as they criminally charged a man who they said enlisted a U.S. law enforcement officer and others to help repatriate Chinese individuals facing trouble at home.
Sun Hoi Ying, 53, was charged in a criminal complaint in Manhattan federal court with failing to register as an agent of the People's Republic of China as he allegedly pursued about 35 individuals described as fugitives from China.
The charge came in an FBI probe of individuals working at the direction of China government officials to pressure others in the U.S. and elsewhere to return to China to face charges or reach financial settlements with the government there.
According to a release by U.S. Attorney Damian Williams, Sun is at large in China after operating in the United States from February 2017 to February 2022 as he hired private investigators in the U.S. to gather personal information on targets of the Chinese government.
In one instance, Sun met with an individual in New York City along with a local U.S. law enforcement officer to threaten and pressure the individual who was targeted by the Chinese government with claims that she'd face adverse and retaliatory actions if she didn't comply with the Chinese government demands, the complaint said.
In another, a pregnant U.S. citizen got ensnared in Sun's pursuits when she traveled to China in October 2016 with her spouse and a child to visit relatives, the complaint alleged.
After the visit, the woman's spouse and child were permitted to leave the country, but the woman was told by a prosecutor that she was banned from leaving until she caused her mother to return to China to resolve a criminal case stemming from alleged corruption at a property management company where she had worked, it said.
The complaint said she was held against her will.
The woman was allowed to leave China in May 2017 after U.S. officials in China were notified that the ban would be lifted if she carried certain documents from China to give to her mother, the complaint said.
"We allege Mr. Sun, as part of that campaign, attempted to threaten and coerce a victim into bending to the PRC's will, even using a co-conspirator who is a member of local U.S. law enforcement to reinforce that the victim had no choice but to comply with the PRC Government's demands," Williams said.
Williams said the man's actions were part of what the PRC government labeled "Operation Fox Hunt" when it announced in July 2014 that it was going to pursue and repatriate Chinese nationals.
Assistant Attorney General Matthew Olsen said Sun "enlisted others, including a sworn law enforcement officer, to spy on and blackmail his victims. Such conduct is both criminal and reprehensible."
The complaint said Sun posed as the owner of a China-based insurance loss-adjusting company that aided a Chinese court in finding fugitives who had fled from economic crimes so they wouldn't face lawsuits.
The latest case is part of a trend of what the FBI and Justice Department have described as "transnational repression" — episodes in which agents of a foreign government have sought to silence dissidents living in the United States. The pattern is alarming enough to federal law enforcement officials that they have launched a section on the FBI website dedicated to highlighting the problem and the cases that have been brought.
Earlier this month, the Justice Department charged five people with acting on behalf of the Chinese government in a campaign to stalk, intimidate and silence activists or dissidents of the government, including a congressional candidate in New York. In a 2020 case introducing the Fox Hunt investigation, prosecutors charged eight people in a Chinese government pressure campaign aimed at coercing a New Jersey man who was wanted by Beijing into returning to China to face charges.
The Chinese government is not alone in such efforts. Other transnational repression cases, for instance, have involved the Iranian government.