Three men were convicted of various charges Tuesday in a trial showcasing U.S. claims that China has engineered pressure campaigns on American soil to bully expatriates into returning home, part of an effort called "Operation Fox Hunt."
American private investigator Michael McMahon and two Chinese citizens living in the U.S. — Zheng Congying and Zhu Yong — all were accused of taking part in scare tactics aimed at a former Chinese official. He was living quietly in New Jersey, and Beijing wanted him back.
Zhu was convicted of acting as an illegal foreign agent, stalking, interstate stalking conspiracy and conspiring to act as an illegal foreign agent. Zheng was convicted of stalking and stalking conspiracy but acquitted of the other charges.
McMahon was convicted of all except conspiracy to act as a foreign agent.
The Brooklyn federal court trial was the first to result from a spate of U.S. prosecutions scrutinizing China's Operation Fox Hunt, a nearly decade-old initiative that Beijing characterizes as a pursuit of fugitives from justice. U.S. authorities view it, at least sometimes, as an exercise in "transnational repression," or deploying government operatives to harass, threaten and silence critics living abroad.
China has denied trying to force repatriations through intimidation and says the U.S. is maligning an effort to fight crime.
Prosecutors say pressure from Beijing was brought to bear in suburban New Jersey, where former Wuhan city official Xu Jin and his family moved in 2010. China has accused him and wife, Liu Fang, of taking bribes; they deny it and say they were targeted because he got crosswise with China's Communist power structure.
According to prosecutors, Zhu, Zheng and McMahon took part in a yearslong, multipronged effort to goad Xu into going back to China. The country couldn't officially compel him to do so, as it has no extradition treaty with the U.S.
The defense acknowledged that Zhu, Zheng and McMahon took various actions but said the three had no idea that Beijing was allegedly behind it all.
McMahon said he was "devastated by the verdict," insisting that all he had done was his job as a private investigator.
Zheng and Zhu left court without speaking to reporters. Messages seeking comment were sent to their attorneys.
McMahon, a former New York City police sergeant, conducted surveillance and data searches to smoke out Xu's carefully guarded address and information about his loved ones. Zhu, a retiree who also goes by Jason Zhu and Yong Zhu, helped hire McMahon and equip him with details to get started.
Zheng later went to Xu's home and left an ominous note: "If you are willing to go back to the mainland and spend 10 years in prison, your wife and children will be all right. That's the end of this matter!"
"Before I saw this, I felt that the threats from the Chinese Communist Party was only a mental threat to me. However, when I saw that note, I realized that it had become a physical threat," Xu testified, through a court interpreter.
The defense said McMahon, Zheng and Zhu were told they were helping to collect a debt or achieve some other end for a company or individuals — not for China.
"They were used, cheated, misguided by a foreign government to work for them," Zhu's attorney, Kevin Tung, said in a closing argument.
But Assistant U.S. Attorney Craig Heeren said the three "agreed to participate in something that went way, way over the line ... a line that all three defendants knew they were crossing."
Prosecutors said the arm-twisting included derogatory Facebook messages to friends of Xu's adult daughter and an onslaught of letters to a relative in New Jersey.
At one point, a Chinese prosecutor even flew Xu's unwilling, octogenarian father to New Jersey to lean on his son to return to their homeland, according to prosecutors and trial testimony.
The trial unfolded at a fraught time in U.S.-China relations. The two powers have been at odds in recent years over a growing list of issues: trade, industrial espionage, human rights, Taiwan, the South China Sea, Russia's war against Ukraine, U.S. allegations of Chinese spying, and Washington's claims that Beijing is tracking and harassing dissidents overseas.
China announced Operation Fox Hunt in July 2014 as an effort to go after corrupt officials and criminals who had fled the country. However, Beijing's wanted list has included people whose political and cultural views conflicted with those of China's ruling Communist Party.
U.S. prosecutors have brought several criminal cases involving alleged Operation Fox Hunt endeavors. In one, a pregnant U.S. citizen was held in China for eight months and pressured to persuade her mother to return to the country, prosecutors said.