The United States is holding firm in its insistence that Chinese agents sent to covertly round up and pressure Chinese fugitives to head back home must stop.
The State Department on Monday refused to comment directly about allegations first reported by the New York Times, but it made clear such activity is not permitted without giving notice to the U.S. attorney general.
“It’s a criminal offense, actually, under U.S. law for an individual other than a diplomatic or a consular officer-attaché to act in the United States as a law enforcement agent of a foreign power without that notification,” said State Department spokesman John Kirby.
He said the U.S. and China do communicate regularly on what he termed “matters of mutual concern including fugitives and anti-corruption” through the U.S.-China Joint Liaison Group on Law Enforcement Cooperation. But he said Washington also has been clear with Chinese officials on how the process must work.
“It is incumbent upon them [China] to provide U.S. officials with significant, clear and convincing evidence to allow our law enforcement agencies to proceed with investigations, removals and prosecutions of fugitives,” he said.
The Justice Department issued its own warning Monday about any potential covert Chinese operations.
“If such unreported activity were to be taking place on U.S. soil, we would vigorously enforce our laws,” said spokesman Marc Raimondi.
Earlier Monday, Chinese state media criticized Washington’s moves, calling on U.S. officials to “show sincerity in anti-corruption cooperation with China.”
The commentary from Xinhua also said the U.S. order that Chinese agents associated with the country’s anti-corruption campaign, known as “Operation Fox Hunt,” is “regrettable.”
Chinese President Xi Jinping’s efforts to hunt down fugitives, some of whom fled with money and other assets, have been popular with the Chinese public. The New York Times reported that since 2014, more than 930 suspects have been repatriated, including more than 70 who have returned voluntarily this year, but that the intimidation tactics being used by Chinese agents have increasingly drawn the ire of U.S. officials.
U.S. sources also told The Times that many of the Chinese agents likely entered the U.S. on tourist or trade visas, trying to hide their real intentions.
Word of “Operation Fox Hunt” comes amid heightened bilateral tensions and just weeks before President Xi’s state visit to the U.S.
Still, given the stakes, New York University School of Law professor Jerome Cohen says both the U.S. and China are likely to handle the disagreement with care.
“I don’t think, at this point, we’re likely to see any great ramifications for U.S. business or Chinese business,” he told VOA via Skype. “These are mostly specific problems of limited numbers of individuals.”
American officials have refused to disclose the identities or numbers of Chinese being sought, although they acknowledge some are wanted for political crimes.
Currently, China and the U.S. have no formal extradition treaty. And senior State Department officials have previously told Chinese state-run media that increased U.S. cooperation will depend on China’s commitment to the rule of law, including providing relevant evidence.
But NYU’s Cohen says there could be more at stake.
“Besides the human rights questions, are there U.S. reasons for wanting to keep people in the United States because they can provide a source of valuable information? Maybe some of them are already cooperating,” he said.