In the early afternoon of September 2018, two Chinese men, dressed casually in black track pants and white t-shirts, knocked on the front door of a quiet New Jersey house. They appeared like typical suburbanites arriving for a friendly house party. 

Yet, there was something strange in the aggressive manner of their knocks and the frustration of their mannerisms when greeted by the house’s silence. Before they left, they taped a note in Chinese to the front door:

“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.”

These mysterious men were covert Chinese Ministry of Public Security (MPS) operatives on a mission known as Operation Fox Hunt.

And they were being watched by an FBI surveillance team. 

The Origins of Operation Fox Hunt

Operation Fox Hunt was created by the MPS in 2014. With almost two million members, the MPS is the main Chinese security agency and under the direct control of Communist Party leadership. The goal of Operation Fox Hunt is ambitious — to repatriate overseas Chinese fugitives guilty of economic crimes. Operatives from Fox Hunt have been sent to Southeast Asia, Europe, Canada, Australia, and the United States. According to the Chinese Ministry of Public Security by 2015, approximately 930 suspects had been captured, including more than 70 who had willingly returned to China. 

Chinese fugitive Lai Changxing is escorted back to Beijing from Canada at Beijing International Airport on July 23, 2011. (Reuters)

These operations are very popular in China. Since Xi Jinping came to power, a central part of his rule has been anti-corruption. In China, particular venom is reserved for Communist Party bureaucrats or wealthy citizens that have fled abroad. These pariahs are often viewed as the ultimate traitors, willing to steal from their own people, yet privileged enough to flee to countries often antagonistic to China. 

Coercion, Cyber Harassment, and Cheap Newspaper Ads

Fox Hunt operatives employ a variety of coercion tactics. They often operate in the large diaspora Chinese communities and enter under diplomatic cover, trade or tourist visas, or pose as students. Common tactics include cyber harassment, phone calls, and the use of family members in China as leverage. Tactics can also be very creative. In 2018, an unidentified Fox Hunt operative bought full-page ads in Ming Pao Daily, a Chinese language newspaper available in Canada. The ads accused a Chinese citizen in Canada of being a fugitive Communist Party official, listing his Chinese passport number, birthdate, Chinese citizen ID number, and urging the man to give himself up.

Increasingly, Fox Hunt operatives are approaching their targets in-person, often with the use of proxies known as “trusted agents.” In the 2018 New Jersey incident, one of the proxies was a naturalized Chinese American citizen in Queens who served as a tour guide for Chinese tourists in New York. Nevertheless, not all proxies are ethnically Chinese, as demonstrated by the New Jersey incident where Fox Hunt operatives had also recruited Michael McMahon a private investigator and former NYPD officer.

Family members are common targets for in-person intimidation. As Vancouver-based immigration lawyer Richard Kurland explains: “The proxy from China will have a face-to-face conversation… to explain either subtly or not subtly what they expect in terms of the family member’s behavior in Canada and next steps that will be taken if people don’t co-operate.”

‘Fox Hunt’ in Your Back Yard

Surprisingly, Western democracies have assisted Fox Hunt. France has been the leader in this, helping in the 2016 extradition of alleged economic criminal Chen Wenhua. Yet, many are suspicious of China’s notoriously opaque criminal justice system and there is fear that Fox Hunt is being used as a cover for silencing political dissidents among diaspora Chinese communities. China has responded to these rebukes by accusing America of hypocrisy, claiming that “the United States is reluctant to repatriate those corrupt officials for the sake of their money of course.”

On October 28th, 2020, the Justice Department announced charges against eight individuals responsible for the New Jersey Fox Hunt operation. The tone of the assistant attorney general was bold: “With today’s charges, we have turned [China’s] Operation Fox Hunt on its head — the hunters became the hunted, the pursuers the pursued.”

Yet, as enunciated by Liu Dong a director of Operation Fox Hunt in a 2015 interview it is unlikely that China will shrink from continuing to pursue this approach.

“Our principle is thus: Whether or not there is an agreement in place, as long as there is information that there is a criminal suspect, we will chase them over there,” Liu Dong said of this new global pivot of Chinese law enforcement.

“We will take our work to them, anywhere.”