The US Department of Justice has just unsealed an indictment that tells a chilling story of surveillance, harassment and coercion carried out by China’s state security agencies on the streets of US cities.
Several operatives working for China’s Ministry of Public Security (MPS) targeted two Chinese citizens living in New Jersey in an attempt to force them to return to China to face charges of corruption. The married couple, “John Doe” and “Jane Doe”, were pursued as part of Chairman Xi Jinping’s “Operation Fox Hunt”, which has been used to repatriate dissidents and Xi’s political rivals as well as officials suspected of corruption.
The story is highly relevant to Australia, as Chinese security forces are operating illegally on our streets. Several reports indicate that Chinese police have made covert and unlawful visits to pressure “fugitives” to return to China, threatening harm to families.
In one case, two Chinese policemen arrived in Melbourne in 2015 to coerce a tour bus driver, also a Falun Gong practitioner, to return to China to face corruption charges. The man said the charges were fabricated by a former boss he had offended.
According to the FBI, the MPS began by coercing John Doe’s ailing father to fly to the US to pressure his son to return to China and accept his punishment. His task was to convey to his son “the harm that would befall his family” should he refuse.
The operation was allegedly overseen by a Chinese state security official Hu Ji and co-ordinated by a 33-year-old PRC citizen and US permanent resident, Zhu Feng.
Zhu Feng, who was himself pressured to co-operate with MPS, would later confess everything.
The MPS hired a New Jersey private investigator, Michael McMahon, who allegedly carried out surveillance on the pair, taking photographs of them and providing information on Jane Doe’s social security number, bank accounts and international travel.
Along with seven Chinese citizens, McMahon has been charged with conspiring to act as an illegal agent for a foreign government, as well as stalking offences.
When John Doe was first reunited with his father in a public place, McMahon photographed them. He then followed them back to John Doe’s home, where the father would stay for a few days. Throughout the operation, various state security agents came and went from the US, claiming to be tourists or visiting family but in fact meeting with the various conspirators in New Jersey restaurants.
When John Doe’s father could not persuade his son to return to China, the MPS began stalking John Doe’s daughter in California. Another private investigator was hired to find her address and other personal information, and a campaign of online harassment was launched, with an anonymous Facebook user sending derogatory messages about the family to the daughter’s Facebook friends.
Back in New Jersey, Fox Hunt moved to the next stage, with direct threats made to John and Jane Doe. According to the FBI, “two Asian males” drove to their house, banged on their door and attempted to get in. They left a note in Chinese stuck to the front door that read: “If you are willing to go back to the mainland and spend 10 years in prison, your wife and child will be all right. That’s the end of the matter!”
In 2019, a relative of Jane Doe living in the US received a package from China, apparently sent by Jane’s sister. The sister had been imprisoned to pressure John Doe to return. The package contained a video showing John’s elderly father sitting by a desk on which had been placed a copy of Xi Jinping’s book The Governance of China. An audio message from the sister talked of how unwell their parents are and how they cannot sleep because John will not return to “admit” his crimes.
Commenting on the affidavit, China expert Bill Bishop wrote: “It almost seems like the PRC security services have a network of people in the US they can call on to do their bidding”.
The same can be said for Australia, with several disturbing incidents indicating PRC security agencies are active here.
Chinese security agents helped co-ordinate the at-times violent rally by Chinese students when the Olympic Torch passed through Canberra in 2008. After a tip-off from US authorities, Australia had denied visas to some of the Chinese intelligence officers making there way here after a melee in San Francisco.
More recently, it’s likely that Chinese security agents co-ordinated the violent attack on pro-democracy students on the campus of the University of Queensland last year. Although it doesn’t name China, ASIO’s latest report implies that Chinese authorities are threatening harm to members of the Chinese diaspora in Australia, including their families in China.
Announcing the charges in Washington, FBI Director Christopher Wray said: “Today’s charges reflect yet another example of China’s ongoing and widespread lawless behaviour – and our refusal to tolerate it.”
Chinese-Australians live in constant fear of the same lawless behaviour, and we aren’t doing enough to protect them.
By Clive Hamilton
Professor of public ethics at Charles Sturt University in Canberra