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By Jonathan Landay
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The head of the FBI said on Tuesday Chinese President Xi Jinping was spearheading a program aimed at strong-arming Chinese-born people in the United States deemed as threats to Beijing to return home - even threatening their families.
FBI director Christopher Wray, speaking at the Hudson Institute think tank, said hundreds of Chinese in the United States - some of them US citizens- had been targets of the "Fox Hunt" programme.
Wray reiterated U.S. charges that China was using espionage, cyber theft, blackmail and other means as part of a strategy to replace the United States as the world's dominant economic and technological power. China rejected Wray's comments.
Wray said the Fox Hunt programme was aimed at silencing criticism of Beijing's political and human rights policies by Chinese-born people living overseas.
The families of those who refuse to return are threatened and some have been arrested in China "for leverage," he said.
"Hundreds of these Fox Hunt victims that they target live here in the United States, and many are American citizens or green card holders," he continued.
"The Chinese government wants to force them to return to China and China's tactics to accomplish this are shocking."
He urged people to contact the FBI if Chinese officials tried to force them to return to China.
In Beijing, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian rejected Wray's comments.
"The relevant statements by Wray ignore basic facts, are full of political lies, and fully reveal his deep-rooted Cold War thinking and ideological prejudices," he said.
Beijing has denied U.S. charges that it employs cyber espionage against the United States.
Wray also said almost half of nearly 5,000 active FBI counterintelligence cases now underway are related to China.
"We've now reached a point where the FBI is opening a new China-related counterintelligence case about every 10 hours," Wray said in his address.
(Reporting by Jonathan Landay; Additional reporting by Gabriel Crossley in Beijing; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Angus MacSwan)