Chinese agents have been pursuing hundreds of Chinese nationals living in the US in an effort to force their return, as part of a global campaign against the country’s diaspora, known as Operation Fox Hunt, the FBI director has said.
In a speech about the security threat posed by China, during which he said Beijing’s counterintelligence work was “greatest long-term threat to our nation’s information and intellectual property and to our economic vitality”, Christopher Wray gave the example of one Fox Hunt target who was given a choice of going back to China or killing themselves.
Fox Hunt was launched six years ago by President Xi Jinping, ostensibly to pursue corrupt officials and business executives who had fled abroad. Beijing has celebrated its claimed successes, publicising the return of hundreds of economic fugitives, and issuing wanted lists of those still at large. The Obama administration complained about the activities of undercover agents in 2015.
Wray said the operation’s principal aim now was to suppress dissent among the diaspora.
He told the Hudson Institute in Washington: “China describes Fox Hunt as some kind of international anti-corruption campaign. It is not. Instead, Fox Hunt is a sweeping bid by Xi to target Chinese nationals who he sees as threats and who live outside of China, across the world.
“We’re talking about political rivals, dissidents and critics seeking to expose China’s extensive human rights violations.”
The FBI director said: “Hundreds of these Fox Hunt victims that they target live right here in the United States, and many are American citizens or green card holders. The Chinese government wants to force them to return to China, and China’s tactics to accomplish that are shocking.
“For example, when it couldn’t locate one Fox Hunt target, the Chinese government sent an emissary to visit the target’s family here in the US. The message they said to pass on: the target had two options, returned to China promptly or commit suicide.”
Wray said that Fox Hunt operations, directed by China’s ministry of public security, were also under way in other countries, and the FBI had been cooperating with its partners to foil Chinese efforts at intimidation. He said Chinese nationals in the US were often coerced by thinly veiled threats against their families back in China.
Asked about other coercive tactics used, he replied: “Use your imagination. You’re not going to be far off.”
He appealed to anyone in the US who thought they were a Fox Hunt target to “please reach out to your local FBI field office”.
Wray portrayed China as an aggressive rival with little or no regard for international or national laws. He said that nearly half the FBI’s 5,000 active counter-intelligence cases were China-related.
“We’ve now reached a point where the FBI is now opening a new China-related counterintelligence case every 10 hours,” he said. “Of the nearly 5,000 active counterintelligence cases currently underway across the country, almost half are related to China.”
China was using leverage, pressure or persuasion through intermediaries on federal, state and local officials, as well as US corporations and media, to win support for Chinese foreign policy positions. Wray said such efforts had been stepped up during the coronavirus outbreak, aimed at generating praise for Beijing’s handling of the pandemic.
Although he did not say whether China backed either Donald Trump or his presumptive Democratic rival, Joe Biden, he claimed China was pushing its preferences for the outcome of the 2020 presidential election.
“China’s malign foreign influence campaign targets our policies, our positions, 24/7, 365 days a year,” Wray said. “So it’s not an election-specific threat; it’s really more of an all-year, all-the-time threat. But certainly that has implications for elections and they certainly have preferences that go along with that.”
The FBI director said that China was also involved in mass hacking, identity theft and intellectual property espionage, and there are 1,000 investigations into “China’s actual and attempted theft of technology” in all the bureau’s 56 field offices.
“The people of the United States are the victims of what amounts to Chinese theft on a scale so massive that it represents one of the largest transfers of wealth in human history,” Wray said.
He said China was “engaged in a whole-of-state effort to become the world’s only superpower by any means necessary”. “The stakes could not be higher.”
In an interview on Tuesday, the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, said that the US was considering banning the social media platform TikTok and other Chinese-made apps.
India banned TikTok and over 50 other Chinese apps last week, in the wake of clashes on the China-India border in which 20 Indian soldiers were killed.
“We’re certainly looking at it,” Pompeo told Fox News. “With respect to Chinese apps on people’s cellphones, I can assure you the United States will get this one right. I don’t want to get out in front of the president, but it’s something we’re looking at.”