FBI warns state, local police about China targeting people on U.S. soil

Jana Winter and Sharon Weinberger
Image of FBI seal against American and Chinese flags
Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: AP, Getty Images

The FBI is warning local law-enforcement agencies to beware of cooperating with a Chinese government campaign to coerce U.S. residents to return to China to face criminal charges, according to a counterintelligence bulletin obtained by Yahoo News.

The bulletin comes shortly after eight people, including a former New York Police Department officer, were indicted on charges of acting as illegal agents for Beijing.

“State and local public safety personnel should be aware that Chinese Government officials, such as diplomats and officials with China’s primary law enforcement agency, the Ministry of Public Security (MPS), may seek assistance to obtain sensitive US law enforcement or non-public personally identifiable information on individuals of interest,” says the Nov. 10 counterintelligence bulletin, which is marked for official use only and was distributed to law enforcement agencies around the country.

The warning concerns China’s long-standing policy of reaching beyond its borders to target people it accuses of financial crimes, even if they are permanently living abroad. The repatriations, often coerced by blackmail or threats, are part of Beijing’s anti-corruption campaign called Fox Hunt.

In Beijing’s view, Fox Hunt, which has led to the return of more than 3,000 of its citizens, is a legitimate tool of law enforcement. But there has been an increasing number of allegations that China has coerced, even kidnapped, its citizens living abroad, and that it targets political dissidents as well as those accused of financial crimes.

In one of the more dramatic escapades, China reportedly kidnapped billionaire Xiao Jianhua from Hong Kong, transporting him in a wheelchair out of a private apartment in the Four Seasons Hotel. China has been accused of conducting similar operations in Australia, and now the communist government appears to be expanding its reach in the U.S.

Xiao Jianhua
Xiao Jianhua, a Chinese-born Canadian billionaire, in Hong Kong in 2013. (Next Magazine via AP)

Last month, the Justice Department announced charges against eight people for acting as illegal agents of the government in Beijing in connection with their attempt to surveil and coerce U.S. residents to return to China. In one case, according to the FBI, a U.S. resident targeted by the Chinese government was given the option of returning to China or committing suicide. In another, a note was left for a victim: “If you are willing to go back to mainland and spend 10 years in prison, your wife and children will be all right. That’s the end of this matter!”

“The Chinese government’s brazen attempts to surveil, threaten, and harass our own citizens and lawful permanent residents, while on American soil, are part of China’s diverse campaign of theft and malign influence in our country and around the world,” FBI Director Christopher Wray said in a statement following the arrests. “The FBI will use all of its tools to investigate and defeat these outrageous actions by the Chinese government, which are an affront to America’s ideals of freedom, human rights, and the rule of law.”

While the U.S. does not have an extradition treaty with China, the FBI bulletin states that two years ago, the U.S. gave China protocols for seeking assistance from U.S. law enforcement agencies, which involved first contacting the FBI’s legal attaché in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing or working through the FBI’s international operations division. The bureau warns that Chinese officials cannot enter into any kind of cooperative agreement with local law enforcement without first contacting the FBI.

The FBI declined to comment on the warning to law enforcement, but the bureau has been pointed in its previous criticism of Fox Hunt, even offering to help those targeted by it. “If you believe the Chinese government is targeting you — that you’re a potential Fox Hunt victim — please reach out to your local FBI field office,” Wray said during a press conference announcing the recent indictments.

FBI Director Christopher Wray speaks at a podium in front of an American flag
FBI Director Christopher Wray during a virtual news conference at the Justice Department on Oct. 28. (Sarah Silbiger/Pool via AP)

“While our standard practice is to not comment on specific intelligence products, the FBI routinely shares information with our law enforcement partners in order to assist in protecting the communities they serve,” the FBI said in a statement to Yahoo News.

In response to a query from Yahoo News, an official at the Chinese embassy in Washington, D.C. pointed to recent remarks made by the foreign ministry’s spokesperson, Wang Wenbing, who accused the U.S. of sheltering alleged criminals. “The United States has the largest number of Chinese fugitives suspected of corruption and economic crime,” Wang said. “However, in recent years, the United States has been responding passively to China's requests for cooperation on repatriating fugitives. Certain U.S. law enforcement authorities even publicly bolstered Chinese suspects, provided asylum for them and for many times obstructed some fugitives from voluntarily going back to China to turn themselves in.”

The bulletin doesn’t detail any specific cases where Chinese officials have attempted to speak directly with American local or state law enforcement, but it does suggest that it’s a tactic the government has employed previously. It also warns about attempts to enlist private investigators.

One of those charged in the recent indictment was an American private investigator who allegedly helped locate and surveil one of the victims and his wife, according to the FBI. The private detective previously worked for the New York Police Department.

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