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Five Chinese agents were arrested on Wednesday for their roles in an operation targeting Beijing's opponents in the United States, US officials announced.
Assistant Attorney General John Demers said charges had been filed against eight people involved in an "illegal Chinese law enforcement operation known as Fox Hunt."
"Since 2014, at the direction of Chinese General Secretary Xi Jinping, China has been engaged in a global operation known as Fox Hunt," Demers said at a press conference.
"China describes Fox Hunt as an international anti-corruption campaign in which it seeks to locate legitimate fugitives around the world and bring them to China to face genuine criminal charges," Demers said.
"But in many instances the hunted are opponents of Communist Party Chairman Xi -- political rivals, dissidents, critics," he said. "And in either event, the operation is a clear violation of the rule of law and international norms."
Demers said Chinese "repatriation squads" had entered the United States to "locate the alleged fugitives, and deploy intimidation and other tactics to force them back into China where they would face certain imprisonment or worse following illegitimate trials."
The Justice Department announcement comes at a time of rising tensions between the US and China over the coronavirus pandemic, which President Donald Trump has repeatedly blamed on Beijing.
Demers said five Chinese agents were arrested in the United States on Wednesday to face charges of "conspiring to act in the United States as illegal agents of the People's Republic of China."
Three of those charged -- Zhu Yong, 64, a Chinese citizen and permanent US resident; Hongru Jin, a 30-year-old naturalized US citizen; and Michael McMahon, a 53-year-old US citizen and licensed private detective -- were arrested in New York and New Jersey.
The other two -- Rong Jing, 38, a Chinese citizen and permanent US resident, and Zheng Congying, 24, a Chinese citizen and permanent US resident -- were arrested in California.
The other three facing charges -- Zhu Feng, 33; Hu Ji, 45; and Li Minjun, 64, -- remain at large and are believed to be in China, the Justice Department said.
- Threatening note -
"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.
He said the targeting of Chinese nationals viewed as threats to the regime was not confined to the United States but was also taking place in other countries.
"These are not the actions we would expect from a responsible nation-state," Wray said. "Instead they're more like something we would expect from an organized criminal syndicate."
The Justice Department did not identify the targeted individuals but it provided details of some of the methods used against them.
One case involved a man identified only as "John Doe-1," a resident of New Jersey accused by China of abuse of government power and accepting bribes.
The Justice Department said Chinese agents used a visit to the United States by John Doe-1's elderly father in an attempt to persuade him and his family to return to China.
They also conducted surveillance and online harassment of John Doe-1's adult daughter as part of a campaign to exert pressure on John Doe-1, the Justice Department said.
The charges of conspiracy to act as an agent of China carry a maximum sentence of five years in prison.