Update: A federal jury returned a verdict of guilty against three defendants who were acting as illegal agents of the People’s Republic of China”. When sentenced, the three are facing different amounts of maximum time in prison, Zhu Yong (25 years), Zheng Congying (10 years) and Michael McMahon (20 years).

The U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, Breon Peach noted that, “It is particularly troubling that defendant Michael McMahon, a former sergeant in the New York City Police Department, engaged in surveillance, harassment, and stalking on behalf of a foreign power for money.  We will remain steadfast in exposing and undermining efforts by the Chinese government to reach across our border and perpetrate transnational repression schemes targeting victims in the United States in violation of our laws.”

Original Story July 23, 2021: The United States hosts millions of immigrants, many of whom are from countries viewed as being adversaries or potential adversaries to the United States. Far too often, we see the intelligence or security apparatus of the immigrant’s native country reach out surreptitiously to coerce the immigrant back to their home country. China is a prime example. On July 21, a superseding indictment from the grand jury of the Eastern District of New York was issued indicting nine individuals, of which eight are identified. The indictment details the efforts of the Chinese government to send their operatives to the United States to “harass, stalk, and coerce residents of the United States to return to the PRC as part of a global, concerted and extralegal repatriation effort known as Operation Fox Hunt.”

The indicted individuals include U.S. citizens, Chinese citizens who are lawful, permanent residents in the United States, and Chinese citizens who are residents in China, including the Chinese “prosecutor” as well as the redacted identity of the ninth individual.

  • U.S. Citizen – 
    • Michael McMahon – 53-year old U.S. citizen, a licensed private detective in New Jersey
  • Chinese citizens who lawfully reside in the U.S. –
    • Zhu Feng aka Johnny Zhu – 34-year old PRC citizen and lawful permanent resident in the U.S. until April 2017 in Queens, NY
    • Zhai Yongqiang – 46-year old PRC citizen residing in California and the PRC
    • Zheng Congying – 25-year old PRC citizen and lawful permanent resident, living in Brooklyn, NY
    • Zhu Yong aka Jason Zhu – 64 year old PRC citizen and lawful permanent resident, living in Connecticut and Flushing, NY
  • Chinese citizens who are Chinese residents –
    • Hu Ji – 46-year old citizen and resident of the PRC, was a policeman with the Wuhan Public Security Bureau
    • Li Minjun – 65-year old citizen and resident of the PRC, was a physician, formerly of the Hubei Xiangyang Canter Hospital in Xiangyang, China
    • Tu Lan – 50-year old citizen and resident of the PRC was employed as a prosecutor with the Hangyang People’s Procuratorate
  • Ninth individual – underseal 

If this modus operandi sounds familiar, that’s because it is. Just last week, we shared how Iran had plotted to kidnap a U.S. citizen and secretly move the individual through South America and ultimately back to Iran.

Operation Fox Hunt

Seven years ago, China’s President Xi Jinping ordered the creation of “Operation Fox Hunt” (aka “Operation Skynet). In July 2020, FBI Director Wray said, “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 rather lengthy court documents detail the manner in which the Chinese manipulated their target’s family in China to provide operational leverage in order to coerce the target to return to China.

The operatives brought the target’s father from China to engage his son and plead with him to return to China. That effort appeared to have gone sideways. When the father returned to China and the operative accompanying him attempted to engage, the Chinese operative informed his superiors, the “father was very hostile to me.” In fact, the target’s father talked to the flight attendants who asked the operative to not speak with the father again during the flight.

When the Chinese efforts to use the target’s father failed, they began investigating how to leverage the target’s adult daughter, resident in the United States. Their efforts began in the form of an online harassment campaign alleging the family was corrupt. This was followed by hiring an individual to surveil the daughter. As part of the targeting package provided to the surveillant, the Chinese produced, “name, date of birth, social security number, known addresses, and academic history.”

As an example of the physical harassment, two operatives attempted to force open the door to their target’s residence. When they failed, they opted to leave a note on the target’s door which said, “If you are willing to go back to the mainland and spend 10 years in prison, your wife and children will be all right. That’s the end of this matter!”

“As alleged, the defendants, acting as agents of the PRC, carried out an illegal and clandestine campaign to harass and threaten targeted U.S. residents in order to force them to return to the PRC,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Jacquelyn M. Kasulis. “Unregistered, roving agents of a foreign power are not permitted to engage in secret surveillance of U.S. residents on American soil, and their illegal conduct will be met with the full force of U.S. law. To the extent the PRC seeks to repatriate its citizens to the PRC, its agents are required to register with the Attorney General of the United States, coordinate with U.S. officials, and adhere to U.S. laws and protocols.”

Operation Fox Hunt is global

In November 2020, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) spokesperson, John Townsend, said “Certain foreign states routinely attempt to threaten and intimidate individuals around the world through various state entities and non-state proxies. These states, such as the People’s Republic of China, may use a combination of their intelligence and security services as well as trusted agents to assist them in conducting various forms of threat activities.”

Advice for Field Security Officers on Chinese coercion

It is well documented that China conducts clandestine operations on U.S. soil even if evidence of coercion of the individual through the leveraging of family resident in China to commit espionage is thin. This perceived leverage by China is the reason why the SF-86 and foreign contact reports are so important to detail family ties and close and/or continuing relationships involving foreign nationals.

The advice for FSO’s which was provided in the context of Iran, is applicable with respect to China.FSOs should ensure the M.O. of China with respect to coercion to affect a desired behavior is included in ongoing counterintelligence briefings. Furthermore, post-foreign travel, every cleared traveler should avail themselves for a short post-travel debrief on the foreign nationals (if any) encountered when abroad.



Related News

Christopher Burgess (@burgessct) is an author and speaker on the topic of security strategy. Christopher, served 30+ years within the Central Intelligence Agency. He lived and worked in South Asia, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Central Europe, and Latin America. Upon his retirement, the CIA awarded him the Career Distinguished Intelligence Medal, the highest level of career recognition. Christopher co-authored the book, “Secrets Stolen, Fortunes Lost, Preventing Intellectual Property Theft and Economic Espionage in the 21st Century” (Syngress, March 2008). He is the founder of securelytravel.com