An Air China jet (above) soars upward after take-off on its flight home. On a number of similar flights from the US, a considerable number of For nearly a decade, undercover Chinese identification and repatriation teams, as greatcharlie has dubbed them, at the direct request and under the authority of the Chinese government, have entered the US under false pretenses, enlisted US-based accomplices, stalked hundreds of people, including US citizens and permanent residents, and coerced and cajoled them to return to China to face charges for economic crimes they allegedly committed. This effort is called Operation Fox Hunt. It went on near unhindered by US authorities until a bungled mission to capture a target in New Jersey led to arrests and allowed for the first prosecution involving Operation Fox Hunt in the US. Through an examination of flaws in the development, planning, and execution of that New Jersey mission based on available facts, greatcharlie provides some insights on additional ways to defeat ongoing and future missions by Chinese identification and repatriation teams.
On the intelligence front, the crisis of Chinese espionage in the US and the rest of the West has all of the hallmarks of a sort of ordeal. Chinese intelligence services have unfortunately managed to do their job successfully, collecting mountains of secret and information from the government bureaucracies and research and development sites, private businesses, high-tech firms particularly, academia, and think tanks. It would seem safe to say that Chinese espionage operations are ubiquitous. It is very likely that everyday they work harder and harder to make their networks and operations better and more effective, pushing their espionage capabilities far-beyond the reach of the counterintelligence services of the countries in which they operate. The primary conductors of China’s successful espionage operations orchestrated in the US, and globally are the Zhōnghuá Rénmín Gònghéguó Guójiā Ānquán Bù (Ministry for State Security of the People’s Republic of China) or the MSS, China’s preeminent civilian intelligence agency, responsible for overseas espionage and counterintelligence both at home and abroad, and the Central Military Commission (CMC) Joint Staff Department, Intelligence Bureau of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), responsible for collecting and analyzing foreign military intelligence, including technology.
But alas, there are other efforts at penetration and clandestine action undertaken by Chinese operatives in the US as well as other countries that are as insidious and perhaps worse. For nearly a decade, Chinese identification and repatriation teams, as greatcharlie has dubbed them, have absconded not with precious, secret information or property, but rather with people. (Identifying targets was actually one of the most challenging aspects of the teams’ activities. Without the ability to investigate and identify targets, any repatriation effort would be hopeless. In a worst case scenario, the wrong individual might embarrassingly be brought back to China.) Targets have not only been non-residents, but residents and naturalized US citizens. Indeed, incontrovertible proof exists that shows undercover identification and repatriation teams at the direct request and under the authority of the Chinese government have entered the US under false pretenses, stalked hundreds of people, including US citizens and permanent residents, and enlisted US-based accomplices–private investigators and self-styled bounty hunters–and relentlessly hound their targets. Ostensibly, the Chinese operatives have sought out fugitives from justice in China as part of an anti-corruption campaign.
In a number of operations, Chinese identification and repatriation teams were completely successful in capturing their targets and bringing them back to China to face what the Communist Party of China deemed as justice. Yet, that has not always been the case. There is a great difference between grabbing intellectual property, trade secrets, computer files as well as actual technologies and grabbing people. There is a human element which, particularly under conditions that the Chinese government creates for its “volunteers,” leaves a degree of uncertainty and unpredictability that cannot be assessed until one sees actual results. In identification and repatriation operations, that same uncertainty can exist in the way that the targets may behave, too! That was the case with Chinese identification and repatriation operatives acting in New Jersey beginning in 2016. It was a bungled mission that has allowed for the first prosecution involving Operation Fox Hunt in the US.
From the New Jersey case, a few insights are drawn by greatcharlie on this particular case of Operation Fox Hunt that may provide a better understanding on what Chinese operatives are doing via the operation and how they are doing what they are doing. With the color and life of the investigative reports greatcharlie found most informative aggregated with the facts laid out plainly in the federal court document, a somewhat definitive account of the event can be constructed. By highlighting flaws in the development, planning, and execution based on available facts of that case, greatcharlie seeks to provide insight on additional ways to defeat ongoing and future Chinese identification and repatriation activities under Operation Fox Hunt or under some new operation launched by Beijing. Just knowing what is wrong is not as great as knowing how to fix the problem. This commentary does not look at the situation only in the end to say everyone appears to be doing their best to halt China’s malign activities and all is peaches-and-cream. Comments and suggestions are offered, leaving it up to readers, think tank scholars, academics, policy analysts, and military and diplomatic officials, journalists, and students, but particularly practitioners who may serve in US counterintelligence, to observe, reflect, and act as they may. In the essay’s discussion, greatcharlie hopes to avoid any appearance of instructing counterintelligence officers on what to do. It would be satisfying enough to know that some of what is presented here might resonate with a few of them. By shedding light on some flaws in the development of plans and the organization of operators for action, as well as delinquencies in the execution of the plan, greatcharlie hopes it can offer something of use to the US, its allies, and friends to combat and to defeat similar malign clandestine and covert operations by China worldwide. If the matter of the identification and repatriation and repatriation operations is not put right, surely it will have an unfortunate effect on US national security now and into the future. Nihil tam difficile est ut non possit studio investigari. (Nothing is so difficult that it is not able to be tracked down by study.)
After People’s Republic of China President and Communist Party of China Party Secretary Xi Jinping (above) assumed power in 2013, he initiated a sweeping anti-corruption campaign. Xi vowed to hunt down powerful “tigers” as well as lowly “flies” in the campaign to eradicate corruption. The slogan of the campaign became “fight tigers, swat flies and hunt foxes.” Xi warned corruption was so bad that it could threaten the Communist Party of China’s grip on power. That campaign has netted thousands of party leaders and rank-and-file government officials domestically. Indeed, Operations Fox Hunt and Operation Sky Net were part of the effort internationally in that regard. In June 2014, authorities established the International Office of Pursuing Fugitives and Recovering Embezzled Assets–staffed with a composite of personnel seconded from eight government agencies. In the first alone, 3,587 fugitives from over 90 countries had been returned to China.
Overview of Operation Fox Hunt and Operation Sky Net
As alleged in a July 22, 2021 criminal complaint filed in the Eastern District of New York, Criminal Division, defendants participated in an international campaign to threaten, harass, surveil and intimidate John Doe #1 and his family, in order to force John Doe #1 and Jane Doe #1 to return to China as part of “Operation Fox Hunt.” It was revealed in the reports of investigative journalists that John Doe #1 and Jane Doe #2 are Xu Jin and his wife, Liu Fang. The defendants allegedly engaged in clandestine, unsanctioned and illegal conduct within the US and facilitated the travel of Chinese government officials to the US in order to further carry out these illegal acts. Between 2016 and 2019, multiple Chinese officials directed the defendants, and several others, to engage in efforts to coerce the victims to return to China.
The US Department of Justice has identified Operation Fox Hunt as an initiative by the People’s Republic of China’s Ministry of Public Security to locate and repatriate alleged Chinese “fugitives” who had fled to foreign countries that have committed crimes under Chinese law. The Zhōnghuá Rénmín Gònghéguó Gōng’ānbù (Ministry of Public Security of the People’s Republic of China) or MPS is an internal and political security and domestic intelligence service. Once back in China, those individuals typically face stiff charges. After People’s Republic of China President and Communist Party of China Party Secretary Xi Jinping assumed power in 2013, he initiated a sweeping anti-corruption campaign. Xi vowed to hunt down powerful “tigers” as well as lowly “flies” in the campaign to eradicate corruption. The slogan of the campaign became “fight tigers, swat flies and hunt foxes.” Xi warned corruption was so bad that it could threaten the Communist Party of China’s grip on power. According to Human Rights Watch, that campaign has netted thousands of party leaders and rank-and-file government officials domestically. Operations Fox Hunt and Skynet were part of the effort internationally. In June 2014, authorities established the International Office of Pursuing Fugitives and Recovering Embezzled Assets–staffed with a composite of personnel seconded from eight government agencies. Just three years afterward, 3,587 fugitives from over 90 countries had been returned to China.
Absent an extradition treaty between the US and China, one might look upon the problem as Chinese authorities taking it upon themselves to bring criminals to justice. However, it is of great concern for US officials that Operation Fox Hunt operatives, rather than working in the US with the approval and coordination of the federal government, instead regularly enter the US without notifying any bureaucracy in Washington relevant to their planned actions and engage in violations of US criminal law. To that extent, the activity has been described not only as “an end-run around the Department of State and the Department of Justice,” but “an end-run around US law.” Even more, it is alleged by US national security officials that despite Beijing’s claims to the contrary, identification and repatriation teams are pursuing certain individuals not due to a business dispute in China or violation of Chinese criminal law. Rather, there is a political purpose to the activity. In addition to tracking down those accused of economic crimes, Chinese identification and repatriation teams travel the world in pursuit of those afoul of the Communist Party of China, to include: Tibetans, Uyghurs, Hong Kongers, and followers of the Falun Gong religious movement. To force them into returning, authorities subject their relatives in China to harassment, jail, torture and other mistreatment, sometimes recording hostage-like videos to send to the US. Somewhat less concerning is Operation Sky Net which is a program that runs concurrently alongside Operation Fox Hunt and augment it by cutting-off the financial flows of citizens who have fled overseas and working to recover any proceeds gained through corruption.
Operation Fox Hunt: A MPS Mission
Although the Chinese citizens sought under Operation Fox Hunt are located overseas, identification and repatriation would be a task intrinsic to the mission of MPS. MPS surely has the most complete, up-to-date records on Chinese citizens and tracking down and identifying citizens its officers have honed and polished over decades. For that reason, MPS may very well be pulled into the mix of overseas espionage activities more often than may be presently conceived in the US and among its allies and partners. That same information about Chinese citizens is certainly of great interest to the Communist Party of China and in its hands via MPS. In addition to performing standard domestic functions as a law enforcement and intelligence and counterintelligence service, MPS is very much tied to the Communist Party of China to the extent that its present raison d’être and primary responsibility is to help the Party maintain its tight grip on the population.
To cloak their pursuit of individuals in apparent legality, Beijing has had the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol), an inter-governmental law enforcement organization, to issue “Red Notices,” enumerating hosts of business crimes allegedly committed by their targets. In April 2015, China published a most-wanted list, called “100 Red Notices” that held the names of 100 officials and business executives accused in major corruption cases. According to government statistics, by December 2017, 51 out of “100 Red Notices” had returned to China. Among them, 10 were reportedly repatriated by foreign governments, while 35 returned “voluntarily” after being “persuaded.”
To cloak its pursuit of individuals in apparent legality, Beijing has had the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol), an inter-governmental law enforcement organization, to issue “Red Notices,” enumerating hosts of business crimes allegedly committed by their targets. In April 2015, China published a most-wanted list, called “100 Red Notices” that held the names of 100 officials and business executives accused in major corruption cases. According to government statistics, by December 2017, 51 out of “100 Red Notices” had returned to China. Among them, 10 were reportedly repatriated by foreign governments, while 35 returned “voluntarily” after being “persuaded.”
Interestingly, Beijing’s acquisition of Red Notices on the innocent is surely a sinister practice. It has been a human rights concern of considerable importance in US-China relations. Reportedly, there are ongoing efforts by the US and other countries to snuff out Beijing’s Red Notice acquisition activity. One might say that any effort to do that would be near akin to shutting off the lights in the library reading room before closing. The list of “100 Red Notices” and every Red Notice acquired since that list was posted, long ago should have served as figurative beckoning fingers for those seeking to defeat Operation Fox Hunt as to where the identification and repatriation teams would eventually show up. Countless traps and other tricks should have brought the whole cabaret down. With a proper strategy, officers directly from US counterintelligence services and perhaps truly well-equipped and well-experienced state, county, and municipal law enforcement organizations around the US should have used for good, stealthy, professional reconnaissance and surveillance. That reconnaissance and surveillance would have needed to have been performed unobtrusively and for the sake of those under Beijing’s requested Red Notices, unintrusively. Patience would also have been a main ingredient for success. The 17th century French traveller and jeweller, Jean Baptiste Chardin, (1643 – 1713) in “Voyages en Perse et autres lieux de l’Orient” (1711), wrote: “La patience est amère, mais son fruit est doux.” (Patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet.) Further, to succeed, no assistance from contractors in the activity should have been allowed. Contractors for the most part can only offer what the young people refer to as “gangstalking,” “Keystone Cop” type choreography, and school-boy pranks. In one way or another they would have ruined anything they touched as they typically do.
Federal Court Documents Versus Investigative Reports as Sources
In an interview with George Plimpton in the Fall 1990 edition of the Paris Review, Maya Angelou said: “The facts can obscure the truth, what it really felt like.” Many might imagine the rudiments of tactics, techniques and procedures, and methods of China’s efforts as presented in the federal court document might serve as a source for guidance. They would be mistaken. Reading through the indictment, the facts of the case on first impression may appear laid out in the federal court document in a somewhat Daedalian manner to the nonlegal scholar, the layman. Not even the sequence of events was not made clear. From what is presented in the federal court indictment, one might believe the case leading to the indictment of Operation Fox Hunt operatives was rather featureless. The ways in which Chinese identification and repatriation teams acted as laid out appear almost predictable, given the nature of their mission and their desire to satisfy the authorities who commissioned the enterprise. There is nothing in the document that would strike a reader as something new, intriguing, or recherché. Much of what is within could hardly serve as a foundation upon which US law enforcement and counterintelligence service might be better enabled to construct new approaches to mitigate them. The whole matter actually took on new meaning for greatcharlie after reading a July 22, 2021 ProPublica article which conveyed the facts of the case in an interesting way stirred greatcharlie’s interest and resulted in a decision to dive deeper into the facts of the case.
In the reports of investigative journalists of ProPublica and other publications, there is general acceptance of the facts as presented in the federal criminal complaint. Yet, even more important, the investigative reports provide color to the story of the identification and repatriation team’s activities. The investigative journalists’ stories offer assessments of principal actors involved, ascribing traits to them, painting pictures of them as well as locations where specific acts occurred, and aiding readers in understanding how it likely felt to be victimized by such an enterprise. Investigative journalists also present moments of life in a way that allows readers to enter an experience. Indeed, there is much to learn from several impressive articles by investigative journalists. By including that information with facts, the story of the episode provides a structure that allows a sufficient parsing of everything involved.
Xu Jin (above), a legal permanent resident in the US, formerly directed the development commission of Wuhan, China before he left for the US in 2010. In both 2012 and 2014, the Chinese government caused the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol) to issue “Red Notices” for Xu and Liu. According to those Red Notices, Xu was wanted by the Chinese government for “embezzlement,” abuse of power, [and] acceptance of bribes,” pursuant to Chinese Criminal Law Articles 383, 385, and 397, which carried a maximum possible penalty of life imprisonment. In 2015, the Chinese government put the couple on its list of 100 most wanted fugitives in Operation Fox Hunt. Chinese authorities have said they made three formal requests for US assistance about the couple, providing evidence about alleged money laundering and immigration crimes that could be prosecuted in the US.
Targets of the New Jersey Mission
As reported in the Wall Street Journal, Xu had directed Wuhan’s development commission before he left for the US in 2010 with his wife, Liu, who is a former insurance company executive. Xu and Liu, both 57 at the time of this writing, had obtained US green cards through a program that grants residency to foreigners who invest more than $500,000 in the US. In the interest of full-disclosure, a California consultant who helped them apply for the green cards later pleaded guilty to immigration fraud, and investigators in that case alleged that the wife’s petition for residency contained false information. But they remain legal residents. Using its standard artifice to tie everything up neatly with a legal bow, in and around 2012 and 2014, the Chinese government caused the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol), an inter-governmental law enforcement organization to issue “Red Notices” for Xu and Liu. According to those Red Notices, Xu was wanted by the Chinese government for “embezzlement” abuse of power [and] acceptance of bribes,” pursuant to Chinese Criminal Law Articles 383, 385, and 397, which carried a maximum possible penalty of life imprisonment. In 2015, the Chinese government put the couple on its list of 100 most wanted fugitives in Operation Fox Hunt. Chinese authorities have said they made three formal requests for US assistance about the wanted couple, providing evidence about alleged money laundering and immigration crimes that could be prosecuted here. A spokesperson for the US Department of Justice declined to comment on that assertion.
In April 2018, the Chinese privately owned company, Xinba Construction Group Company, filed a lawsuit against the couple in New Jersey state court, accusing Xu of holding up projects to extort money from companies, and due to his actions, those companies still owe Xinba more than $10 million for contracts performed. In court filings, the couple denied Xu extorted or looted any company, calling the litigation an artifice designed to coerce the couple “to return to China and, if not, to harass and attempt to bankrupt” them. Their countersuit also alleged an extensive harassment campaign was being waged against them by Chinese operatives. They also claimed those same operatives had kidnapped Xu’s father living in China and that they had posed as special agents of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to stalk an immediate relative of Xu’s living in the US. Although the endangered couple’s attorney had accurately and clearly laid out the Chinese government’s villany, a judge in September 2019, out of ignorance, rejected their claims, saying they failed to provide sufficient evidence that Xinba was working with the Chinese government. A preceding judge overseeing the case, completely failing to understand the absolute gravity of matter with regard to US national security, remarked: “It’s not your ordinary case you see in the Superior Court in Essex County, but we’re open for all business I guess . . . No herniated discs. No slip and fall in this case.”
Perchance, back in Beijing, dismissive responses as such from jurists of the US court system were predicted. US judges, unsure when they wanted to be sure, would reject what they did not understand or thought unimaginable. Predicting such behavior would presumably be one among a set of assumptions and predictions made in Beijing on the actions and reactions of those elements in the US whose responsibility and capability would be to present obstacles or prevent Operation Fox Hunt from succeeding. Those elements in the US were apparently no more threatening to senior executives, managers, and planners in MPS than the Maginot Line was to the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht in 1940.
Liu Feng (above), is the wife of Xu Jin. A former insurance company executive, she came to the US with Xu in 2010. According to a Red Notice issued by Interpol, Liu is equally sought for arrest as Xu. In April 2018, the Chinese privately owned company, Xinba Construction Group Company, filed a lawsuit against Xu and Liu in New Jersey state court, accusing Xu of holding up projects to extort money from companies, and due to his actions, those companies still owe Xinba more than $10 million for contracts performed. In court filings, the couple denied Xu extorted or looted any company, calling the litigation an artifice designed to coerce the couple “to return to China and, if not, to harass and attempt to bankrupt” them. Their countersuit also alleged an extensive harassment campaign was being waged against them by Chinese operatives. They also claimed those same operatives had kidnapped Xu’s father living in China and had posed as federal agents to stalk an immediate relative of Liu living in the US.
Preparation for the Mission: What Was likely Raised in Feasibility Studies Done in Advance?
One should never expect China to come charging in with reckless abandon. If it had happened in the past, it surely will happen any more. The efforts of those operating in the US on all levels, espionage, identification and repatriation, and perchance, covert operations, will typically be calibrated, with supposedly every precaution taken into consideration. Vouloir c’est pouvoir. Operation Fox Hunt has been marked by concerted, energetic, and endless activity by China. For the most part, Chinese efforts in the US have been quiet, smooth, and quite sophisticated in nature. Albeit moving into the realm of conjecture, one can imagine how a feasibility study for the rendition operation was constructed and the assessments that led to the project being green-lit.
MPS in coordination with China’s foreign intelligence services likely studied the situation, and recognized just how open the US was for the theft of its secrets in all sectors and then clearly decided to pour through, taking whatever they could. To date, there is no indication that they have decided to pare down any aspect of their clandestine and covert operations in the US, and evidently they have encountered nothing to even suggest that they should retreat. Ventis secundis, tene/tenete cursum. (The winds being favorable, hold the course.)
Surely, there were several feasibility studies produced on the possibility of successfully conducting identification and repatriation operations with concern at minimum focused on how under current circumstances, with espionage activities drawing so much attention in the US, the situation has not been made less secure for all teams operating there, and the pitfalls of conducting such identification and repatriation operations with relations between the two countries at a relative low point. Such studies would likely be put before those assigned to manage the identification and repatriation operations in the US ostensibly along with the volumes of studies done that provided confidence fhst China’s “espionage tsunami” would meet with considerable success.
Imaginably, information gathered for such feasibility studies would be up-to-date, and perhaps would be thorough enough to include manifests of law enforcement officers and counterintelligence officers within the planned area of operation of the identification and repatriation team, with notes on their working hours, usual movements and daily habits. If that might even remotely be the case, it would also mean China has engaged, and is likely continually engaged, in covert surveillance of many law enforcement and counterintelligence officers in the US who they may have discovered were handling Chinese espionage and identification and repatriation cases. They may have discovered that those investigators often display varied levels of diligence, are often inattentive when visiting site, are rarely thorough and at time outrightly remiss when interviewing individuals of interest, display their insecurities in conversation, prone to bullying their own citizens without any apparent cause, and are unprofessional often in dealing with existing contacts. Despite this perception based on analyses in the abstract or empirical evidence, US counterintelligence and law enforcement organizations around the US are not without count, and it would prove to be a mistake to minimize the threat of their presence altogether.
It is possible that feasibility studies such as those suggested had some influence on the decision on the location, the timing of the operations, and which émigré to pursue from a list of those sought. To this extent, Chinese investigators, as those participating in the identification and repatriation scheme, would be armed and enabled with an abundance of information. They enter the US, clearly equipped, able, and expecting to overcome difficulties foreseen and unforeseen from federal, state, or even municipal law enforcement or US counterintelligence services they may encounter. They have managed to establish, in the venues in which they have operated, freedom of movement so to speak. Of course, certain levels of information deemed “ultra-secret” or however it might be described by Chinese intelligence, would unlikely be shared by intelligence services with the identification and repatriation teams. Perhaps overall, the exchange of information by some organizations would be on a “need to know” basis.
In the abstract, conceivably lessons learned are internalized, studies and observations of law enforcement as much as counterintelligence surely are constantly underway in all the countries by every organization operating in respectively. In turn those studies and observations are doubtlessly shared to mutually support the success of one another. What may be recognized as too risky, ineffective, expected by the adversary through recent experience, would be cut away. What seemed to be a more available path to ends, is given consideration, and will likely find its way in efforts to prepare those going on the next missions. Malum est consilium quod mutari non potest. (Bad (ill-considered) is the plan that cannot be changed.)
Most important to note is that whether the matter is espionage or other malign clandestine and covert activities overseas, there can be no doubt that all are constantly moving through a process of evolution. It appears to be a manifestation of an idea, reflective of what has been dubbed “Xi thought,” that Chinese activities performed by government, Communist Party of China, or irregulars must be driven by an energy to push the country onward and upward into the position of the dominant power of the world and one might imagine perhaps even beyond that stature, whatever designs the Communist Party of China leadership might have in mind for that to be. At first blush, these comments may strike a few readers as being a bit lightweight, but some reasoning behind risking such audacious action in the US should be parsed out and laid out for readers to possibly accept and provide a basis for greatcharlie’s suggestions as to what may have been organized and had transpired beneath the surface.
The Main Operation Fox Hunt Players in This Drama
Once fully operational, the identification and repatriation team for the New Jersey mission grew to at least 19 US and Chinese operatives. Nine of the operatives among the identification and repatriation team members of the Operation Fox Hunt New Jersey operation are part of the case filed in the Eastern District of New York, Criminal Division.
Included in the criminal complaint were the following. Hu Ji was the lead investigator and identification and repatriation team leader. Hu was at the time of the indictment a 46 year old officer serving in the Wuhan Public Security Bureau, a municipal bureau of MPS. To be a bit more specific, he was a veteran officer of the bureau’s foreign affairs unit. Hu is a man of the world with a natural turn for clandestine action and placing others in trying positions. Hu gained notice after joining an Operation Fox Hunt task force. Reportedly, in early 2016, the Wuhan newsmedia had published glowing profiles about him, describing his imposing height, his travels to 29 countries, and his arrests of eight fugitives. In the view of the Wuhan newsmedia, Hu est a un autre niveau! In an interview, Hu told the Hubei Daily: “Out of the country does not mean out of the legal system.” He added: “Show your sword and punish even those in faraway lands.”
Though in photographs Hu looks careworn, they typically present him as a professional, intelligent, well-minded, well-built–about 6-foot-1, well-dressed, well-groomed, handsome, smooth, and confident-looking, Chinese male. Hu is a compound of cunning and audacity, girded with steady nerves. His gift as a cool observer of mankind and an understanding of complicated interpersonal relationships allowed him to successfully carry off the job of team leader. That understanding of people surely aided him in manipulating and exploiting others. Hu’s cases had led from Fiji to France to Mexico, making headlines back home. The work was riskier here; in fact, it was illegal. He acquired dominant knowledge of the territory in which he operated. Hu was not even afraid to be at the elbow of law enforcement personnel to explain his purpose using some tall story, some artifice. Hu would identify himself as a Chinese police officer on his tourist visa. US officials hardly gave him a second glance. Sometimes, it was best to hide in plain sight. Perhaps the best way to express what is discussed here is to state that in his work, Hu could be dashing and audacious, but also honorable and discreet, using wits and memory, acting gradually. He could display a certain gentleness but certainly had the capability to be quite cruel. He had no qualms about exploiting individual weakness. Surely, individuals as Hu often seem far too well-equipped for the world in comparison to people most readers might know, or to themselves. In attempting to ascribe certain traits to Hu given his role as a normal Operation Fox Hunt lead investigator and identification and repatriation team leader, those considered by greatcharlie may appear to be mere abstractions. However, as far as one can tell, these are precisely the traits that assisted Hu in becoming a master at his work.
At the time the complaint was filed, Zhu Feng, also known as “Johnny Zhu,” was a 34 year old PRC citizen and US lawful permanent resident, and until approximately April 2017, was a resident of Flushing, Queens, in New York City. Zhu had studied in Guam before moving to Flushing, which holds one of largest enclaves of Chinese immigrants in the US. His extended family became legal US residents and appreciated life in their new home. Zhu’s older brother served in the US military and then worked for the Social Security Administration and Customs and Border Protection, according to court documents and public records. Zhu reportedly performed odd jobs: tour guide, selling used cars. On social media, he sported a Yankees cap and a boyish smile and called himself “Endless Johnny.” He was torn from that life to serve as an involuntary clandestine operative for the Chinese government. Zhu Yong, also known as Jason Zhu,” was a 64 year old Chinese citizen and a legal permanent resident in the US. Zhu Yong was the father of co-defendant Zhu Feng. The older Zhu, is divorced and suffers from diabetes and high blood pressure. He did not have a steady job, and divided his time between a home in Connecticut and his older son’s place in Queens. He traveled frequently to China which very likely caught the attention of MPS.
This conscription of families of captured targets is a ruthless and effective tactic. Yet, Chinese authorities find great value in it reportedly because they believe it ensures loyalty and obedience. They also apparently believe that allowing identification and repatriation teams to use local intermediaries enable them to shield Chinese officers from scrutiny by US counterintelligence services and state, county, and municipal law enforcement organizations around the US. The teams are often organized in what has been described as silos to keep operatives unaware of who other team members are or the full details of their mission.
Michael McMahon, a 53 year old US citizen, was a licensed private detective in New Jersey. McMahon came from an Irish-American family of police officers and firefighters. During his 14 years at the New York City Police Department, he worked in narcotics and an elite street crime unit, rising to detective sergeant. He received the Police Combat Cross, the department’s second-highest honor, for his role in a gunfight in the Bronx. In 2003, he retired on partial disability related to ailments caused by his time at Ground Zero after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. His wife, an actress, once had a long-running part on “As the World Turns,” a daytime soap opera. Zheng Congying, a 25 year old Chinese citizen and legal permanent resident, resided in Brooklyn, New York. Investigators believe he was hired muscle. Li Minjun, a 65 year old citizen and resident of China, was a physician formerly of the Hubei Xiangyang Center Hospital in Xiangyang, China. Li had also worked for the MPS. Brought aboard the team as a specialist, her assignment was to escort Xu’s father from China to the US against his will with the hope that he would cause his son to surrender to the identification and repatriation team.
Hu Ji was the lead investigator and identification and repatriation team leader. Hu was at the time of his indictment was an officer serving in the Wuhan Public Security Bureau, a municipal bureau of MPS. To be a bit more specific, he was a veteran officer of the bureau’s foreign affairs unit. Hu is a man of the world with a natural turn for clandestine action and placing others in trying positions. Hu gained notice after joining an Operation Fox Hunt task force. Reportedly, in early 2016, the Wuhan newsmedia had published glowing profiles about him, describing his imposing height, his travels to 29 countries, and his arrests of eight fugitives. In an interview, Hu told the Hubei Daily: “Out of the country does not mean out of the legal system.” He added: “Show your sword and punish even those in faraway lands.”
PRC Official-2 was at one time an individual whose identity was known only to the Grand Jury. However, PRC Official-2 has since been revealed to be Tu Lan, a 50 year old citizen and resident of China, was employed as a prosecutor with the Hanyang People’s Procuratorate and a leader of a Wuhan Fox Hunt task force. She would eventually direct day-to-day activities of the identification and repatriation team. However, as she did not speak English, Johnny would stick close and be her intermediary between her and Michael McMahon, the US private investigator, who was referred to by the identification and repatriation team members simply as “Mike.”
Zhai Yongqiang, a 46 year old Chinese citizen, resided in China and California. According to court documents, Tu Lan and Zhai Yongqiang, age 46, were the last of the nine charged in the superseding complaint. The identity of a ninth defendant, named Anonymous by US prosecutors, remains under seal.
Among those also included in the federal court documents but not indicted were PRC Official-1 is an individual whose identity remains known only to the Grand Jury. PRC Official-1 is said to be a Chinese citizen and a director of the Wuhan prosecution office’s anti-corruption bureau. Note that US prosecutors did not charge or identify PRC Official-1 or PRC Official-2 which frequently occurs for strategic and diplomatic reasons with regard to counterintelligence cases. Rong Jing, a 39 year old permanent resident in the US, was Hu’s point man in California. He was a married businessman, living in Rancho Cucamonga, about 35 miles east of Los Angeles. Court documents state Rong described himself as a bounty hunter for the Chinese government. He apparently enjoyed his “Motherland” and was quite talkative about it. Rong’s discussion of his work as identification and repatriation team member provided investigators with a wealth of information on the insidious nature and ubiquitous presence of the Operation Fox Hunt networks. Co-conspirator #3 was an operative who on or about and between May 15, 2017 and May17, 2017, contacted and hired a private investigator in California–dubbed P1 in the federal court document–for the purpose of surveilling Jane Doe #2. Co-conspirator #3 provided P1 with a picture of a document from the defendant Zhai Yongqiang containing the name and personal identification information belonging to Xu.
Communist Party of China Expectations of the Identification and Repatriation Team
In 2015, Liu Dong, then deputy director of MPS’s economic crimes division, headed Operation Fox Hunt for the organization. He used interviews with China’s newsmedia to supposedly provide citizens with a rare look into the Operation Fox Hunt teams. He told Xinhua news agency that the work required a young team because members needed the strength to withstand long hours and frequent long-distance travel. Liu also told Xinhua that his team was highly intelligent, tough and nimble, with backgrounds in economics, law, foreign languages and business management. He further stated that team members were selected in part for their “emotional quotient” for dealing with overseas law enforcement, and for their ability to handle adversity.
For those team members indoctrinated in Communist Chinese thought doubtlessly recognizes his or her solemn responsibility to ensure China achieved its maximum potential everyday. Chinese intelligence officers in the various services likely feel that they can outperform their opponents and overcome their efforts to defend targets from espionage and efforts to intercept them. One might postulate in the abstract that Chinese intelligence officers may very well have closely observed, or may have read reports on how the behavior, performance and professionalism of officers of organizations in adversarial countries responsible for investigating and halting China’s espionage and any other activities in them was so negative, self-defeating, and self-destructive that confidence in their own abilities was uplifted. Perhaps this impression or belief grows in certitude with every review of certain adversaries. While there may not exactly be a wide open door there likely appeared to be seemingly endless potential for action and perhaps limitless possibilities.
Imaginably, those operatives from China already associated with the Chinese government who were selected for the identification and repatriation team had no bad habits–such as indulging in alcohol, narcotics, pornograpby, misogyny, and prostitution–that could potentially become amplified in a Western environment. To go a bit further using Chinese intelligence officers as a model, identification and repatriation team members, while deployed in service of their country, would not be expected to take any aspect of their duties lightly. They would expectantly never display any desire to involve themselves with banal amusements to fill time when not active in the field–one could hardly call any time while deployed “outside working hours.”–or entertain themselves on mobile phones while performing work tasks. One might presume that whatever they may most enjoy, they contented themselves with least. In effect, the team was expected to figuratively display the “company culture” of the Communist Party of China and live and act by “company principles.” By engaging in heavy handed actions against family members of the targets, team members certainly could be said to have displayed the “best practices” of the company.
Despite all of the safeguards in place, team members were well-aware that danger in the form of lurking US counterintelligence services. While perhaps highly motivated, on the ground, the hyperbole of China’s domination of the field in the US uttered by senior executives and Communist Party of China leaders is likely obviate in the minds of many operatives due to the very strong desire not to be captured. Presumably, no Chinese intelligence officer or clandestine or covert operative of any kind wants to be caught due to his or her own delinquency, carelessness, or outright stupidity. There is also the matter of punishment they might face back home for their failure. In recent memory, few to none among have been caught and put on trial in a US court. This is surely the standard and the expectation for all of those deployed at the Chinese government’s bidding. Unusquisque mavult credere quam iudicare. (Everyone prefers to believe than to think.)
In 2015, Liu Dong, then deputy director of MPS’s economic crimes division, headed Operation Fox Hunt for the organization. He used interviews with China’s newsmedia to supposedly provide citizens with a rare look into the Operation Fox Hunt teams. He told Xinhua news agency that the work required a young team because members needed the strength to withstand long hours and frequent long-distance travel. Liu also told Xinhua that his team was highly intelligent, tough and nimble, with backgrounds in economics, law, foreign languages and business management. He further stated that team members were selected in part for their “emotional quotient” for dealing with overseas law enforcement, and for their ability to handle adversity.
Stalking and Attempted Repatriation of Xu Ji and Liu Feng
As the story goes, in September 2016, Hu flew to New York to launch the operation. Among his first moves, he went into New Jersey to reconnoiter the house in Short Hills and other locations. Then at Hu’s direction, his bevy of clandestine operatives began building a network. First, they needed a local private investigator, preferably a former police officer with contacts and the skills to track people down. Zhu Yong, together with co-conspirator whose identity is known only to the Grand Jury as “Co-conspirator #1,” hired Michael McMahon to investigate and surveil Xu. McMahon came from a family of police officers and firefighters. As an officer in the New York City Police Department (NYPD) for 14 years, he had served in a narcotics unit and an elite street crime unit. He rose to the rank of detective sergeant. He received the Police Combat Cross for his role in a gunfight in the Bronx. McMahon retired in 2003 on partial disability related to ailments caused by his time at Ground Zero after the September 11, 2001 World Trade Center attack. Reportedly, his wife, an actress, had a long-running part on “As the World Turns,” a daytime soap opera. Imaginably as a security precaution, Hu’s operatives enlisted a woman who presented herself as the New York-based employee of a translation company to contact McMahon. The woman explained to him that she discovered him through a Google search. She then introduced him to Zhu Feng and Zhu Yong, describing them as representatives of a private Chinese company that was trying to recover assets from a former employee who had stolen money. Zhu Feng identified himself as the nephew of the owner of the Chinese firm, which he allegedly described as a construction company. The following month, Hu traveled to the US to meet with McMahon at a Panera Bread restaurant in Paramus, New Jersey, a suburb about 20 miles from New York City. Reportedly, the MPS officer presented himself as Eric Yan, an executive of the private company, during that meeting and other interactions. Zhu Feng and Zhu Yong also participated in Hu’s meetings with McMahon. Hu provided McMahon with a retainer of $5000 at that first meeting. The two Zhu’s were reportedly involved with his succeeding payments. McMahon’s attorney claims his client “believed he was meeting company personnel” and never learned the identification and repatriation team’s true mission. “Nothing seemed suspicious at meetings” according to McMahon’s attorney. He also indicates that the identification and repatriation team members that his client met at no point mentioned the Chinese government or that anybody worked in law enforcement in China. He claims the focus of discussions was asset recovery, and they convincingly portrayed themselves as company employees with a vested interest in locating the money.
Soon after he was hired, McMahon began to investigate Xu and his family, a process which included conducting surveillance on Xu and obtaining his banking information. ProPublica reports that McMahon brought in two more investigators to help stake out a suspected location of Xu and Liu, a house in New Jersey. He took the precaution of alerting local police to the surveillance presumably to prevent any misunderstandings if detected or reported by passers-by. (At that point, McMahon demonstrated the willingness to cooperate with law enforcement. Thereby, ample opportunity existed for US counterintelligence services and law enforcement to enlist his assistance as an informant or operative. For reasons unknown, the opportunity was passed up.) As indicated by the federal document, McMahon’s activities were initially directed by the defendant Zhu Yong and later directly by Hu and Zhu Feng. McMahon was diligent in providing reports on his progress to Hu. In the Fall of 2016, McMahon sent Hu information regarding Xu and his family. In or about November 2016, McMahon emailed information about Liu’s international travel. Later, around December 2016, McMahon emailed Hu information concerning Liu’s date of birth, Social Security Number, and banking information. In November, Hu, still using the nom de guerre Yang, emailed McMahon to say he had “reported all we found” to his superiors in China.
In December 2016, Hu visited New York again. On that occasion, he traveled with his manager. US authorities only identified Hu’s superior only as PRC Official-1, the director of the Wuhan prosecution office’s anti-corruption bureau and a leader of a Wuhan Fox Hunt task force that includes prosecutors and investigators in the Communist Party’s anti-corruption unit. After that visit, Hu and Zhu Feng returned to China. Oddly enough, in a meeting in Wuhan, Hu confided to Zhu that next time they did not plan to come back from the US without the targets.
Following months of investigative work by McMahon, the identification and repatriation team planned a specific operation to stalk and grab Xu via psychological coercion. It was then that the team moved to bring Xu’s elderly father from China to the US in order to communicate a threat on behalf of the Chinese government directly to Xu. As part of the plan, Xu’s father was directed to tell him to the effect that if he did not return to China, his family there would suffer serious harm, including imprisonment. In furtherance of this criminal scheme, team members, Zhu, Tu Lan, and Li Minjun traveled to the US.
Malgré-nous Among the Team’s Members
It has been said that in zealousness, one can usually find some weakness, some hidden doubts. In China, the world is limited to what is seen through the lens of the Communist Party of China and “Xi thought.” For some Chinese citizens, that line of thinking and a will of iron act as blinders, preventing other perspectives from seeping in. From the view of the Communist Party of China, in the New Jersey operation, a team was being sent in under Hu’s leadership whose members’ minds were turned wholly toward bringing John Doe #1 back to China. In no small part, therein lies the causality for the ultimate breakdown of the New Jersey identification and repatriation operation.
Interestingly, not all team members were members of the Communist Party of China or aspired to be such. One would think Party membership would be sine qua non for a mission of this type as it was actually commissioned by the Party and given that certain exigent circumstances could arise, requiring almost anything of team members, including literal self-sacrifice. Those called upon were indeed not the most dedicated. The teams and their superiors in Beijing erred in presuming without any reliable ability to predict or confirm the fidelity of those non-Party members would gladly follow orders in every circumstance.
With the New Jersey enterprise, it is clear two team members, Zhu Feng and Zhu Yong were called upon presumptively because their loyalty was guaranteed with dangled threats to cause misfortune for their relatives, some of whom had already suffered by the government’s hand. It was certainly an odd type of fidelity. In Zhu Feng’s particular case, in the summer of 2016, he received news from relatives in Wuhan that MPS had brought his uncle, a former accountant, back to China from Houston. Zhu’s relatives also contacted him to say: “The cop who caught your uncle is named Hu Ji. They further explained: “He will contact you about another case. Do what he says.” Team Members of identification and repatriation teams such as Zhu Feng and Zhu Yong are ostensibly China’s version of the French malgré-nous. Malgré-nous were those men of the Alsace-Moselle region who were conscripted against their will into the German Wehrmacht or the Waffen SS during World War II. Chinese citizens were torn from their normal daily lives and pressed into service not simply as a matter of being under the authority and thumb of hostile power that controlled the territory in which they lived, but coping with the threat of harm, even death, of loved ones also living under the regime.
The Initial Effort and the First “Emotional Bomb”
In the spring of 2017, the plan was ready and all team elements were assembled in the US. Hu remained in Wuhan, managing activities, but he sent in a specialist, Tu Lan, a prosecutor for the Hanyang District of Wuhan. She would lead the repatriation team on the ground, but because she did not speak English, Zhu Feng (hereinafter referred to as Zhu as the role of his father, Zhu Yong, was not discussed beyond this point in any sources) would stick close and be her intermediary with McMahon. The other specialist sent into the US, Li Minjun, as aforementioned, was a doctor who had worked for MPS, US officials allege her assignment was to escort an elderly man across the world against his will in order to ambush his son, Xu. Reportedly, Hu hoped the shock would cause the wanted man, Xu Jin, to surrender on the spot. The age of Xu’s father’s age has not been disclosed, but presumably Hu felt he was frail enough to put Li at his side for the more than 15-hour flight. Interestingly, Zhu Yong, who at the mission’s outset was entrusted to find and establish links with a US-based private investigator with specific characteristics, Tu, Li, and McMahon were ages 64, 50, 65, and 53 respectively. It seems that for MPS managers, age has importance, imaginably equating to experience, capability, reliability, solid judgment, and wisdom among other positive qualities.
Hu told McMahon in an email in March that the plan was to bring the father unannounced to the house in New Jersey and lure him out. Hu also gave him the following instructions: “We just want to recomm[e]nd you trace him to find [his son’s] address.” According to the federal court document, Hu offered to pay McMahon in cash for his assistance. McMahon accepted the offer. Hu later emailed McMahon two photographs, one of which depicted Xu and Liu while the other depicted Xu’s parents. Before returning to the US, Zhu was given the task of overseeing operatives he had hired in the Chinese community in New York. He sent a text message ordering one operative to join Mahon’s surveillance in New Jersey with instructions to “conduct surveillance there for 5 days. 12 hours on the first day, 10 hours on the second day, and 8 hours on the last three days . . . The compensation is 1800USD.”
To all appearances, Zhu had Hu’s complete confidence. On first impression, an interesting historical parallel comes to mind with regard to the developing relationship between Zhu as a conscript with his superiors, or more accurately, his captors Hu and Tu. Despite being torn from his former carefree existence and forced to become a player in Operation Fox Hunt, he was nevertheless given key tasks, considerable responsibility, and treated in a rather avuncular manner particularly by Hu. In Ancient Rome, occasionally certain masters would depend upon slaves to perform important duties and provide them with opportunities for growth within the society. A couple of famous examples of that are the relationship that grew between the master Terentius Lucanus and Publius Terentius and that between Carpophorus and Callixtus. Born between 195/185 BC, Roman senator Terentius Lucanus brought Publius Terentius to Rome as a slave. He educated him, and freed him after being impressed by his abilities. Publius Terentius would become a playwright known better today as Terence. Terence’s 6 plays have survived through the centuries. He died young around 159 BC. Callixtus was a young slave from Rome. His master Carpophorus, gave him the responsibility of collecting funds given as alms by other Christians. Callixtus would become a Christian himself. According to Sextus Julius Africanus, Callixtus would become the Bishop of Rome from c. 218 AD, and is known both as Callistus I and Pope Callixtus. He was martyred for his Christian faith in c. 223 AD and is venerated as a saint by the Catholic Church. Perchance Hu was grooming Zhu as a protégé and foresaw a future for him as a full-fledged officer in MPS or some other security service.
Exploitation of Émigré Communities
Clever choices have been made by the identification and repatriation teams based on studies on the practices of law enforcement organizations around the US where Chinese investigators must operate. Aware of the Chinese government’s hostile activities within their own community, it would seem to be grave error to believe law enforcement around the US could possibly know what the Chinese government is doing in the US against émigrés or what it is capable of doing to please or make a good impression with the Communist Party of China. It is not always the case but to an extent, the émigrés, thinking ostensibly in survival mode, will typically see no other way to get by but to remain obedient to Chinese authorities. Unfortunately, there is of course the other reality that not everyone can be or wants to be a noble soul.
As discussed in the December 13, 2020 greatcharlie post entitled “Meditations and Ruminations on Chinese Intelligence: Revisiting a Lesson on Developing Insights from Four Decades Ago,” under Article 9 of the National Security Law of the People’s Republic of China, as adopted at the 15th session of the Standing Committee of the Twelfth National People’s Congress, maintenance of national security, priority shall be given to prevention, equal attention shall be paid to temporary and permanent solutions, specialized tasks shall be combined with reliance on the masses, the functions of specialized authorities and other relevant authorities in maintaining national security shall be maximized, and citizens and organizations shall be extensively mobilized to prevent, frustrate, and legally punish any conduct that compromises national security. Article 11 decrees that there will be no tolerance shown for the failure to meet one’s obligation to maintain national security. The article states: “All citizens of the People’s Republic of China, state authorities, armed forces, political parties, people’s groups, enterprises, public institutions, and other social organizations shall have the responsibility and obligation to maintain national security.” Authorities in China understand that extraordinary powers are entrusted in the hands of many, such as MPS and MSS officers, who work on national security matters. Contractors, and even informants, who might work on their behalf are placed under the same scrutiny. Those who have attempted to cross the Chinese government have faced stiff reprisals. The shadow of sudden death can hang over the head of any individual arrested for such betrayal. As stated under Article 13: “Whoever as an employee of a state authority abuses power, neglects duty, practices favoritism, or makes falsification in national security work or any activity involving national security shall be held liable in accordance with the law.” The article further declares: “Any individual or organization that fails to fulfill the obligation of maintaining national security or conducts any activity compromising national security in violation of this Law or any relevant law shall be held liable in accordance with the law.” The furtive work of Chinese citizens at home and abroad under the direction of the MPS, MSS, or PLA, does not need to be without guerdon. As explained under Article 12: “The state shall commend and reward individuals and organizations that have made prominent contributions to maintaining national security.
Unable to keep pace with the identification and repatriation teams from the start, naturally the initial hope would be given the gravity of the intrusion on US soil, that while moving about within Chinese émigré communities, the teams would at least act with some measure and would not exceed what is decent. That has not been the case regarding their behavior. Operation Fox Hunt teams have created great fear among the émigré communities. One might toss on top of that an apparent impunity with which hunters from China act against them. True, on paper, members of the Chinese émigré communities have nothing to fear in the US and are welcome to enjoy the benefits of living in a free society. Yet, as the MPS was able to accomplish more than imaginable in the US, displaying its power and capabilities, there remains uneasiness, fear, terror among Chinese émigré communities from something they are thousands of miles from. Chinese émigré communities are for the most part convinced of the ubiquitous nature of the Communist Party of China and China’s security services.
Chineee Émigré Communities and Unshakable Grip of Beijing
Unable to keep pace with the identification and repatriation teams from the start, the initial hope would be given the gravity of the intrusion on US soil, that within Chinese émigré communities, the teams would act with some measure and would not exceed what is decent. Surely, that has not been the case regarding their behavior. Operation Fox Hunt teams have created great fear among the émigré communities. One might toss on top of that an apparent impunity with which hunters from China act against them. True, on paper, members of the Chinese émigré communities have nothing to fear in the US and are welcome to enjoy the benefits of living in a free society. Yet, as the MPS was able to accomplish more than imaginable in the US, displaying its power and capabilities, there remains uneasiness, fear, terror among Chinese émigré communities from something they are thousands of miles from. Chinese émigré communities are for the most part convinced of the ubiquitous nature of the Communist Party of China and China’s security services. Indeed, within the émigré communities, there is an expectation, especially among more recent arrivals that always close by are recruited informants of MPS, Party Members, planted United Front Work Department operatives and informants, planted MSS intelligence officers, operatives, recruited informants. Memories and ways of living to survive in an authoritarian China are not easily shaken off. Quando libertas ceciderit, nemo libere dicere audebit. (When liberty will have fallen (falls/is lost), no one will dare to speak freely.)
The learning curve for law enforcement organizations around the US may remain steep for some time as the ways and means with which the Chinese government uses to approach Chinese émigré communities on matters such as returning citizens and former citizens to China “to face justice,” is ever evolving. Use of lessons learned by the Operation Fox Hunt identification and repatriation teams will mean for the future more effective use of artifice, more effective collection of information within émigré communities, more effective counter-surveillance, more effective sharing information and data useful for operations among organizations engaged in clandestine and covert operations in the US.
To get Xu’s father into the US without incident, Zhu coached the captive elderly man on responses to standard questions asked by border inspectors at Newark Liberty International Airport. In advance of Xu’s father’s arrival in the US, the defendants Zhu and Tu flew to Newark Liberty International Airport on or about April 3, 2017. Xu’s father and Li, the doctor, arrived at Newark Liberty International Airport on a flight from Shanghai on April 5, 2017. While in the US, the Tu met with Zhu and an individual known to US prosecutors as Co-conspirator #2 at a hotel in New Jersey. At that meeting, Tu directed Zhu and Co-conspirator #2 to surveil a residence belonging to a relative of Xu and Liu using night vision goggles in advance of bringing Xu’s father to the home. Tu also subsequently communicated with Zhu with regard to the logistics of the operation. On the evening of April 5, 2017, identification and repatriation team members brought Xu’s father to a house in New Jersey that belonged to his wife’s relatives. As that transpired, McMahon performed surveillance in the vicinity of the house belonging to Liu’s relatives to determine the present locations of members of Xu’s family, including Hu himself, which at that time remained unknown to the team.
On April 6, 2017, Xu met his father at a public location before they returned together to his residence. McMahon and other team members monitored the meeting of Xu and his father. That same day, Zhu requested that McMahon run a database check for a license plate number and address associated with Xu. McMahon provided that info. Xu’s father remained with his son for several days. During that time, he explained to Xu that his family in China would be harmed if he did not return to China. Hu’s hopes for a lightning-bolt triumph evaporated. Instead of acquiescence, the family stood fast and contacted law enforcement. The FBI got involved, a move the Operation Hunt team was almost immediately made aware of. According to the federal court document, on April 7, 2017, Zhu sent a text to Tu saying Hu wanted her “and the doctor to come back as soon as possible” to “evade actions by US law enforcement.” That same day, Tu departed from John F. Kennedy International Airport in Queens, New York on a flight to Beijing. The next day, Li departed from Newark Liberty International Airport on a flight to Beijing.
Identification and Repatriation Team Receives Intriguing Alert
Although executed piecemeal, the departure of key members and leaders of the identification and repatriation team after the alert was sounded may have followed a prearranged course. As it was always possible that such a need to move fast would arise. Nevertheless, a flaw became apparent in that process. it would have made a bit more sense if team lead investigators and their superiors, when selecting team members, had only selected individuals who possessed certain talents, perhaps demonstrated on previous operations maybe in other areas, who would expectantly contribute to the operation’s success. In this particular situation, some identification and repatriation team members who remained in the field as Zhu appeared unsure of how to proceed, were unfamiliar with steps to take, and required supervision. Those next steps that needed to be taken should have been standard operating procedures deeply ingrained through training. In an exigent situation, the team leader also appeared not certain as to how team members might perform. Tu, for instance, appeared to feel the need to be emphatic when issuing instructions. Zhu communicated in a similar way to the operatives that he supervised. This “crack” in the team selection process was to a degree a self-inflicted handicap and vulnerability that could have proved costly if US counterintelligence services and law enforcement organizations around the US were aware of the situation and positioned themselves to take advantage of it. Knowing that this is how the identification and repatriation teams operate, it could allow them to be better prepared and steal a March on their prey on another occasion when they are in their sights. However, this may have been a lesson learned by Operation Fox Hunt managers and it is unlikely that they would not make the necessary changes to avoid dealing with this issue in the future. Surely, there remains a chance the situation will be the same next time, too! Some Operation Fox Hunt managers may feel on ne change pas une équipe qui gagne!
Chinese Countersurveillance Operations in the US
The fact that the identification and repatriation team received an alert that the FBI was fully aware of the effort to coerce Xu by using his father was reported almost as a trifle in the federal court document. Yet, in reality, it was small much in the way that the small movement of a needle on a seismograph can report a giant earthquake. Upon first reading about this particular moment of identification and repatriation operation, there grew an interest in greatcharlie in how Chinese operators engaged in all sorts of activities in the US are seemingly forewarned whenever law enforcement and counterintelligence services draw near them. Of course, one of the counterintelligence organizations might just be a leaky ship. There could be rotten apples in their midst. However, it certainly would not be too fanciful to conceive that Chinese operatives on government sanctioned missions receive more support from unknown entities nestled in the US than may be recognized officially or publicly.
One might postulate that with so many Chinese intelligence officers–there were reports of as many as 25,000 “in country” back in 2017–and their operatives and informants moving furtively throughout the US, there may very well be specialized counterintelligence elements, covert surveillance teams, positioned in numbers deemed sufficient by the powers that be in the PLA CMC Joint Military Staff Intelligence Bureau and MSS counterintelligence that provide overwatch for espionage operations. The PLA teams, rather than come from intelligence units, might instead be formed from PLA Army special operations units primed in the reconnaissance and surveillance operations and to engage in a special reconnaissance mission. Teams from MSS would likely be secounded from the provincial departments and municipal bureaus, Chinese intelligence elements operating in the US would surely appreciate a resource that would allow their officers, operatives, and informants to repeatedly evade intercept. Similar covert surveillance teams may be operating in other countries. It is just a theory.
One might postulate that with so many Chinese intelligence officers–there were reports of as many as 25,000 “in country” a few short years ago–and their operatives and informants moving furtively throughout the US, there may very well be specialized counterintelligence elements, covert surveillance teams, positioned in numbers deemed sufficient by the powers that be in the PLA CMC Joint Military Staff Intelligence Bureau and MSS counterintelligence secounded from the provincial departments and municipal bureaus, that provide overwatch for espionage operations. If providing assistance to them would actually be feasible, it would be counterintuitive not allow identification and repatriation teams to enjoy the overwatch of any theorized covert countersurveillance teams of MSS and PLA operating in close proximity to them.
If providing assistance to them would actually be feasible, it would be counterintuitive not allow covert countersurveillance teams of MSS and PLA to provide overwatch for other operations ostensibly underway in close proximity to them, perhaps of a variety and number far in excess of espionage. Such would be to the great benefit of the Operation Fox Hunt identification and repatriation teams.
As part of their mission, the theorized covert surveillance teams would very likely shadow any law enforcement or US counterintelligence organizations for the purpose of countersurveillance and early warning. No law enforcement or US counterintelligence organizations would be allowed to surprisingly appear at the site of a meeting between team members and a target ol contracted operative. No law enforcement or US counterintelligence organizations would be allowed to place surveillance teams on any of Chinese operatives without the knowledge of the covert surveillance teams. Any alerts about threatening moves by law enforcement or US counterintelligence organizations would unlikely be relayed through channels from the intelligence element’s headquarters down to those managing the teams as the circumstances would invariably be exigent, and time would be of essence. Communication between intelligence elements and the team would ostensively be confined at the level of the intelligence field managers and the lead investigator of the team. Imaginably, MSS and PLA managers would establish some incognito for their contacts as a security measure in case some catastrophe should befall the identification and repatriation team and through interrogation, the team leader reveals anything about their MSS or PLA counterpart that could identity them.
MSS and PLA intelligence network managers would hardly want some incident with the identification and repatriation team to draw unwanted attention to their province. It would be best to help the team get in and get out rapidly and safely. Additionally, having the opportunity to study and make observations of their opposition’s practices in surveilling suspected foreign operatives or the steps they go through and how they perform and behave while in investigation mode imaginably would be invaluable for MSS or PLA intelligence officers operating in the US. On top of everything, as the identification and repatriation operations are apparently the brainchild of the Communist Party of China, it would be essential for them to accomplish their task. Those able to make that a reality would be expected to do their utmost to assist with all possible precautions taken into consideration. All involved would likely be called to account if it failed. A MSS or PLA field manager who has the identification and repatriation teams operating in their area of operation would have to be considerably indifferent to the wishes of the Communist Party of China to have a clear ability to ensure the success of the team’s effort, and do nothing to assist and actually allow it the flounder.
Much as the MPS organized the identification and repatriation teams, it may very well be that any prospective covert surveillance teams organized for purpose suggested, might be well trained officers of MPS–also an intelligence service with what might be deemed a counterintelligence proclivity, doing what they do best for the Communist Party of China, keeping an iron grip on all Chinese citizens. Covert communications between team lead investigators and the covert countersurveillance teams theorized here would likely be uniquely designed by MPS in China for the operation. If the theorized covert surveillance team discussed in this essay were a creature of MPS, having it take their eyes off what members of the identification and repatriation teams were doing surely would not thrill the powers that be at MPS Headquarters.
Omne ignotum pro magnifico est. (We have great notions of everything unknown.) Of course, it is possible that nothing remotely resembling what has been suggested here exists at all. On the other hand, there may actually be surveillance teams operating around the US in a manner of far greater conception than what has been hinted.
Gnawing Bit More on the Theorized Covert Surveillance Teams
Conceivably, when not engaged in their patient vigil over Chinese operatives of all kinds, the hypothetical covert surveillance teams maintain a low key, traveled existence wherever they are. What may be viewed as most remarkable about the covert surveillance team members if discovered would be the fact they are by appearance so unremarkable. Anything linked to their activities would hardly be found wherever they might reside or frequent. All in all, they would surely keep themselves to themselves. Yet, perhaps the most troubling aspect of the theorized covert surveillance team is that they would likely be gaining experience and honing their skills with everyday that passes during which they have perhaps been out in the field. As their skills increase, their capabilities and willingness to take on greater challenges would also likely increase. Further, for those trying to cope with Chinese operatives of all kinds in the US, the imagined increase in experience and capabilities among the theorized covert surveillance teams would surely be attended by a marked increase in the degree of difficulty in capturing them. Imaginably some financial support would be provided for the additional expenditures on logistical needs for the supportive surveillance work. As the activity would be in direct support of a Communist Party of China directed operation, a large request would unlikely be made to cover personal service expenses. The honor and privilege of serving the Communist Party of China would expectantly be viewed in Beijing as sufficient reward.
Oddly enough, the identification and repatriation team still did not just pull the shutters down and run off just because FBI agents were onto them. With the specialists safe, the identification and repatriation team members rather audaciously continued to watch Xu’s in-laws home and Xu’s home. Tu joined Hu at the command post back in Wuhan where she continued to direct the identification and repatriation operation while in China. On April 9, 2017, Zhu messaged Tu Lan, inquiring: “Prosecutor Tu [Tu Lan] whose order should I take for now while I am here?” Tu replied: “You communicate with me and Hu [Hu Ji]. I will go to the Commission for Discipline Inspection this afternoon. I will contact you afterwards.” The “Commission for Discipline Inspection,” which was a Chinese government agency responsible for investigating members of the Communist Party for corruption. Tu also wrote to Zhu: “[Y]ou need to confirm that Mike [McMahon] can execute according to our requirement.” According to the federal court document,, on April 9, 2017, Tu sent an electronic message to the Zhu asking: “Did you tell Hu [Hu Ji] that I still want to confirm [John Doe #1’s ] [Xu’s] father’s status?” Zhu responded, “It seemed that he has reported to the [Chinese Official #1] already,” and added that “I arranged to have me [McMahon] stay there Monday morning.” Zhu told Tu Lan that ” the money I have on hand can only have me [McMahon] to stay there for two days.” On April 11, 2017, McMahon and Zhu discussed–in English–additional steps to intimidate Xu into returning to China. The federal court document specifically quotes McMahon as proposing they “harass” Xu, including by “[p]ark[ing] outside his home and let him know we are there.” Zhu replied that they “can’t harass [John Doe #1] [Xu] like that lol.” The efforts to persuade Xu to return to China were unsuccessful. The emotional bomb fizzled.. On April 12, 2017, Zhu and Xu’s father departed from Newark Liberty International Airport on a flight to Shanghai.
Discussion will be extended in Part 2, to be published later.