Prosecutors say ‘Operation Fox Hunt’ is a Beijing effort to pressure Chinese nationals in the US to return home to face charges
By Staff and agencies in New York
June 20, 2023
Ex-NYPD sergeant Michael McMahon was convicted of several charges relating to harassment of Xu Jin. Photograph: Yuki Iwamura/AFP/Getty Images
A former New York City police sergeant and two Chinese citizens living in the US have been convicted of various charges in a trial showcasing Chinese efforts to pressure expatriates into returning home, part of a program called “Operation Fox Hunt”.
Michael McMahon, who now works as a private investigator, Zheng Congying and Zhu Yong were accused of taking part in scare tactics aimed at a former Chinese official.
Zhu was convicted of acting as an illegal foreign agent, stalking, interstate stalking conspiracy and conspiring to act as an illegal foreign agent. Zheng was convicted of stalking and stalking conspiracy but acquitted of the other charges.
McMahon was convicted of all except conspiracy to act as a foreign agent.
The Brooklyn federal court trial which concluded on Tuesday was the first to emerge from a spate of US prosecutions scrutinizing Operation Fox Hunt, a nearly decade-old initiative that Beijing characterizes as a pursuit of fugitives from justice. US authorities view it, at least sometimes, as an exercise in “transnational repression”, or deploying government operatives to harass, threaten and silence critics living abroad.
China has denied trying to force repatriations through intimidation and says the US is maligning an effort to fight crime.
Prosecutors say pressure from Beijing was brought to bear in suburban New Jersey, where former Wuhan city official Xu Jin and his family moved in 2010. China has accused him and wife, Liu Fang, of taking bribes; they deny it and say they were targeted because he got crosswise with China’s communist power structure.
According to prosecutors, Zhu, Zheng and McMahon took part in a years-long effort to goad Xu into going back to China.
The defense acknowledged that Zhu, Zheng and McMahon took various actions but said the three had no idea that Beijing was allegedly behind it all.
McMahon said he was “devastated by the verdict”, insisting that all he had done was his job as a private investigator.
“If I had known for one second that they were a foreign country, a foreign government, hiring me, I would never have worked the case. I would have notified the FBI,” McMahon said. His lawyer, Lawrence Lustberg, said he would challenge the conviction and was confident that “this injustice will not survive the scrutiny that the legal system will give it”.
Zheng and Zhu left court without speaking to reporters. Messages seeking comment were sent to their attorneys.
McMahon conducted surveillance and data searches to smoke out Xu’s carefully guarded address and information about his loved ones. Zhu, a retiree who also goes by Jason Zhu and Yong Zhu, helped hire McMahon and equip him with details to get started.
Zheng later went to Xu’s home and left an ominous note: “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!”
“Before I saw this, I felt that the threats from the Chinese Communist party was only a mental threat to me. However, when I saw that note, I realized that it had become a physical threat,” Xu testified, through a court interpreter.
The defense said McMahon, Zheng and Zhu were told they were helping to collect a debt or achieve some other end for a company or individuals – not for China.
“They were used, cheated, misguided by a foreign government to work for them,” Zhu’s attorney, Kevin Tung, said in a closing argument.
But assistant US attorney Craig Heeren said the three “agreed to participate in something that went way, way over the line … a line that all three defendants knew they were crossing”.