US warns China over covert hunt for fugitives

Chinese spies in US using intimidation to force suspects to return home, officials say

WASHINGTON • The Obama administration has delivered a warning to Beijing about the presence of Chinese government agents operating secretly in the United States to pressure prominent expatriates - some wanted in China on charges of corruption - to return home.

Officials said Chinese law enforcement agents covertly in the US are part of Beijing's global campaign to hunt down and repatriate Chinese fugitives and, in some cases, recover allegedly ill-gotten gains. The Chinese government has named the effort Operation Fox Hunt.

The warning demands a halt to the activities, and reflects anger in Washington about intimidation tactics used by the agents.

It comes at a time of growing tension between Washington and Beijing on issues including the computer theft of millions of American government personnel files, China's crackdown on civil liberties and the devaluation of its currency. Those tensions are expected to complicate next month's state visit to Washington by Chinese President Xi Jinping.

The campaign is a central element of Mr Xi's wider battle against corruption, and has proved popular with the Chinese public.

RELENTLESS PURSUIT

"Our principle is thus: Whether or not there is an agreement in place, as long as there is information that there is a criminal suspect, we will chase them over there, we will take our work to them, anywhere."

MR LIU DONG, a director of Operation Fox Hunt

Since last year, according to China's Public Security Ministry, more than 930 suspects have been repatriated, including more than 70 who have returned voluntarily.

US officials said they had solid evidence that the Chinese agents - who are not in the US on acknowledged government business, and most likely are entering on tourist or trade visas - use strong-arm tactics to get fugitives to return.

Mr Liu Dong, a director of Operation Fox Hunt, said Chinese agents must comply with local laws abroad and that they depend on cooperation with the police in other countries, according to a report last year.

However, he added: "Our principle is thus: Whether or not there is an agreement in place, as long as there is information that there is a criminal suspect, we will chase them over there, we will take our work to them, anywhere."

An American official said Chinese agents had been trying to track down Mr Ling Wancheng, a wealthy and politically connected businessman who fled to the US last year. Should he seek political asylum, he could become one of China's most damaging defectors.

In April, Chinese state media published Interpol alerts for 100 people. Among the alleged fugitives are a former deputy mayor, employees of state-owned enterprises and a history professor, but few if any at the highest echelons of power.

Mr Steve Tsang, a senior fellow at the University of Nottingham's China Policy Institute, said deployment of security agents in pursuit of Chinese abroad has a long pedigree under the Communist Party, which sees itself as wielding dominion over all Chinese people regardless of what passport they may hold.

Chinese state media yesterday urged Washington to show more "sincerity" towards Beijing's moves to track down corrupt officials overseas, saying the US should not become a haven for criminal suspects.

The official news agency Xinhua said Chinese law enforcement officers had been ordered by the US to return home immediately. Washington "lacks sincerity and has failed to translate its words into action", Xinhua said in a commentary.

NEW YORK TIMES, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 18, 2015, with the headline 'US warns China over covert hunt for fugitives'. Print Edition | Subscribe