The Justice Department announced charges on Wednesday against eight people accused of conspiring to conduct an aggressive harassment campaign on behalf of China to pressure political dissidents and fugitives in the United States to return home to face trial.
The announcement is the latest blow to deteriorating relations between Trump administration and Chinese officials, who have engaged in a series of retaliatory moves that have intensified in recent months in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak.
The suspects are accused of hiring American private investigators to locate the expatriates who had taken refuge in the United States and then stalking, surveilling and threatening them. China has said the effort, which it calls Operation Fox Hunt and was ordered by President Xi Jinping, is aimed at rooting out corrupt officials who have fled the country. But American officials said that was dubious because the Chinese refused to work through legal channels to resolve the cases.
Five of the suspects were arrested on Wednesday in the United States, the Justice Department said. Three others, who are believed to be in China, were also charged.
“With today’s charges, we have turned the P.R.C.’s Operation Fox Hunt on its head — the hunters became the hunted, the pursuers the pursued,” the assistant attorney general for national security, John C. Demers, said at a news conference at the Justice Department, referring to the People’s Republic of China.
He added: “For those charged in China and others engaged in this type of conduct, our message is clear: Stay out. This behavior is not welcome here.”
The Justice Department has been investigating the Chinese campaign since at least the final years of the Obama administration. In 2015, top Obama officials privately warned Chinese officials to stop using their agents in the United States to harass expatriates.
The relationship between China and the United States has further frayed as President Trump has accused the Chinese government of spreading the coronavirus and his administration has imposed sanctions on Chinese officials over the government’s policies on Hong Kong.
This summer, the Trump administration ordered China to close its consulate in Houston. American officials alleged that the Chinese were using the consulate to wage economic espionage. In response, China had the American consulate in Chengdu closed.
This is a developing story. Check back for updates.