The New York Times reported Sunday the Obama administration has warned China about the presence of its law enforcement agents in the U.S. covertly pressuring prominent expatriates to return home as part of Beijing’s anti-corruption drive.
The story comes amid heightened bilateral tensions and just weeks before the state visit to the U.S. by Chinese President Xi Jinping.
The paper, citing anonymous U.S. officials, said Beijing has dubbed the effort "Operation Fox Hunt" and is part of President Xi’s wider anti-corruption battle, which is popular with the Chinese public.
The Times said the agents involved are from the Ministry of Public Security and are not in the country on official government business, and likely entered the U.S. on tourist or trade visas.
Nearly 1,000 repatriations
The Times said that since 2014, more than 930 suspects have been repatriated, including more than 70 who have returned voluntarily this year. It said they are part of an international operation to hunt down economic fugitives and “persuade” them to return home.
The director of the operation, Liu Dong, is quoted as saying the agents are told to comply with local laws, but he added “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.”
RAND Corporation political scientist Scott Harold told VOA the operation involves going after what Chinese officials call “tigers,” or high-level officials accused of graft, and “flies,” or low-level officials.
Harold said officials who continue to work in China but send their wealthy relatives abroad to countries such as the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand are referred to as “naked,” while officials who leave the country with their wealth are known as “foxes.”
"There have been some fairly positive signals from the Obama administration that the U.S. would try to help prosecute anyone who came to the United States under false pretext, i.e. they’re actually a corrupt official, but they have claimed asylum on the basis of false information or have entered the United States on a false passport," Harold said. "The United States does not seek to be a place of refuge for anyone, [including] foreign corrupt officials.
"However, the notion that China might send individuals to the United States to try to illegally pressure people who are here by threatening their families back at home or through the use of coercion and physical intimidation or violence of course would violate all sorts of American laws," he said.
US, China tensions
Harold said the report comes amid a series of actions taken by China that have resulted in a deeply troubled relationship.
"Whether that is the artificial island construction in the South China Sea, whether it’s China’s effort to intimidate Japan, its consistent buildup of missiles across the strait from Taiwan, its terrible human rights record which has gotten much, much worse under the Xi Jinping administration, its economic espionage, its use of cyber-intrusions, all of these are causing tremendous strain on the U.S.-China relationship," he added.
Harold said it is up to China to explain to the U.S. in a convincing way how it hopes to move the relationship forward in a more respectful way.
Rice University China scholar Steven Lewis suggested China’s covert effort to go after alleged corrupt expatriates may be a signal of its interest in a formal extradition treaty with Washington.
Currently, mainland China and the U.S. have no such treaty.
The state-run China Daily has quoted Robert Wang, senior U.S. State Department official on APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation), as saying increased U.S. cooperation will depend on China’s commitment to the rule of law, including providing relevant evidence.
Wang said the two countries are cooperating under the Anti-Corruption and Transparency Network (ACT) to increase the chance that illegally obtained funds or criminals that go across international borders are returned.
What is troubling to China watchers like Lewis is that, under Xi, there appears to be an emphasis on force and a return to a more authoritarian, nationalistic regime, rather than growth toward improving civil society.
"There seems to be just crackdowns, increasing crackdowns not just on officials but on academia, press, at all levels," Lewis said.
"In the past, China used to have these campaigns, they lasted a little while and then they moved on and opened up more. But, this has been going on for several years now. Everybody, especially so-called China experts, are legitimately asking how long this return to authoritarianism is going to continue," he said.
Lewis said President Xi’s anti-corruption program appears to be a selective one aimed at eliminating his opponents.
He said it is becoming alarming as the anti-graft campaign is taking place just a couple of years before the next Communist Party Congress, adding now is the time when Xi’s successor should be emerging.
The New York Times said that while American officials did not disclose the identities or numbers of Chinese being sought, some are wanted for political crimes.
One U.S. official said Chinese agents have been trying to track down a wealthy and politically connected businessman, Ling Wancheng, who fled to the U.S. last year.
The paper added that should Ling seek political asylum, he could become one of the most damaging defectors in the history of the People’s Republic.