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How China Tries to Intimidate Its Dissidents Living Overseas
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How China Tries to Intimidate Its Dissidents Living Overseas

Explaining the CCP’s “Fox Hunt” program.

Speaking at the Hudson Institute in Washington on Tuesday, FBI Director Christopher Wray argued that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) poses the “greatest long-term threat to our nation’s information and intellectual property, and to our economic vitality… our economic security—and by extension, to our national security.” Like other American officials, Wray didn’t malign the Chinese people, or Chinese-Americans in general. Instead, he discussed the CCP’s behavior, a range of malicious actions that are intended to undermine America’s power and supremacy in many fields. It’s the most aggressive espionage campaign in modern history. 

“Of the nearly 5,000 active FBI counterintelligence cases currently underway across the country, almost half are related to China,” Wray revealed. That is a stunning figure. In terms of the FBI’s caseload, it means that Chinese espionage is about on par with the threat of foreign terrorist organizations. In late 2019, the FBI said it was investigating more than 2,000 cases tied to overseas terror groups, or inspired by them. 

While terrorist groups pose a persistent threat, they lack many of the CCP’s sophisticated capabilities. Wray reminded Americans that the Chinese military allegedly “conspired to hack Equifax and made off with the sensitive personal information of 150 million Americans.” That is “nearly half of the American population and most American adults.” Equifax, the consumer credit reporting agency, isn’t the only company to have its data hacked. The Chinese are suspected of stealing the data of 80 million people from the health insurance company Anthem. And in 2014, China’s hackers also “stole more than 21 million records from OPM, the federal government’s Office of Personnel Management,” Wray reminded his audience.

Simply put: If you are reading this, then there is a good chance the Chinese government has stolen your personal data. 

Many of the examples Wray cited were already well-known. The cases cover a broad swath of American society, including the U.S. government, corporate America, and academia. Not even COVID-19 has made the CCP stand down. “[A]t this very moment, China is working to compromise American health care organizations, pharmaceutical companies, and academic institutions conducting essential COVID-19 research,” Wray claimed.

Wray didn’t offer a specific damage estimate for the CCP’s economic espionage, but he implied that it totals many billions of dollars each year. He pointed to the case of Hongjin Tan, a Chinese national who stole $1 billion worth of trade secrets from a petroleum company in Oklahoma. Tan worked for China’s Thousand Talents Program, which recruits academics to steal technology. To give a sense of the total impact of Chinese espionage, Wray claimed that Tan’s case—in which a lone individual stole the equivalent of $1 billion—was a somewhat typical example. 

The economic damage is just one aspect of the CCP’s schemes. The FBI also has to combat the CCP’s attempts to intimidate and silence Chinese nationals living in the U.S. One such CCP effort is known as Fox Hunt. Let’s look at it a bit more closely.  

The FBI counters Xi’s “Fox Hunt.”

Fox Hunt is the foreign component of the CCP’s global campaign against “corruption” within the government and the party. As Wray noted, Xi Jinping has “spearheaded” the operation since 2014, though the CCP’s statistics indicate it began one year prior. 

The CCP has described its anti-corruption efforts as a campaign to “kill tigers and swat flies”—meaning all of those guilty of siphoning off public funds will be netted, including both the big-time crooks and the small-time thieves. Fox Hunt is ostensibly aimed at the tigers and flies living overseas. 

Some of the individuals targeted may very well be criminals — men and women who absconded from their home country with funds they pilfered from the government’s coffers. But Director Wray dismissed the idea that the anti-corruption campaign was really designed to bring criminals to justice. He explained there is a sinister dimension to Fox Hunt and similar CCP programs. “Fox Hunt is a sweeping bid by General Secretary Xi to target Chinese nationals whom he sees as threats and who live outside China, across the world,” Wray said. “We’re talking about political rivals, dissidents, and critics seeking to expose China’s extensive human rights violations.”

Wray was understandably focused on the international component of Xi’s alleged anti-corruption crusade. Fox Hunt’s spies are here on U.S. soil and the FBI is charged with countering them. But Fox Hunt is really part of a broader effort to quell opposition. And that anti-corruption effort, which aims to strengthen Xi’s hold on power, starts within China’s borders. 

How widespread is the campaign? According to statistics provided by the CCP’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection and the National Supervisory Commission, Xi’s government investigated 555,000 domestic corruption cases from January to November of 2019, handing out disciplinary measures to a whopping 485,000 people. Only 19,000 people were placed under criminal investigation—meaning the CCP doled out the vast majority of its punishments without bringing formal criminal charges. The types of punishments are not always clear, but can range from a conditional dismissal from one’s job, to fines or other penalties. This is a good example of the CCP’s authoritarianism, as the party doesn’t need to prosecute individuals in adversarial court proceedings. The party can simply determine that an individual isn’t in compliance with its “anti-corruption” laws and then take direct action. Xinhua, a media organ of the Chinese government that dutifully reports the so-called anti-corruption efforts, refers to this as “receiving disciplinary measures within the Party or government agencies.” More serious crimes, including those that can lead to a death penalty, typically do involve the judiciary—but these matters are murky, given the closed nature of the CCP.

When you read Xi’s words carefully, you quickly realize that the punishable offenses are not limited to any strict definition of corruption. Instead, the CCP’s campaign targets a wide spectrum of deviations from the party’s norms. Xi himself has explained that this has allowed the party to stay “in power for a long time and avoid history’s cycle of rising and falling.” The anti-“corruption” campaign is just one set of totalitarian tools among a number of “systems for supervising power and enforcing discipline.” This allows the party to mitigate the risk of potentially revolutionary dissent, while delivering on its promise to build a “moderately prosperous society”—a buzz phrase employed by Xi. It means that much of China’s population has been lifted out of poverty. It also means that they are comfortable enough to forgo the political agitation that poverty can bring. 

While the overwhelming majority of the cases against so-called corruption are domestic, a fair number involve individuals living abroad. And this is where Fox Hunt and the FBI’s countermoves come into play.

In 2016, according to Xinhua, a “total of 1,032 fugitives … returned to China from over 70 countries and regions” as part of the campaign. In 2017, Xinhua reported that the “Chinese police” had “caught 3,317 fugitives from over 120 countries and regions” in the previous five years as part of Fox Hunt. (Although Fox Hunt was formally launched in 2014, the CCP’s reported statistics covered 2013 as well.) During the first 11eleven months of 2019, according to Xinhua, a “total of 1,841 fugitives were repatriated to China from abroad … including 816 Party members and state functionaries.” These are the CCP’s self-reported statistics, so they should be taken with a large grain of salt. Even so, these figures give one a sense of the scale of the operation. The number of targeted individuals outside of China’s borders is easily in the thousands each year. 

The CCP makes it sound as if these repatriations are all part of a well-established international legal process, but that is often not the case. While foreign governments do sometimes extradite wanted individuals to China, and Interpol has issued red notices for some of the CCP’s most wanted Fox Hunt targets (meaning Interpol has requested assistance from law enforcement agencies around the globe), the CCP frequently strong arms its victims into “voluntarily” returning. As Wray explained, the CCP routinely acts without the consent of domestic law enforcement services. Why? The answer is simple: Many of the targets are not real criminals. Some are even American citizens—meaning they should be afforded all of the legal protections their fellow citizens enjoy. The CCP isn’t having it.  

“Hundreds of the Fox Hunt victims that they target live right here in the United States, and many are American citizens or green card holders,” Wray explained. The CCP employs “shocking” tactics “to force them to return to China.” Wray said that the CCP has employed just about any horrible tactic you can imagine in order to force compliance, including threatening and imprisoning family members inside China. In one case, according to Wray, the CCP “sent an emissary to visit the target’s family here in the United States.” This emissary warned the target that he or she “had two options: return to China promptly, or commit suicide.” 

This is all in the name of forcing compliance with the CCP’s anti-“corruption” campaign. And it is a truly global campaign. As early as 2014, Chinese officials highlighted cases in 56 countries. Fox Hunt’s secret police have targeted individuals in Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, the Middle East, North and South America. In 2017, the CCP’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) identified 22 individuals on its most wanted list. Twenty of the 22 were living in the U.S. (10), Canada (five), New Zealand (four), and the United Kingdom (one). The CCP demanded that they all return to face “justice.” 

In addition to spies, the CCP officials who run Fox Hunt have also employed the same high-tech tools they use to monitor people within China, including facial recognition software and artificial intelligence. In March 2015, the Chinese government claimed to identify a man who fled the country in 1997. The man had been living in Australia and changed his appearance, but the facial recognition technology betrayed his true identity when he attempted to return to China via Shanghai. This technology is deployed throughout China, but could be used elsewhere, as CCP officials can apply it to hacked video feeds or surreptitious recordings. Not even reconstructive surgery can hide one’s true identity, the CCP boasts.   

Xi’s Operation Fox Hunt is one more challenge U.S. officials have been forced to confront. It’s one thing for the CCP to seek the extradition of real criminals. It is quite another to use an anti-corruption laws to suppress dissent and roll up dissidents. According to Wray, Xi’s “Fox Hunt” often crosses that line, leading to oppression and intimidation.

At the end of his presentation, Wray made a personal plea. “I’ll take this opportunity to note that if you believe the Chinese government is targeting you—that you’re a potential Fox Hunt victim—please reach out to your local FBI field office,” the FBI director said. 

Hopefully, the “hundreds” of men and women living in the U.S. who are targeted by the CCP were listening. 

Photograph of Zhao Ruheng, arrested as part of China’s “Fox hunt 2015” campaign by Xinhua/Chen Jin via Getty Images,

Tom Joscelyn is a senior fellow at Just Security.