Trial begins for 3 accused of helping Chinese countryside pressure expats to return home

NEW YORK (AP) — A U.S. detective and two Chinese men faced jurors Wednesday in the first trial to emerge from U.S. allegations that the Chinese government attempted to harass, intimidate and coerce dissidents and others abroad to return home.

Michael McMahon, Zheng Congying and Zhu Yong are accused of participating in a plot to hunt down a former Chinese city official, his wife and their adult daughter to return him to his homeland, where the government claims he accepted bribes.

“If you are willing to return to the mainland and spend 10 years in prison, your wife and children will be fine,” read a translated note that Zheng helped stick on their New Jersey door in 2018, although his lawyer said Zheng quickly had doubts and took the note.

Prosecutors said it was one of several pressure tactics, which included summoning the man’s octogenarian father to warn him that his loved ones would suffer if he did not return home. House.

“The victim and his family have endured years of harassment,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Irisa Chen said in an opening statement. “This is part of a public initiative by the Chinese government to force people living overseas to return to China against their will.”

The defendants, accused of acting as illegal agents for China, all say they had no idea they were bidding on Beijing in what is being called ‘Operation Fox Hunt’. Their lawyers said the men believed they were helping collect a private debt.

The lawsuit comes as grievances mount between Beijing and Washington. This year, a Chinese spy balloon flew over the United States, US law enforcement authorities accused China of setting up a secret police station in New York, and — as recently as Tuesday — – the US military has complained that a Chinese fighter jet made an “unnecessary” flight. aggressive maneuver” near a US reconnaissance aircraft over the South China Sea.

China has told the United States to stop these surveillance flights, maintains that the spy balloon was a civilian plane that derailed and says that the so-called secret police outposts only provide services such as the renewal of driver’s license.

The United States, meanwhile, has in recent years brought a number of cases like the one now being tried in a federal courthouse in Brooklyn, claiming they were examples of ‘transnational repression’. .

In July 2014, China announced “Operation Fox Hunt”, a plan to pursue and repatriate nationals it considers to be fugitives. Those wanted include people from Muslim minority groups who have simply traveled abroad to study and people whose political and cultural views have clashed at some level with China’s ruling Communist Party, which does not tolerate no dissent.

Beijing has denied all accusations of threats of forced repatriation and says the United States discredits China’s legitimate crime-fighting.

The geopolitical backdrop was barely invisible from the Brooklyn federal courtroom on Wednesday.

Noting the recent rise in US-China tensions, defense attorney Paul Goldberger asked the jurors “to carefully consider what the (US) government has done” in the case against his client, Zheng.

In response, U.S. District Judge Pamela Chen warned that “the U.S. government is not on trial.” (She is not related to the prosecutor.)

Zhu’s lawyer, Kevin Tung, said he was “not here to defend the People’s Republic of China”, but to defend “a person who I believe is innocent”.

The former official who was allegedly targeted, Xu Jin, came to the United States about a decade ago after falling out of favor with the Communist Party, prosecutors said. They said China first prosecuted him by issuing an international alert that he was wanted and making the corruption allegations public. His family says they are fake.

China does not have an extradition treaty with the United States, so Beijing cannot legally compel suspects to return. Instead, according to US prosecutors, the Chinese government used intermediaries to try to force Xu to decide to return.

While only Zhu, Zheng and McMahon are on trial at this time, their indictment includes a list of alleged co-conspirators.

Zhu, a retiree, lives in New York. In 2016, he helped hire McMahon — a retired New York Police Department sergeant turned private investigator — and helped provide him with personal information to track down Xu and his family, prosecutors say. Later, Zhu picked up Chinese people at Newark Liberty Airport and drove them to a meeting with McMahon.

His lawyer said Zhu believed he was helping a Chinese acquaintance who needed the help of a US resident to find a man who owed him $400,000.

“If those people were the Chinese government, it was used,” Tung said.

McMahon, meanwhile, was told he was helping a Chinese construction company that had been defrauded of millions of dollars, his attorney, Lawrence Lustberg, said. He said McMahon made no effort to hide what he was doing, even telling local police he was on surveillance.

“Is this what people who commit crimes do?” Lustberg asked the jurors.

When Xu’s family proved difficult to find, prosecutors said, Chinese agents tried to reach him through his sister-in-law, Liu Yan.

Strangers showed up at her New Jersey home twice in 2016, asking to speak or send messages to Xu, she testified on Wednesday. Through an interpreter, she said a visitor had this message for him: “If you don’t go back to China, you and your family are in trouble. … Either you return to China on your own and admit the crime, or you disappear.

Then, in April 2017, Xu’s father – whom she had only met three or four times – unexpectedly showed up on her doorstep, saying he had been brought there to persuade his son to to return to his place.

Suspecting her visit was a ploy to reveal Xu’s address, Liu said, she wrapped the elderly visitor’s phone in metal foil, hid it in the trunk of her car, and arranged for him. reunite with her son at a local mall.

“I can’t believe Chinese government law enforcement used an old man to achieve their goal,” she told jurors.

Despite his precautions, the note appeared in Xu the following year.


Associated Press writers Eric Tucker in Washington and Christopher Bodeen in Beijing contributed to this report.

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