The Operation Fox Hunt Series: Part Three

Writer: Lois

Hu Ji in front of Interpol headquarters. Wuhan Evening News.

This article will cover the story of Hu Ji’s driver, Johnny, from Part One of this series. Johnny’s forced participation in Mr Hu’s Fox Hunt is an example of the CCP’s manipulation of the Chinese people for sinister purposes.

Fox Hunt operatives use conscription of captured targets’ family members to ensure loyalty and obedience within their team. These members also act as a shield for the Chinese officers. Chinese citizens worldwide fear this coercion most, as explained by Professor Teng Biao in Part Two of this series.

Johnny’s given Chinese name is Zhu Feng. He had studied in Guam before moving to one of America’s largest Chinese immigrant enclaves in Flushing. According to US court documents and public records, Johnny’s extended family are legal US residents. His older brother served in the US military, Social Security Administration and Customs and Border Protection.

In 2016, Johnny received news from Wuhan that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had convinced his uncle, a former accountant, to return to China from Houston, Texas. The newspaper story featured a photo of the 34-year-old’s uncle standing on an airport runway, accompanied by Chinese police.

Johnny found out through relatives that the Chinese officer Hu Ji was behind his uncle’s arrest. Johnny’s relatives also told him Mr Hu would be in touch with another case and that he was to do as the cop asked.

Mr Hu communicated the mission to Johnny from Wuhan. His target was Xu Jin, featured on the CCP’s top 100 wanted list for accepting millions of dollars in bribes. In Communist China, the maximum punishment for taking bribery is death. 

Mr Xu directed Wuhan’s Development Commission before moving to the United States in 2010 with his wife, Liu Fang. Ms Liu is a former insurance company executive.

The couple received US green cards through a residency program for foreigners who invest more than USD 500,000 in the country. Although the California consultant involved in the process later pleaded guilty to immigration fraud, the two remain legal US residents.

Court documents state Mr Hu began his mission to repatriate Mr Xu by locking up his sister in Wuhan. Then, he discovered Mr Xu’s relatives were living in the upscale New Jersey suburb of Short Hills, possibly in a home bought with illicit funds. Mr Hu then allegedly ordered Johnny to find the house and take photos.

In September 2016, Mr Hu flew to New York, where he met Johnny face-to-face and launched his Fox Hunt mission. Johnny drove the cop around New Jersey, including Short Hills.

Mr Hu then coerced Johnny’s father, Zhu Yong, also known as Jason Zhu, into joining the operation. The 64-year-old father and diabetic lacked a steady job, often travelling between his home in Connecticut, his older son’s residence in Queens, and China.

Johnny and Jason Zhu, under Mr Hu’s direction, began network building by recruiting a local private investigator. Their final choice was Michael McMahon, a middle-aged man from an Irish American family of police officers and firefighters. The decorated officer retired in 2003 on partial disability stemming from his service at Ground Zero following the September 11 Twin Tower attacks.

The Zhus pretended to represent a private Chinese construction company trying to recover stolen assets from a former employee. After all, Mr Xu was formerly tied to the Wuhan-based Xinba Construction Group.

In late October, during a second trip to the US, Mr Hu met Mr McMahon at a Panera Bread restaurant in Paramus, New Jersey. The Chinese cop posed as Eric Yan, an executive of Johnny and Jason Zhu’s fabricated construction company. 

“Nothing seemed suspicious at meetings. They never mentioned the Chinese government or that anybody worked in law enforcement in China. They talked about asset recovery. And they came across as employees with a vested interest in locating the money,” Mr McMahon later testified.

However, New York prosecutors disputed Mr McMahon’s innocence.

The detective gathered Mr Xu and Ms Liu’s property records, bank accounts and travel information. He also recruited two additional investigators to help stake out the Short Hills house in New Jersey and even alerted local police to the surveillance. However, they could not locate the couple’s home.

In December, Mr Hu came back to New York with his boss, an unidentified director of the Wuhan Prosecution Office’s Anti-Corruption Bureau and a Wuhan Fox Hunt task force leader. The duo arrived as part of a group from Wuhan, slipping into the country undetected. Johnny was their driver.

After returning to Wuhan, Mr Hu summoned Johnny to China. He informed the New Jersey local that next time he planned to repatriate his targets. By spring 2017, his action plan was complete.

While Mr Hu stayed in Wuhan, he sent a closer, Tu Lan, on his behalf to the US. Ms Tu was the Fox Hunt’s team leader. Johnny acted as translator and interpreter between her and Mr McMahon because of her lack of English ability.

Another team member was Li Minjun, a former China Ministry of Public Security doctor. She escorted Mr Xu’s frail father to the US as human bait to lure him out of hiding.

“We just want to recomm[e]nd you trace him [Mr Xu’s father] to find [his son’s] address,” Mr Hu told Mr McMahon. 

The father was ordered to tell his son to obey the CCP to prevent family suffering. Mr Hu allegedly hoped this “emotional bomb” would cause Mr Xu to surrender immediately.

According to New York prosecutors, the team forced Mr Xu’s father to travel against his will. His family accused CCP officials of kidnapping him.

Meanwhile, Johnny organised further accomplices for the stakeout team. He checked into a hotel with his team leader, Ms Tu, on April 3. Johnny then gave Mr McMahon a USD 5,000 cash retainer at the Panera the following day. Mr Hu provided the detective with photos of Mr Xu, his wife and his father.

On April 5, Johnny picked up Mr Xu’s father and Ms Li from the airport. Mr McMahon waited outside the Short Hills house, exchanging texts with Johnny. Johnny then dropped Mr Xu’s father off at the front door.

Mr Xu picked up his father the next day after his relatives informed him of his father’s arrival. Mr Hu’s surveillance team followed the two back to Mr Xu’s home.

However, instead of surrendering, Mr Xu’s family contacted law enforcement, prompting FBI intervention. On April 7, Johnny alerted Ms Tu and Ms Li of Mr Hu’s orders to return to China quickly to evade US law enforcement. The cop continued the operation with his team in Wuhan.

“The key is the status of [the father],” Ms Tu said in a text to Johnny on April 9.

“The main purpose is to let him persuade [his son] to surrender.”

Two days later, Johnny told Mr McMahon that he was returning to Wuhan.

“Let me know if I need to go to China lol,” was Mr McMahon’s reply.

“They definitely grant u a nice trip if they can get [the target] back to China haha,” texted Johnny.

However, the plan failed, and Mr Xu’s father returned to China on April 12. Johnny boarded the same flight to ensure the elderly man’s safe arrival back in China. Yet officers questioned the 34-year-old before the flight, showing him photos of Ms Tu. He was let go after he convinced the officers that he acted as Ms Tu’s tour guide since she was his uncle’s friend.

Johnny then messaged an accomplice in Queens.

“Delete all of our chat record after reading this. There are some problems. Someone in the US will be looking for you. . .Be careful of everything. If there is anything, use other phones to call. Your cell phone may be tracked,” he wrote.

On April 23, Mr Hu sent Mr McMahon a thank you email for finding the address of the wanted couple’s adult daughter, a married Stanford graduate located in northern California.

Mr Hu then reached out to a contact in California named Rong Jing. According to court documents, Mr Rong, a married immigrant with permanent resident status, identified himself as a bounty hunter for the Chinese government.

In May 2017, Mr Rong hired a private investigator to stalk Mr Xu and Ms Liu’s daughter. However, this investigator was a confidential FBI informant. Since their investigation in early April, the FBI had been mapping the travel and contacts of the Fox Hunt team and knew Mr Hu had previously visited California.

On May 22, Mr Rong met the FBI informant for four hours at a Los Angeles restaurant. He offered the detective USD 4,000 to investigate and videotape Mr Xu’s daughter. Mr Rong also said he would split any reward money from the repatriation.

Since Mr Rong’s bosses in Wuhan hadn’t told him what to do with the daughter, he said he and the informant might have to act as proxies for Chinese officers.

The detective was asked to contact the girl’s parents then persuade them to return to China. The FBI supervised the investigator’s act of stalking the daughter for the next few weeks.

When reporting to Mr Rong on July 14, the detective asked if Chinese officials would harm the daughter.

“If there was an accident, in truth, you [could claim that you] were just … investigating her,” said Mr Rong.

According to the recorded conversations, the CCP paid for all mission expenses. Mr Rong received payment for each repatriation he was involved in, working exclusively for Wuhan. He talked of visiting lobbyists, salaried “civil servants” of the Chinese government, travelling under multiple identities. Mr Rong said their job was “persuading people” to return to China.

The project then went quiet. However, it fired up again in November.

Mr Hu warned Johnny to stay in China after he flew back with Mr Xu’s father. Yet the New Jersey local returned to the US on November 9, where FBI agents interviewed him. Johnny confessed the entire operation and returned to China the following year.

Unaware of Johnny’s confession and the FBI’s surveillance, Mr Hu continued to pressure his targets.

In April 2018, Xinba Construction Group sued Mr Xu and Ms Liu in New Jersey state court for accepting bribery while in Wuhan, delaying projects and causing a USD 10 million loss for the company. The couple denied the allegations in a countersuit, claiming the company was acting with Chinese authorities in response to Mr Xu’s opposition to a controversial toll-collection contract.

The lawsuit remains in the discovery phase. According to China experts, the CCP often uses their links to Chinese companies and security forces to coordinate criminal and civil actions against Fox Hunt targets.

In another attempt at coercion, between April and July 2018, an unidentified conspirator harassed the wanted couple’s daughter in California by sending messages defaming her family to her social media connections.

Furthermore, in September 2018, two young men intruded on the wanted couple’s property. Investigators believe one man was Zheng Congying, hired from Brooklyn.

The two men hit and attempted to open doors and stood at windows. Finally, they left written threats.

“If you are willing to go back to the mainland and spend ten years in prison, your wife and children will be all right. That’s the end of this matter!” read one note.

Seven months following this incident, Mr Xu and his wife received a strange package. It contained an “emotional bomb” compact disc. The video showed the couple’s relatives in China, with a song in Mandarin played in the background. Mr Xu’s father was shown seated next to a desk. Upon the desk was Chinese President Xi Jinping’s book “The Governance of China.” Mr Xu’s sister also urged her brother to return to China, saying their parents were sick, isolated and troubled.

“When parents are alive, you can still call someplace a home. When parents are gone, you can only prepare for your own tomb,” she implored.

In the Fox Hunt complaint published on The United State’s Attorney’s Office Eastern District of New York website, an FBI agent describes the photo of Mr Xu’s frail father as implicit coercion showing the CCP’s control over the wanted man’s parents.

“I believe that this shot was deliberately staged to make [the son] aware that the PRC government played a role in taking this picture and creating this video,” stated the agent.

Finally, federal prosecutors charged Mr Hu and seven others in October, thus resulting in the first US anti-Fox Hunt court case.

Six FBI agents and two police officers arrested Mr McMahon at his New Jersey home on October 28.

Johnny Zhu, Li Minjun and Tu Lan are believed to be in China, along with another CCP official. As expected in counterintelligence cases for strategic and diplomatic purposes, prosecutors have not charged or identified these individuals.

Mr Hu remains at large. In 2018, the CCP featured his name on their anti-corruption agency website. Beijing national training conference organisers had invited him to the city as an instructor, where he taught a session on international law enforcement cooperation.

Mr Rong from California pleaded guilty to conspiracy to act as an illegal foreign agent and to conduct interstate stalking. Another defendant pleaded guilty to the same charges, while Mr McMahon, Jason Zhu and Zheng Congying await trial.

A July 22 indictment charged two additional persons with acting and conspiring to act as illegal agents of the CCP within the US and engaging and conspiring to engage in interstate and international stalking. The indictment also charged two of the nine individuals with obstruction of justice and conspiracy to obstruct justice.

ProPublica. July 22, 2021. Operation Fox Hunt: How China Exports Repression Using a Network of Spies Hidden in Plain Sight.

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