A Chinese immigrant found a note stuck in the door of his New Jersey home in September 2018: “If you are willing to go back to mainland [China] and spend 10 years in prison, your wife and children will be all right. That’s the end of this matter!” Welcome to Operation Sky Net, a campaign launched by the Chinese government in 2015 to repatriate overseas “fugitives” through any means.
Under this program, Chinese police and security personnel routinely conduct illegal operations in other countries. Their activities in the U.S. violate their victims’ constitutional rights and make a mockery of our nation’s sovereignty. The U.S. government and law-enforcement community rarely speak out about these acts, much less prosecute the perpetrators. That has to change.
In January the human-rights organization Safeguard Defenders released a report about the methods used in Operation Sky Net. Chinese police harass or detain targets’ relatives in China, hire local thugs or private detectives to stalk them in foreign countries, and send officers abroad to intimidate people into returning to China. In some countries, including Australia, they have gone so far as to kidnap people and smuggle them back to China.
Beijing claims that more than 10,000 people have been repatriated from more than 120 countries since Operation Fox Hunt, the precursor to Operation Sky Net, launched in 2014. State media report that 1,273 fugitives were returned to China in 2021 alone. These figures don’t include victims who so far haven’t succumbed to the agents’ demands. Nor do they include the harassment of Chinese activists and ethnic minorities overseas, which is even more widespread but not part of Operation Sky Net.
Washington is well aware of these activities. As early as 2015, the State Department warned Beijing to stop sending police officers on covert missions in the U.S. More recently, Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Christopher Wray highlighted Operation Fox Hunt in a January speech, and Assistant Attorney General Matthew Olsen mentioned it in February.
But occasional warnings are of little value unless they are followed up by serious action. The FBI eventually got involved in the case targeting the New Jersey man, resulting in nine indictments. (Four of the defendants have pleaded not guilty, according to publicly available court records.) In March 2022, another suspected Chinese conspirator was charged in New York for involvement in Operation Fox Net dating back to 2017. Five others were charged for harassing and spying on Chinese immigrants at Beijing’s behest. (No pleas have yet been entered in these cases.)
These piecemeal victories, however, can’t keep pace with the large number of Chinese operations in the U.S., the majority of which are never prosecuted. Puzzlingly, stopping these illegal operations by foreign agents doesn’t appear to rank high among the priorities of U.S. law enforcement.
That such brazen threats to the U.S. legal system and sovereignty usually go unprosecuted is shocking. It’s hard to imagine Beijing would turn a blind eye if U.S. officers entered China on tourist visas and surveilled, interrogated and intimidated residents. China’s reaction to Canada’s arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou shows that it doesn’t tolerate even legitimate arrests of its citizens by foreign officers operating within their legal jurisdictions. Beijing felt entitled to hold Canadian citizens hostage to secure Ms. Meng’s return.
Not treating China’s activities as violations of sovereignty allows Beijing to export elements of its totalitarian system. It also weakens international norms by sending the message that such infractions have no consequences. It is past time for U.S. law-enforcement agencies and federal officials responsible for China policy to take seriously the threat posed by illegal Chinese police operations.
Instead, the Justice Department last month announced the end of the China Initiative, a program launched in 2018 to confront Chinese threats to our national security, in favor of what it called a “threat-driven approach” that doesn’t specifically focus on Chinese activities. This is a blow to American security. The initiative wasn’t always implemented perfectly, but it resulted in important convictions and helped drive awareness of the threats posed by China.
If the department is truly dedicated to countering threats and protecting the rights of Asian-Americans, it should reinstate the China Initiative and do all in its power to combat these operations, which almost exclusively target people of Chinese origin.
Washington should also clearly show Beijing, through words and actions, that these incursions into U.S. sovereignty will no longer be tolerated. Not a meeting should go by in which U.S. officials don’t press their Chinese counterparts on this issue. Beijing’s illegal police operations demand a whole-of-government response, one conducted with the same intensity used to oppose China’s economic espionage and unfair trade practices. While economic espionage poses serious threats to U.S. businesses, these acts undermine American sovereignty. They can’t be left unchecked.
This piece originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal on 05/06/22