NEW YORK - An American sleuth and two Chinese men faced jurors Wednesday in the first trial to come out of U.S. claims that China’s government has tried to harass, intimidate and arm-twist dissidents and others abroad into returning home.
Michael McMahon, Zheng Congying and Zhu Yong are charged with being part of a conspiracy to hound a former Chinese city official, his wife and their adult daughter to get him to go back to his homeland, where the government alleges he took bribes.
"If you are willing to go back to the mainland and spend 10 years in prison, your wife and children will be all right," read a translated note that Zheng helped tape to their New Jersey door in 2018, though his lawyer said Zheng quickly had second thoughts and took the note down.
Prosecutors say it was one in a series of pressure tactics that included flying in the man’s then-octogenerian father to warn him that relatives would suffer if he didn’t come home.
"The victim and his family endured years of harassment," Assistant U.S. Attorney Irisa Chen said in an opening statement. "It’s part of a public Chinese government initiative to force people living abroad to return to China against their will."
The defendants, charged with acting as illegal agents for China, all say they weren’t aware they were doing Beijing’s bidding in what’s known as "Operation Fox Hunt." Their lawyers said the men believed they were helping to collect a private debt.
The trial comes as grievances mount between Beijing and Washington. This year, a Chinese spy balloon flew over the U.S., U.S. law enforcement authorities accused China of setting up a secret police station in New York, and -- just this Tuesday -- the U.S. military complained that a Chinese fighter jet made an "unnecessarily aggressive maneuver" near an American reconnaissance aircraft over the South China Sea.
China told the U.S. to stop such surveillance flights, maintains that the spy balloon was a civilian aircraft that went off-course and says the supposed secret police outposts just provide such services as driver’s license renewals.
The U.S., meanwhile, has in recent years brought a number of cases like the one now on trial in a Brooklyn federal courthouse, saying they are examples "transnational repression."
China in July 2014 announced "Operation Fox Hunt," a plan to pursue and repatriate nationals it considers fugitives. Those on the wanted list include people from Muslim minority groups who simply traveled abroad for study and people whose political and cultural views clashed on some level with China’s ruling Communist Party, which tolerates no dissent.
Beijing has denied all accusations of issuing threats to force repatriations and says the U.S. is discrediting legitimate Chinese crime-fighting.
The geopolitical backdrop was hardly invisible from the Brooklyn federal courtroom Wednesday.
Noting the recent rise in U.S.-China tensions, defense lawyer Paul Goldberger asked jurors "to take a long, hard look at what the (U.S.) 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 isn’t 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 ex-official who was allegedly targeted, Xu Jin, came to the U.S. about a decade ago after falling out of favor with the Communist Party, prosecutors said. They said China initially went after him by issuing an international alert that he was wanted and by publicizing the bribery allegations. His family says they are false.
China has no extradition treaty with the U.S., so Beijing can’t legally compel suspects to return. Instead, according to U.S. prosecutors, the Chinese government worked through intermediaries to try to squeeze Xu into deciding to return.
While only Zhu, Zheng and McMahon are on trial at the moment, their indictment includes a roster of alleged co-conspirators.
Zhu, a retiree, lives in New York City. In 2016, he helped hire McMahon – a retired New York Police Department sergeant turned private eye – and helped provide him personal information to track down Xu and his family, according to prosecutors. Later, Zhu picked up some Chinese people at Newark Liberty Airport and drove them to a meeting with McMahon.
His lawyer said Zhu thought he was helping a Chinese acquaintance who needed a U.S. resident’s help to find a man who owed him $400,000.
"If these people were Chinese government, he was used," Tung said.
McMahon, meanwhile, was told that he was helping a Chinese construction company that had been defrauded of millions of dollars, said his lawyer, Lawrence Lustberg. He said McMahon made no effort to hide what he was doing, even telling local police he was conducting surveillance.
"Is that what people who are committing crimes do?" Lustberg asked jurors.
When Xu’s family proved difficult to find, prosecutors said, Chinese agents tried to get at him through his sister-in-law, Liu Yan.
Strangers showed up at her New Jersey home twice in 2016, asking to speak or get messages to Xu, she testified Wednesday. Through an interpreter, she said one visitor had this message for him: "If you don’t go back to China, you and your family are in trouble. … Either you go back to China on your own and admit to the crime, or you disappear."
Then, in April 2017, Xu’s father – whom she had met only three or four times – unexpectedly showed up on her doorstep, saying he had been brought there to persuade his son to return home.
Suspecting his visit was a ploy to reveal Xu’s address, Liu said, she wrapped the elderly visitor’s phone in metal foil, stashed it in her car trunk and arranged to reunite him with his son at a local mall.
"I cannot believe that the law enforcement of Chinese government were using an old man to meet their goal," she told jurors.
Despite her precautions, the note appeared at Xu’s home the next year.
Associated Press writers Eric Tucker in Washington and Christopher Bodeen in Beijing contributed to this report.