Trial set for retired cop, alleged Chinese agents in ‘Fox Hunt’ coerced repatriation scheme

The federal courthouse in Downtown Brooklyn.
Ajay Suresh via Flickr

A retired NYPD cop and two Chinese nationals are set to go on trial in Brooklyn on Wednesday on sweeping conspiracy charges alleging they acted as agents of the People’s Republic of China to harass and stalk government dissidents, and ultimately coerce them to return from the United States to China.

Private eye and former NYPD sergeant Michael McMahon, 64-year-old Flushing resident Zhu Yong, and 25-year-old Brooklynite Zheng Congying are charged with international stalking and serving as unlicensed Chinese agents on American soil. They were charged in 2021 as working under “Operation Fox Hunt,” a program Beijing says aims to repatriate corrupt officials who have fled China but Washington claims is a targeted campaign to stalk dissidents and coerce them into returning home.

McMahon, Zhu, and Zheng are just three of eight defendants charged by Brooklyn federal prosecutors in the first American prosecution related to the Fox Hunt program. Three alleged conspirators, including one of the alleged ringleaders, remain at large.

The defendants, who will sit at a jury trial presided over by Judge Pamela Chen starting Wednesday morning, each face up to 10 years behind bars if convicted.

Prosecutors allege that McMahon was hired by Zhu Yong, also known as Jason Zhu, in 2016 to surveil a New Jersey couple known only as John and Jane Doe, including by watching them at their home and obtaining their bank information.

Interpol had issued notices on behalf of the PRC describing John Doe as wanted for “embezzlement, abuse of power, and acceptance of bribes,” crimes that carried a potential death penalty sentence in China. His wife was wanted for allegedly accepting bribes, for which she could face life imprisonment.

Following McMahon’s surveillance work, the alleged ringleaders of the plot — Chinese policeman Hu Ji and government prosecutor Tu Lan — are said to have conspired to send John Doe’s elderly father to the United States to communicate to the target that family members would be harmed should he not hightail back to China. The father was brought to the United States against his will, instructing him to lie to Border Control about the purpose of his visit and fibbing about who would pick him up.

The father was not able to convince John Doe to return to China, leading to further alleged psychological warfare operations by the co-conspirators. McMahon allegedly collected bank and Social Security information on John and Jane Doe’s daughter, while an unnamed private eye learned her address and was told to surveil her. Another conspirator allegedly sent the daughter threatening messages on social media.

After all that failed, in 2018, Zheng and Kuang Zebin allegedly drove to John and Jane Doe’s house in New Jersey and pasted a note written in Chinese characters insinuating their family members would be harmed unless they returned to China and served 10 years in prison. Later, John Doe’s relative living in the US was sent a series of packages with pictures and videos of family members ostensibly exhorting them to return him.

The video included still photographs of John Doe’s aging parents and was styled as a letter from his sister, who was imprisoned in the PRC. She ostensibly told her brother to return to China before their parents died, noting that he had a “duty as a child” to his parents and that without them, he had no place to call home and could only prepare for a “tomb.”

McMahon has denied knowing his work was on behalf of the PRC. His attorney Lawrence Lustberg says the conspirators presented themselves as reps for a Chinese construction firm seeking to recover debts from a rogue employee, and that the work was never represented by being on behalf of the Chinese government. Prosecutors dispute McMahon’s self-portrait as an unknowing conspirator.

The trial comes just months after a major diplomatic row between the US and China over an alleged “spy balloon” moseying in the sky over the United States, which Washington claimed was surveilling military targets but Beijing said was simply a civilian weather balloon. The balloon was ultimately shot down by the military. In April, Chinese nationals were arrested for operating a secret police station on behalf of the PRC in lower Manhattan.

The US government, of course, has also faced similar accusations, especially during the War on Terror when suspected terrorists were brought to “black sites” all over the world and subjected to torture without due process.