The Justice Department announced charges on Wednesday against eight people accused of conspiring to conduct an aggressive harassment campaign on behalf of China to pressure political dissidents and fugitives in the United States to return home to face trial.
The announcement is the latest blow to relations between Trump administration and Chinese officials, who have engaged in retaliatory moves that have intensified in recent months in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak.
The suspects are accused of executing an elaborate pressure campaign that included hiring American private investigators to locate the expatriates who had taken refuge in the United States and then stalking, surveilling and threatening them and their family members.
In one instance, the operatives arranged for threatening messages to be sent on social media to the daughter of a former Chinese official and to her friends, according to court papers. They also brought the official’s father to the United States from China “to use the unannounced presence” to threaten his son to return home, the documents said.
China has said the effort, which it calls Operation Fox Hunt and was ordered by President Xi Jinping, is aimed at rooting out corrupt officials who have fled the country. But American officials said that was dubious because the Chinese refused to work through traditional legal channels to resolve the cases.
Five of the suspects were arrested on Wednesday in the United States, the Justice Department said. Three others, who law enforcement officials believe are in China, were also charged.
“With today’s charges, we have turned the P.R.C.’s Operation Fox Hunt on its head — the hunters became the hunted, the pursuers the pursued,” the assistant attorney general for national security, John C. Demers, said at a news conference at the Justice Department, referring to the People’s Republic of China.
He added: “For those charged in China and others engaged in this type of conduct, our message is clear: Stay out. This behavior is not welcome here.”
A representative at the Chinese embassy in Washington did not return an email seeking comment.
The Justice Department has been investigating the Chinese campaign since at least the final years of the Obama administration.
For decades, American intelligence analysts concluded Chinese agents in the United States were primarily assigned to steal trade and government secrets, and gather public information about American life. But the discovery of Operation Fox Hunt” marked a wrinkle in the spy games between the United States and China, creating a new espionage challenge for the F.B.I., which investigates foreign spying and influence campaigns.
In 2015, top Obama officials privately warned Chinese officials to stop using their agents in the United States to harass expatriates. But the documents unsealed on Wednesday show those warnings failed. China appears to have increased its efforts — which are popular among a Chinese public focused on rooting out corruption — in recent years.
Justice Department officials did not identify the operation’s targets, saying they needed protection from Chinese operatives. The expatriates are believed to be former senior Chinese government officials who may have profited significantly from their positions in government before leaving.
Those arrested on Wednesday were: Hongru Jin, a 30-year-old naturalized citizen living in Queens; Zhu Yong a 64-year-old Chinese citizen living in Queens; Michael McMahon, 53, a New Jersey-based private detective; Rong Jing, a 34-year-old Chinese citizen living in California; and Zheng Congying, a 24-year-old Chinese citizen living in Brooklyn.
Three others were charged and are believed to be in China: Hu Ji, 45; Li Minjun, 64; and Zhu Feng, a 33-year-old Chinese national who lived at one point in Queens.
The documents unsealed by the Justice Department depicted a menacing campaign by the Chinese government in which its targets were repeatedly told that they and their relatives would be harmed if the expatriates did not return to China.
“There are many established ways that rule of law abiding nations conduct international law enforcement activity,” Mr. Demers said. “This certainly isn’t one of them.”
President Trump, who has made a more adversarial relationship with China a central part of his administration, has overseen a fraying of the relationship between China and the United States. Along with declaring a trade war with China, Mr. Trump has accused the Chinese government of spreading the coronavirus and his administration has imposed sanctions on Chinese officials over the government’s policies on Hong Kong.
This summer, the tit-for-tat escalated when the Trump administration ordered China to close its consulate in Houston. American officials alleged that the Chinese were using the consulate to wage economic espionage. In response, China had the American consulate in Chengdu closed.