Jury Weighs Case of Men Accused of Stalking Americans for China

A jury is considering the case of a former New York Police Department sergeant and two other men accused of stalking a family in New Jersey on behalf of the Chinese government after their two-week trial wrapped up in Brooklyn federal court on Thursday.

The defendants are Michael McMahon, the retired sergeant, 55; Zhu Yong, who also goes by Jason Zhu, 66; and Zheng Congying, 27. The latter two are Chinese citizens with U.S. green cards. The men are accused of playing crucial roles in Operation Fox Hunt, a global initiative by Beijing that the Justice Department contends is part of the authoritarian government’s effort to control its diaspora.

The victims were Xu Jin, who was once a government official in Wuhan, his wife Liu Fang and other relatives. They moved to the United States more than a decade ago and Chinese authorities later charged Mr. Xu with corruption and embezzlement.

“This was a relentless campaign by the Chinese government to scare Xu Jin and Liu Fang into returning to China,” Meredith Arfa, one of the prosecutors, said in her closing statement.

Ms. Arfa said that each of the defendants “knowingly participated in that campaign. They surveilled, they stalked, they threatened and they terrified.”

This is the first federal trial in the United States related to Operation Fox Hunt. The jury will have to sift through hundreds of pages of evidence, transcripts, videos and phone records as they assess whether the government proved its case.

The Charges

Mr. Xu, his wife and his sister-in-law testified that they were followed around suburban New Jersey, received threatening notes and were harassed online. The people pursuing them at first targeted Ms. Liu’s sister in Short Hills, N.J., because they did not know Mr. Xu’s address.

Prosecutors laid out how Mr. Zhu hired Mr. McMahon in late 2016 with the help of a translation company, and then sent him instructions to do surveillance and pull records. Mr. McMahon enlisted other investigators to help him with the job, while exchanging messages with people from the “company” that hired him.

In 2017, Chinese officials forced Mr. Xu’s 82-year-old father to fly in from China in a bid to learn where Mr. Xu lived and to persuade him to return to the country, prosecutors said. The officials enlisted Mr. McMahon to do surveillance during that trip in an effort to learn where Mr. Xu was living. The following year, Mr. Zheng was one of two people who left a threatening note on the front door of Mr. Xu’s home.

The trio, first charged in 2020, faces counts including acting as a foreign agent without notifying the attorney general and conspiring to do so, as well as interstate stalking.

Zheng Conying’s lawyer said he merely drove one day to New Jersey as a favor.Credit…Jefferson Siegel for The New York Times
Zhu Yong was a retiree who did not speak English and had to communicate through a translation company, his lawyer said.Credit…Jefferson Siegel for The New York Times

The Defense’s Case

Defense lawyers argued that the three men were not aware that the Chinese government was directing the effort to find Mr. Xu. Lawrence Lustberg, representing Mr. McMahon, argued that it was not reasonable to think that his client would have had any way to know.

“There is not one speck of direct evidence that Michael McMahon knew he was working for China,” Mr. Lustberg said.

Mr. Zhu, the middleman who hired Mr. McMahon, was a retiree who did not speak English. His lawyer, Kevin Tung, said that Mr. Zhu’s involvement effectively ended after he connected Mr. McMahon and Hu Ji, a Chinese police officer with the Wuhan Public Security Bureau, when Mr. Hu was visiting from China.

A photo of the three men at a Panera Bread restaurant in New Jersey was shown repeatedly throughout the trial. Mr. Hu began emailing Mr. McMahon directly using a fake name, “Eric Yan.”

Mr. McMahon had his own private investigation company after years in law enforcement. He was hired under the pretense that a private company in China wanted to recoup stolen money from someone who had been embezzling, Mr. Lustberg said. He ended up performing surveillance for five days over six months in 2016 and 2017, he said.

Paul Goldberger, representing Mr. Zheng, said his client was “just a kid” involved in the scheme for less than a day, when he drove another young man to New Jersey in September 2018. The pair taped a threatening note on Mr. Xu’s front door, but Mr. Goldberger argued that Mr. Zheng realized it was a mistake and returned the following day to take it down. Mr. Xu had already done so, following instructions from the F.B.I.

Why It Matters

The office of the U.S. attorney in Brooklyn, Breon S. Peace, is increasingly focused on what it calls “transnational repression,” particularly in cases involving China. Last year, the office charged five people in connection with attempts to spy on or intimidate Chinese American dissidents.

In April, the office announced that two people had been charged with operating an undeclared Chinese police station in Lower Manhattan. Two other cases announced the same day targeted Chinese police officers accused of harassing people in the New York area, and officials accused of directing a Zoom employee based in China to remove dissidents from the platform.

Justice Department officials have been outspoken about what they say is illegal activity by the Chinese government on U.S. soil aimed at silencing critics of the Communist Party.

In March, the F.B.I. and the National Counterintelligence and Security Center issued a public bulletin warning that repressive foreign regimes including China and Iran were attempting to use American local police and private investigators to target dissidents.

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