A landmark case by federal prosecutors against three men accused of stalking and harassing people in the United States at the behest of the Chinese government is set to begin in a Brooklyn courtroom on Wednesday.
It is the first trial related to what the Chinese government calls Operation Fox Hunt, a global effort that they say is aimed at fugitives. U.S. prosecutors say it is a scheme to stamp out political dissent using extortion and intimidation against its targets and their families.
The three defendants whose trial is beginning this week are Michael McMahon of New Jersey, a retired New York Police Department sergeant who is now a private investigator; Yong Zhu, also known as Jason Zhu, of Queens; and Congying Zheng of Brooklyn.
The men are charged with acting as unlawful agents of the People’s Republic of China, interstate stalking, and conspiracy to commit both offenses. They could each face up to 10 years in prison. The trial is expected to last two to three weeks.
Prosecutors say the three harassed two unidentified victims in the United States to get them to return to China. Mr. McMahon was hired to do surveillance as part of a scheme in which one victim’s father was brought to the United States to coerce him, according to the indictment. It didn’t work, at which point the other two defendants harassed the victim’s daughter and left threatening notes, according to the filing.
Orville Schell, director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society, said that the court proceedings would offer a window into the often hidden efforts of the Chinese government to repress speech outside its borders.
“These trials are more than just trials about a few people,” he said. “We get to look within the interior of how this system of control from Beijing works.”
Eight people were originally charged in the plot in 2020, and three remain at large. When the charges were first announced, Christopher Wray, the director of the FBI, called them an example of “China’s ongoing and widespread lawless behavior — and our refusal to tolerate it.”
Mr. McMahon has denied the charges. He told The Times last year that he was stunned when they were announced and had no knowledge he was working for China. He contended that he had accepted a job from a woman who found him online, and was told the case concerned money stolen from a Chinese construction company. He said he conducted surveillance in New Jersey for the client, and notified the local police each time.
Lawyers for the men declined to comment before this week’s proceedings.
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