Chinese president Xi Jinping’s state visit to Washington next month was already bound to be tense — expected topics of discussion include human rights, Chinese currency manipulation, and allegations that China hacked the U.S. federal government — and now the Obama administration has informed Beijing that they know they have covert operatives working in the U.S., and they want them to get out immediately. The two nations routinely spy on each other, but U.S. officials tell the New York Times that the warning from the State Department concerned Chinese agents who enter the U.S. secretly, sometimes on tourist or trade visas, then hunt down Chinese fugitives and pressure them to come home.
The activities of the operatives with the Ministry of Public Security, China’s law enforcement branch, are part of Operation Fox Hunt, a global effort to repatriate fugitives and seize funds they are keeping abroad. The Chinese are believed to be targeting prominent expatriates wanted for economic and political crimes. Last month the Ministry of Public Security reported that 930 suspects had been repatriated, including 70 who returned voluntarily this year.
It’s unclear exactly what the agents do to persuade the expatriates to return to China, but the Times reports that their tactics include various forms of harassment and “strong-arm tactics,” such as threatening family members still in China. U.S. officials said they have learned of the operatives’ activities from tracking the agents themselves as well as talking with their targets. The two nations do not have an extradition treaty, and while State Department spokesman Mark Toner would not comment on the reported warning, he said it’s a crime “for an individual, other than a diplomatic or consular officer or attaché, to act in the United States as an agent of a foreign power without prior notification to the attorney general.”